The Gone-Away World, By Nick Harkaway
Sunday 08 June 2008
There were whispers of nepotism when this debut novel by John le Carré's son was bought for a reputed £300,000 last year. But on reading this magnificent, sprawling, epic work, it's clear it was published on its own merits, and is probably worth considerably more than the amount Heinemann paid for it.
With the right wind behind it, The Gone-Away World could easily become a modern classic. Its scope and ambition are extraordinary, its execution is often breathtaking, and its style is by turns hilarious, outrageous, devastating, hip and profound.
It is not a book that springs out of nowhere. Its bleakly humorous futuristic vision is not dissimilar to that of Kurt Vonnegut, while its visceral, scattershot energy brings to mind landmark American books like The World According to Garp and Catch-22. But there is also something very English about Harkaway's writing, specifically his acute sense of the ridiculous, and the ghosts of Douglas Adams and P G Wodehouse haunt some of the finest passages here.
We begin in a post-apocalyptic world of mostly uninhabitable badlands, the exception being around the Jorgmund Pipe, a globe-straddling construction pumping out something called FOX which makes the few surrounding miles fit to live in.
Gonzo Lubitsch is the heroic leader of a former military unit which now specialises in freelance troubleshooting, either fighting the monstrous entities emerging from the wastelands or, as we open the story, heading off to put out a dangerous fire further up the pipeline. The story is told by Gonzo's best friend and sidekick, the sensible yin to Gonzo's gung-ho yang, a narrator who remains nameless for reasons which become apparent in shocking fashion later.
From there we spool back through Gonzo and the narrator's upbringing, fleshing out both figures and revealing how the world came to be in its current state. A local conflict in a Himalayan state escalated into a world war involving a newly developed weapon of mass destruction, the Go Away Bomb.
This was supposed to be a fallout-free alternative to nuclear weapons, but something went wrong and the result is a world populated by demons and monsters, by humans' worst nightmares made real, a world in which the tiny remaining human population are struggling to survive the continual onslaught.
This is only a hint of what The Gone-Away World is about. There are profound meditations on war, commercialism and the nature of humanity, and there are also hugely entertaining passages featuring pirate monks, ninjas, mime artists, ridiculous military escapades and much more. It should be made clear that it is also very often arse-kickingly funny. Throw in some perfectly plotted revelations, an unforgettable finale and a life-affirming and thought-provoking denouement, and you've got a tale which will live long in the memory, and a writer destined for great things, famous dad or not.
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