I’m in a dilemma, and I blame Jeanne, the non-necromancer, almost entirely. My problem is this: Jeanne read Nick Harkaway’s stunningly great book The Gone-Away World years ago, and has been steadily plugging along at convincing the rest of us to read it ever since. I finally thought, Oh well, why not — not actually believing it would be that great, to be honest — and was made, within a couple of chapters, into a complete convert. This book went all in to be funny and skewed and angry and surprising and weird and suspenseful and interesting about human relationships, and I got caught in the slipstream and didn’t want to surface until I’d finished it (and it’s something of a door-stopper, too, at nearly 600 pages.)
My dilemma is that I can’t seem to describe it in a way that makes other people want to read it. It’s so purely enjoyable that I can’t be as analytical as I’d like, and then I sound all gushy, but it’s a strange enough scenario (and a loose enough plot) that I can’t seem to describe it appealingly for people who don’t usually read this sort of thing. Let me try, though: I’ve put it off long enough, and honestly I’m dying for more people to read this novel.
Imagine a world in which we had invented a weapon that didn’t kill our enemies, exactly — it simply made them go away, erasing chunks of reality by stripping matter and energy of its organizing principle, information. Great idea, right? (I’m shaking my head vigorously. No. Not a great idea.) The book opens in a near-future post-apocalyptic scenario in which the Go-Away War has created monsters: matter and energy seek whatever information they can find to re-organize, and terrible, painful, sometimes murderous mutations result. The narrator and his friends, including the charismatic Gonzo Lubitch, have been given the task of fixing the Jorgmund Pipe, which sprays a chemical onto the Gone Away areas, protecting the “real” world from the mutants.
But there’s more to the Pipe, and to the Jorgmund company, and to the Go Away War, and to the narrator and his friends, than it may seem. Once the world is established, Harkaway takes us back in time: the boys’ lifelong friendship, their time at university, their military service, marriage, the war, and more. (More, you ought to know, includes kung fu masters, ninjas, arson, mimes, spies, killer bees, love affairs, and pirates, and I’m not exaggerating and I’m probably forgetting something and it mostly all makes sense. The digressions are at least half the pleasure in this book.)
There’s more to this book than the almost incredible pile of plot of it, too. The Gone-Away World is fiercely angry about corporations and committee decisions about human life: the more you’re invested in them, it says, the less you are an individual, and the less you care about anything but the company’s interests. This book urges you, as a reader, to take up anything — any interest at all, from kung fu to killer bees — that makes you a better individual and better able to make your own moral decisions under unbearable pressure. It’s about honor, and sacrifice, and longing, but it’s also about grifting an impossibly expensive suit so you can fit in at a high-level corporate meeting with your… um… suit-fu.
Harkway’s prose is a total delight. I would never have believed that I could read a 600-page post-apocalyptic anti-war anti-corporation novel about university and mutants and the reality of human interaction and love, infused with a kung fu/ mime/ pirate sensibility, and feel as if some combination of Vonnegut and P.G. Wodehouse had written it. It was funny as hell, and also poignant, and able to see things in a fresh way, and I just don’t ask for much more.
This book surprised me. The plot surprised me: there’s a moment when there’s a Big Reveal and I hadn’t seen it coming even a tiny bit, and I just had to sit and laugh and cry a little and go “Wow,” and that’s rare. And the glorious prose surprised me, and I was surprised how often I laughed. I wanted to recommend it to everyone, but I can’t seem to pique anyone’s interest. Read it. READ IT. You won’t be sorry — it’s so interesting — and you might be as glad as I was; it’ll certainly make my top 5 of the year. So — actually — am I blaming Jeanne, or thanking her? Thanking her, I think. Thank you, Jeanne.