Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Smart, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: Nick Harkaway's Gone-Away World

Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World isn't an easy book to describe, which, perhaps not surprisingly, makes it a difficult book to explain why I'd recommend it.

I could list the exciting things you'll find in the book--ninjas, the apocalypse, love, war, mimes, things that shouldn't exist but somehow do.

I could tell you about some of the fascinating characters--Ma and Old Man Lubitsch with their donkeys, Sally Culpepper with her beautiful legs and creamy skin, Master Wu with his ninja traps.

I could tell you about the way that Harkaway uses language with amazing precision and beauty.  Take, for example, this sentence: "In the morning, the war comes back, like dandelion seeds."

But if I try to split The Gone-Away World up into its parts, it doesn't make any sense.  It doesn't do justice to the fascinating amalgam of philosophy, chemistry, physics, politics, economics, martial arts, pop culture, literature, and who knows what else that Harkaway has put into this novel.  And so that means I need to come up with a way to describe the whole of the book--a task perhaps even more difficult than describing everything that the novel contains.

But after thinking about it for some time, I think I've finally come up with something, so here it is:

The Gone-Away World is one of the smartest novels I've ever read.

What makes it so smart, you might ask?

Well, a lot of things.  For starters, Harkaway's writing style is hilarious.  He uses narrative asides to great effect, creating many one-liners that I want to post on my office door.  And these aren't fluffy jokes--they're witty insights and clever connections.  It's not every novel you read that deliberately connects Hobbes the philosopher with Hobbes the tiger, but The Gone-Away World does it, and does it well.

As this Hobbes/Hobbes inclusion might suggest, The Gone-Away World also demonstrates an amazing range of knowledge--I was continuously impressed by the variety and depth of subjects that Harkaway incorporated into the plot line. 

And then there's the plot itself.  The novel opens with a narrator and his team responding to a disaster set in this futuristic, post-apocalyptic "gone-away world," and then there's a 200+ page flashback where we learn about the narrator and the events that have led up to this point.  I was blown away about halfway through the novel when things return to the present and I realized what "The Gone-Away War" actually meant, but even more interesting is what happens after this revelation.  Harkaway explores questions of morality, humanity, friendship, and identity in a way that made me go back and re-read passages to make sure that I was really understanding what he was saying.  As a literature professor who is interested in the humanities more generally, I would love to teach this novel because of the way Harkaway addresses complex philosophical questions in an exciting new way.

On top of that, I really enjoy the fact that the version of the novel that I have has a pink and green fluorescent fuzzy cover.  Now, I know that authors often don't have much say over the covers of their books, but whoever did this one hit it right on the money.  The odd juxtaposition of colors into a seamless whole and the shadowing of the author's name with the title of the story both reflect what is going on in the novel, while providing additional food for thought about the relationship between the unnamed narrator and Nick Harkaway himself.

For a novel to be able to move from pink fuzz and Hobbes the tiger to Newton's laws and Hobbes the philosopher--now that's smart.  And that's worth reading.