And just like that, I’ve read 100 books this year. I’m a little stunned and more than a lot tired. Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World somehow ended up being the last book I read this year. And I regret that because it clocks in at a hefty 498 pages. And it is a sprawling book to say the least. As my title alludes, this book contains among other things: ninjas, kung fu, satire on the British education system, satire on the war in the Middle East, benevolent pirates, satire on weapons of mass destruction, zombie-like mutant beings who come out of the fog, an evil corporation, satire on corpocracy, various funny comments on global politics, and a disquisition on the use of sheep in war. All in all, it is a rambling book that really needed an editor to help clarify and condense the narrative. Of course, it’s also a lot of fun to read because it refuses to follow narrative rules of thumb.
Even saying that, I should be clear that it took me a while to get into the narrative. I think I was a solid 200 pages in before I had a handle on what was going on and was emotionally invested in the novel. I suppose when the novel is 500 pages, this is okay on some level, but for me this was not good. It meant that this book sat for a few days and most of it had to be read yesterday. Harkaway is clearly a talented writer with a good eye for satire and poking fun at post-apocalyptic narrative and science fiction’s seriousness. At the same time, I could not help but identify various parts of the novel which could have been cut to make the novel less bulky. For instance, the first chapter sets up the narrator and his gang of Civil Freebooters being asked to step in and save the world by putting out a fire on the Pipe, the magical object that keeps the bizarre and surreal fallout from a high-tech war out from the small piece of land that humanity now lives in. The second chapter and several more that follow then step back and introduce the narrator meeting Gonzo, his best friend and lifelong ally, as a child in a sandbox. It moves forward all the way up to the present so that by the time we return to the end of the first chapter we are at page 302. That`s a 275 page flashback. In fact, flashback is not the right word at all because a flash is brief …
What I most liked about The Gone-Away World is how Harkaway sets up various set pieces of action including the final battle between the narrator, Gonzo, and his friends and the evil (almost video-game like) corporate honcho that has nefarious plans to rule the world. The scene is like a mish-mash of kung fu movies, westerns, science fiction, and James Bond thrillers all shaken together. Others include the evacuation of a town in the middle-east in the face of a gas attack, the battle between Ben Carsville (the war movie buff who is useless in actual war) and his anti-self in a former airbase ruled by a now-insane dictator (and also riffing heavily on Indiana Jones), or the attack on Gonzo`s parents that is defeated by Old Man Lubitsch`s bee-keeping skills. This was a fun read, but I`m not sure that there is much to take from the novel intellectually. If you wanted to read the book as some sort of meta-critique of pop culture, you probably could, but I think that the novel is held back too much by its length and rambliness (a good precise critical term, right?).
I would recommend this book to fans of Kurt Vonnegut, satires of pop culture, and kung fu-movie aficionados.
Harkaway, Nick. The Gone-Away World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.