Friday, March 13, 2009

Harkaway just might be brilliant

The Gone-Away World
by Nick Harkaway

I'm a reader given to pronouncements like: I hate science fiction. And for the most part it's really not my cup of tea. Well, The Gone Away World is undeniably science fiction, and it is the most interesting novel I've read in quite some time. The back copy on the galley I read compared it to Kurt Vonnegut meets Joseph Heller meets Mad Max. I immediately assumed that was hyperbole of the worst kind, but damn if that doesn't sum it up perfectly!

How can I describe the plot? As the novel opens, we're in a post-apocalyptic version of the world we know. We meet our first-person narrator and his team of trouble-shooting compatriots. Something possibly disastrous has happened, and they're off to save the day--as long as they'll be adequately compensated for the job. That's what they do. They're the Haulage & Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County, a tight-knit group of life-long friends and war buddies.

The first chapter was about 30 pages, and I have to admit it was very strange and confusing, but undeniably funny. After that first chapter set in the novel's present, the clock is rolled back several decades, and the next 275 pages tells the life story of the unnamed narrator. And suddenly the book became far more accessible, because there were references to things like Elvis Presley and Tupperware. It was a world I could recognize. And gradually all the weird stuff from the first chapter was explained. What was the "Go Away War," why it was called that, and how the radically altered (not for the better, I can assure you) world came to be. It's a strange, deeply disturbing story leavened with a lot of humor and some wonderfully whimsical and likeable characters.

Around the 300 page mark, we are back where we were at the top of the novel, and our heroes are off to save the world. But nothing goes according to plan. And just when you think you've got a grasp on the rules of this strange world and this odd novel, Harkaway pulls the rug from under your feet and suddenly all the rules change and everything you think you know has changed!

This is a dense and challenging 500-page novel. Some parts of it are wonderfully light and comic. Other parts were so dark and disturbing I wasn't sure I wanted to continue reading. But I did continue, often forcing friends to listen to me read pages of text aloud. The language is fabulous and the many tangents and asides are priceless--such as a meandering discussion of the role of sheep in times of war. Other times it's a single sentence such as: "You have to worry about someone even mimes find creepy." that you want to stitch onto a pillow and place on your couch.

I wouldn't recommend this novel to everyone I know, but for readers with an open mind and a tolerance for absurdity, satire, and speculative fiction it's a must read. It may be one of the best debut novels I've ever read. It is the most interesting novel--period--that I've read in years.

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