It takes a little while, because there is something entertaining in almost every paragraph of The Gone-Away World, but sooner or later you start to wonder when (or even if) you’re going to get back to where you started. The first chapter of Nick Harkaway’s first novel introduces an unusually fluid post-apocalyptic landscape and a bunch of trucker-repairmen who get charged with saving the world; the fact that in no sense is this introduction economical is insufficient preparation for the hundreds of pages of laconic flashback that follow, in which we skip back to the narrator’s school days and read about the development of his friendship with one Gonzo Lubitsch (more of him later), his early romantic fumblings and martial arts lessons, his eventual transition to an Oxbridge-esque university, his falling-in with a group of political activists, his arrest and incarceration for suspected terrorism, his difficult subsequent job-hunt, the details of the job he eventually finds with a top secret weapons R&D outfit, his tour of duty in an Afghanistan-esque clusterfuck of a conflict in a made-up Middle East country including a stint as stretcherman, injury and subsequent convalescence, and …. well, you get the idea. There’s an awful lot of Stuff in this novel. Some of it is told with deadly intensity, but most of it is told with a great and convincing enthusiasm — Harkaway’s narrator can gab like Iain M Banks on a roll — that is easy to wallow in. It’s not so much the clomping foot of nerdism as the dance-dance revolution; but, still, you do wonder when you might get back to where you started.
None of which is to say The Gone-Away World is a bad book. I think it’s probably a very good one, as it happens; but I also think that opening chapter is a mis-step, because it creates an expectation that the next two hundred pages go almost out of their way to refute. Harkaway’s love of meandering, tangential narrative is apparently almost Stephensonian in its excess, and in the midst of it you can end up drumming your fingers: the digressions and set-pieces can stop being enjoyable for their own sake. Which is a shame, because while some of the time it all adds up to a numbing excess of detail — when the narrator receives a note, for example, we’re told the handwriting style, the meaning of the style, the colour of the ink, the type of pen, and the type of paper; and at one point we get a loving description of every pothole in the driveway of his house — most of the time Harkaway directs his plot with a swagger, not to mention dollops of wry humour. The two-page exploration of the fate of sheep caught in a warzone, for instance, or the scene in which the narrator ends up stranded in a strip joint with a troupe of mimes, which turns out to be a lot less superfluous than it initially seems. From a distance, it seems obvious that the conviction, if not coherence, with which the narrative sweeps from a world more or less like our own (with a few notable but usually irrelevant-to-the-plot differences: Cuba has joined the UK, for instance) to one that is richly unfamiliar is one of The Gone-Away World‘s greatest strengths. It’s a novel that believes absolutely in whatever it’s telling you at any given moment. But the memory of that first chapter, and the promised future, means you can’t always enjoy that sweep as you’re reading.
Because the desire to get back to that opening world — to get some answers — is pretty intense. What you can piece together from the opening twenty-eight pages goes a little something like this: at some point, the Go-Away War changed the planet, erasing much of what went before — people, institutions, geography — and leaving only a Liveable Zone surrounded by an Unreal World. The Zone is maintained by something called the Jorgmund Pipe, Jorgmund being a gigacorporation that’s risen up to carve something like sanity out of something like a nightmare; and the Pipe sprays something called FOX into the air, which keeps away the bad things. The narrator, and the menagerie with whom he hangs out in the Nameless Bar — Jim Hepsobah, Egon Schlender, Annie the Ox, Sally Culpepper, Tobemory Trent, Gonzo Lubitsch (him again), Samuel P, and Roy Roam (I still can’t quite decide whether Harkaway’s way with names is evidence of genius or insanity) — are the Haulage and Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County (“ten trucks of bad hair, denim, and spurs”, 10), and when the Pipe catches on fire, they’re the ones that Jorgmund recruits to get it fixed. After disquisitions on types of bureaucrat (the ultimate of which would be “a person so entirely consumed by the mechanism in which he or she is employed that they had ceased to exist as a separte entity”, 15-6) and the workings of corporations (in the form of a parable about Alfred Montrose Fingermuffin, factory-owner), and negotiation strategies (“an ellipsis is a haymaker punch you throw with your mouth”, 16), the Company suit up and roll out, heading for the fire on a route which takes them through some distinctly creepy places. Harkaway has a habit of describing everything as seen through a sort of Spinal Tap everything-up-to-eleven lens — part of the enthusiasm I mentioned before — so a chair is monstrously comfortable, a plan includes magnificent redundancy, an individual is full of majestic self-importance. He gets away with it because he’s got a world to show us that we really haven’t seen before; the closest contemporary comparison I can think of is with the Stuff-filled “high-interaction” sidebar universes in Justina Robson’s clear-sighted negotiation of romance, Living Next-Door to the God of Love (2005). Like that, but writ large.
