Book Review: Readings
A flat-out ferociously good novel
Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 10, 2008
THE GONE-AWAY WORLDby Nick Harkaway
Knopf, 498 pp., $25.95
"According to Sebastian, ideas have run away with the world," says the unnamed narrator by way of an anarchic, collegiate pal. "They are the intrusion of perfection into our grubby, sweaty, smelly living place." Harkaway, né Cornwall, knows ideas from every angle and, cunningly, isn't afraid to employ ninjas, mimes, truckers, or even sheep to get his own across in this, his debut novel. (Surprisingly, or not, his paterfamilias is John Le Carré.) The Gone-Away World, an epic, stupendous outburst of a book, is more friction than science, more dark than fantasy, and more than anyone would've expected had they known the author's true identity. It's about the end of the world, the perils of thinking too hard (about anything), and friendship, family, and love. In that sense, it's a lot like War and Peace – huge, unexpected, and written by some guy you probably should have read already and can't wait to hear more from – with better ordnance and nearly the same mental and moral heft. The narrator and his lifelong friend and fellow soldier of fortune, Gonzo Lubitsch, are shooting pool and swilling ale in a nameless bar somewhere in England when the television flickers and the world ends, again. Previously, as Harkaway details between the incrementally anxious, eerie, doomy opening and the explosively ideologic end, the earth as we know it has been re-terra-formed by an insidious new weapon, deployed by both Us and Them. Said superweapon functions by sucking the identity-necessary information from normal reality, leaving behind only craters and an existential vacuum that reasserts itself in the form of nightmare critters and some seriously wacked global karma. Whole cities vanish, people go mad(der), and strategically awful events conspire to ensnare a fistful of Leone-esque characters who, above all, must make all that's gone away and wrong there and right it again. An impossible task, yes, but like I said, there are mimes. Harkaway's absurdist humanism reads like a surrealist smashup of Pynchon and Pratchett, Vonnegut and Heller, but his voice is his own, thick with creamed idealism, grim jaw-set hope, and a palpable tang of the here and now, the war and the peace. He goes about as far from his father's steely, Cold War pen as any literary son would want and then goes considerably further, into the no-man's-land between the idea and the deed, the men and the myth of mankind. The Gone-Away World is a flat-out ferociously good novel, and Harkaway has heralded his own coming with one hell of a bang.