The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Professor Derek, one of the many strange characters that populate Nick Harkaway's debut novel, describes himself as "such a terrifying concentration of nerdhood" that he has cracked the code for human behaviour using mathematics. Constantly running a series of predictive calculations in his head, he is able to interact with people on what appears to be a non-scientific footing and get laid like a regular guy. It may seem rude to suggest that Harkaway has similarities to Professor Derek, but given that he has consented to his novel being described as "geek nirvana", I trust that he won't be too offended.

Harkaway appears to have cracked the code for a reader's desire for entertaining narrative. The Gone-Away World is a strange combination of dystopian fantasy, kung fu movie, war epic, political thriller and slapstick comedy. He is the missing, but somehow logical, link between David Mitchell and Terry Pratchett.

It has to be said that this novel is not for everyone, and I'd be reluctant to recommend it to a friend. It's the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, the equivalent to a night in with an SF box set. It will be most loved by the nerd readership he covets, although there are pleasures for the reader not delighted by martial-arts sessions with Mister Wu and yet another future England divided into Zones. Raymond Chandler, famously, would have a man walk into the room with a gun when he ran out of ideas; Harkaway has a ninja jump out of a laundry basket.

The most astonishing thing about this novel is that Harkaway manages to produce exciting prose about events that usually would only work on screen. A friend of mine thinks the main problem with literary fiction is that there's not enough car crashes. Here we get not only car crashes, but car combat: three days of fighting between compacts, saloons and 16-seaters. Set in the near future (far enough from now for Michael Moore to be considered an important revolutionary but close enough for people still to r emember Andre the Giant), the novel is largely concerned with various machinations concerning a giant pipe that protects the last remaining inhabitable part of earth from the post-apocalyptic wilds beyond.

Harkaway writes well about love and romantic infatuation, but he doesn't do sex. His poor narrator is burned, run over, repeatedly infected by local diseases, assaulted by a rabid cat and blown up by his own side, but the tender administrations of a sexy nurse are glossed over in a sentence. Harkaway names PG Wodehouse, Conan Doyle and Alexandre Dumas as his biggest influences, and he has borrowed a little from each. In places the jokes are very funny, in others they become silly and irritating, and this 500-page epic could have done with a tighter edit At its worst, The Gone-Away World reads like a collaboration between a drunken writers' group.

But for the most part the novel powers along happily, switching genres, locations and registers with outrageous ease. For a novel seemingly written at speed, the plotting is extraordinarily deft, with characters and conspiracies dropping in to forward the action at just the right moment. There are vague references to developments in physics, but fortunately he doesn't get too waylaid by this, playing it for laughs. If your idea of comedy is a mime getting punched in the face, The Gone-Away World is for you.

Matt Thorne's latest novel is 'Cherry' (Phoenix)