The Jorgmund Pipe is on fire. It shouldn’t be, because it was designed to be the most resilient structure ever built by humans; but then again, the very notion of things that should or should not be looks kind of quaint in this future. The Pipe is vital because of what it carries around the world: a substance called FOX that keeps the Unreal at bay. The fire must be put out, and who better to do so than the people who constructed the Pipe in the first place? That small band of people are hired by the Jorgmund company to do so, and they set out at the end of the first chapter.
And then we go back in time and, for the next 300 pages, follow the intertwined lives of Gonzo Lubitsch and his best friend (who is the novel’s narrator) from their childhoods, through their time spent studying martial arts, to university, and then into the army, where the pair meet the others with whom they will eventually build the Jorgmund Pipe, and where they encounter the weapon which will literally change the world. The Go Away Bomb works by removing the information from matter, leaving nothing behind: the target is simply ‘edited out’ of reality, no mess, no fuss. Except, wouldn’t you know it, there is unforeseen mess and fuss, and it’s the end of the world as everyone knew it.
Back to the novel’s present, and our heroes extinguish the fire — but it’s not over. On returning home, the narrator finds that his life has changed inexplicably. Then the truth dawns, and the course is set for the final showdown…
I don’t know whether to love or hate The Gone-Away World, and I suspect I’ll end up doing both. For one thing, it’s the writing: this is a long book, and Nick Harkaway‘s prose is dense, detailed and discursive. For example:
The apple cake is very good. It is fresh and sweet, with moist bits of apple and the applegoo which happens when you make a cake like this and get it just right. There are none of those retch-inducing bits of core which some cooks insist are an important part of the apple, presumably out of a false sense of parsimony, because those bits ruin perfectly good mouthfuls and therefore consume scarce apple cake resources. Elisabeth is an apple cake perfectionist.
Then comes an even longer section about the cake box.
500-plus pages of this stuff is somewhat wearying; but reading The Gone-Away World is not a hard slog, and certainly I never considered giving up. I think the main reason for this was Harkaway’s superb control of the prose: he surely knows exactly what he’s doing — when other characters take over from the main narrator to tell brief stories, the changes in voice are distinctive — and, once you get into the syle, it’s quite easy to accept the eccentricities and digressions (though there are still a few passages where you might feel like skimming). And there are some sharply effective nuggets of prose within, too; for example, when a soldier is injured: ‘Bobby Shank will escape, but he will not be okay. Not unless a miracle happens, and the reason they’re called miracles is that they don’t.’
The prose style adds to a more general feeling of being somewhere sideways of reality. That sense also comes from the novel’s quirky accoutrements (a pig-powered dynamo! bands of ninjas and mime artists!); and in the ways that its world differs from ours — it’s quite feasible to create alternate worlds that feel grounded in reality, but Harkaway’s doesn’t because, for example, its history and geography seem outlandish: Cuba has become part of the UK, and Gonzo and his friend live in a vague place which seems British, but might be somewhere else.
Fair enough, but in the early stages of The Gone-Away World, I started to wonder whether this quirkiness was going to muffle the emotional impact of Harkaway’s story. To a large extent it doesn’t: the author is quite able to weave in sharp satire; and in particular can get across the horrors of war — both its underpinnings (a modern war like the one fought in this book is an ‘un-war’, a ‘hyper-violent peace’) and its realities (as in his descriptions of the consequences of the Go Away Bomb).
Yet there are still times when it is harder to care. The quirky prose can make the characters seem distant; and aspects like the ninjas and mimes never quite lose their sheen of absurdity, which particularly lets down the story’s final act. But the sheer presence of The Gone-Away World is undeniable and, overall, welcome.
At first, The Gone-Away World is like a jolly, eccentric uncle who comes to visit, wraps you in a bear-hug, regales you with strange tales of his past, and never pauses for breath. As time goes on, though, you see more of the person beneath the eccentricity, and discover that you had more in common than you thought. I am glad I read the novel, and I won’t forget the experience in a hurry — for more good reasons than bad.