Last June, Nick Harkaway’s debut novel, The Gone-Away World, was snatched up by its British publisher with an awe-inspiring £300,000 advance. Instantly, book critics on both sides of the Atlantic raised a howl of protest at the irresponsibility of the payment. Harkaway was an untested novelist, they cried; regardless of his literary pedigree, no publisher in their right mind would offer him such a sum.
A year or so later, the reviewers – one way or another – changed their tones. Many waxed even more melancholic as they bemoaned the book’s many failures, calling the investment even worse than had initially been feared. However, just as many described the book as a steal at any price, a modern masterpiece bound for classic status, and defended their claims with a vehemence that was equaled only by the book’s detractors. Whatever reviewers feel about the book, they feel it very passionately.
This reviewer falls squarely in the pro-Harkaway court. The Gone-Away World is a book of many layers, combining the massive and colorful cast of Gravity’s Rainbow with the cautionary and unconventional satire of Slaughterhouse-Five, and spicing the mix with a touch of Philip K. Dick’s paranoid best, a Melvillian penchant for digression, and an ancient ninja conspiracy. (Yes, that’s correct: I did just use the words “Melvillian” and “ninja” in the same sentence.) The Gone-Away World is one of the finest books of the new century – if you’re into all that. If you’re not . . . well, don’t waste your time. Nicholas Sparks has a new book out, too.
The Gone-Away world of the title is a post-apocalyptic world, recognizable as our own, but permanently altered by the effects of the aptly-named Go-Away War and more reminiscent of the Dark Ages than the 21st century. It is in this world that the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County (and no, it’s never abbreviated . . . but for the sake of brevity, let’s call it the Free Company) plies its trade: namely, cleaning up the sort of messes nobody else wants to even think about, let alone go anywhere close to. The mess at hand is a massive fire on the Jorgmund Pipe, a world-spanning piece of engineering that protects what little “civilization” remains on Earth from the Go-Away fallout, a sinister substance known only as Stuff and never, ever, under any circumstances, so much as approached.
Ostensibly, The Gone-Away World is the story of how the members of the Free Company clean this mess up and what they learn about themselves and their world in doing so. But it is also the story of a necessarily-nameless narrator exploring the nature of himself. The story is a cautionary parable about the evils of war and corporatization, and one hell of an adventure story. Plus, like I said, it has ninjas, mimes, pirate-monks, a main character named Gonzo and a minor character named Lay Chancellor Idlewild. It is, in short, both completely absurd and completely brilliant – but you’ll only agree with the latter if you’re enticed by the former.
It’s also a book of many contradictions, which makes it especially hard to review in any meaningful way. Harkaway is never preachy, except when he’s laughing at his own preachiness; the story doesn’t make any sense until you realize why it doesn’t make sense.It’s a book that seems to spin off constantly into totally unnecessary digressions, until you start to think that maybe those digressions were necessary after all. The Gone-Away World is a sci-fi ninja romp and a meditation on the nature of self – and if you’re into both those things, it’s also a masterpiece of postmodern fiction.
Peter Chomko can be contacted at email@example.com.