While we wait for that world to reappear, what gradually becomes apparent is that the sundering of this world we (almost) know is a specifically twenty-first century kind of apocalypse. The Go-Away war — a ferocious hundred pages of which takes up the heart of the book — isn’t the sort of thing that can be reduced to an easy allegory, but it’s clearly figured as a sort of millennial transition between then and now, old and new. It’s the preparations for war that bring the sf back into the story after over a hundred pages of youth and young manhood, when the narrator is recruited into a research division working on a new superweapon, one that will make enemies simply Go Away. His boss Professor Derek (a not-un-Q-like role) describes the principle this way: “Information, then, does matter — in the sense that it is the organizing principle without which matter simply cannot exist. Without matter, there is no universe and there’s no place to do anything. WIthout information, matter withers away. Vanishes. And gradually, even the memory fades. It won’t dissipate entirely, of course. But it becomes … slippery” (147). It’s a speech that gets at the heart of the novel: the tension between order and chaos — or organization and autonomy.
Harkaway’s evident interest in the world he’s creating is a joy, but it’s working through this theme that really brings out the best in him as writer. Not that the depiction of teen emotions and student philosophising and so forth is ever less than satisfactory, but the chapter in which the bombs are deployed en masse, as part of a stupid, wasteful escalation from a small-scale but politically useful conflict, is little short of terrifying: how lethal the absence of information, of certainty. Shadows become traps, places where the unreality is most concentrated and most horrible: “The attack is here, and there are people dying, but there’s no enemy, just darkness, confusion, and people getting dead. It’s as if this was weather” (216), with bullets “drifting on the wind like pollen” (218). It is, the narrator later realises, “the grimy rag and bone subconscious of our race” (272), come home to roost.
Standing tall amidst the chaos is Gonzo Lubitsch, big damn hero. (I said I’d get back to him eventually.) Back in the first chapter, the relationship between Gonzo and our narrator was sketched out in asides: “When the phone did ring (any time now), we could go and be heroes and save the world, which was Gonzo’s favourite thing, and perforce something I did from time to time as well” (7). He is not the leader of the Freebooters — that’s Sally Culpepper — but he is charismatic, confident, extremely dangerous, and probably wouldn’t recognise irony if it hit him with a plank. He is capital-H-Heroic, and the narrator is his shadow, his confidant, his wingman. Surprisingly little time is dedicated to establishing this relationship, but the fact of it is always there and frequently asserted; even Gonzo’s absence defines the narrator’s presence, with all actions measured against an impossible standard of What Would Gonzo Do? The biggest implications of this relationship for the narrator don’t become clear until quite a long way into the book, but from early on it serves as evidence that as much as the Go-Away War strips order from the world, the characters in The Gone-Away World need order to understand their souls: in just about every case, who they are is defined by what they do, from the “pencilnecks” who sacrifice their individuality to the corporate beast, to the soldiers for whom sublimation into a military hierarchy can be a form of salvation, to the “new” entities created after the war who simply want to live. The struggle at the heart of The Gone-Away World is the struggle against disorder, but it’s against personal apocalypse as much as global; the link between the two is emphatically undermined by a late-ish plot development that also confirms Harkaway’s commitment to the sfnal elments of his book. Unfortunately for those characters who get well and truly fucked along the way, it’s well-known, as one character puts it, that “the second law of thermodynamics … does not look kindly on unfucking” (383).
Of course, the narrator manages to find a way to live, and indeed at the end of the novel he’s alive in ways he didn’t realise he wasn’t at the start — not to mention perhaps the real hero. You could say that he survives the system, though I doubt The Gone-Away World would want me to paraphrase its conclusion in such po-faced terms: this is a book in which quite a lot is resolved by fighting, culminating in a triumphantly over-the-top, if somewhat boy’s-own, action sequence (during which Harkaway nevertheless finds time for his narrator to speculate on whether squid can watch TV). More than once in the book’s final chapters, you might recall the narrator’s loving description of kung fu movies from his youth — “The martial arts film is a curiously sentimental thing, fraught with high promises and melodrama … The plots are moral, Shakespearean, and have a tendency to charge off in some unexpected direction for twenty minutes before returning to the main drama as if nothing has happened” (44) — and, given its accuracy as a description of The Gone-Away World, wonder exactly how successfully the novel itself has resisted the call of comfortable, orderly formula. Resist it does — with those digressions and their (in Harkawayan terms) often monumental hilarity it’s a book constantly straining against its own coherence — but its ultimate completeness somehow suggests that The Gone-Away World might die in the memory as completely as it lives in the moment. The saving grace may be the ending, which stubbornly refuses to settle for getting the book back to where it started, and instead insists on escape into who-knows-what. “From here,” the narrator says, at the end, “it’s all about forwards” (531). So speaks a native of his country.