The Gone-Away World

gone away worldI’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.

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24 Responses to The Gone-Away World

  1. realthog says:

    I can’t seem to pique anyone’s interest.

    Well, you’ve piqued mine! Onto my queue it’s gone.

    By the way, this is the intertubes. Don’t you feel duty-bound to spell that “peeked” or “peaked”? Seems damned unconventional to spell the word correctly.

    • Jenny says:

      I am fiercely unconventional about correct spelling (you couldn’t have noticed anything nicer about the post.) I also know how to pronounce noir, if that means anything.

      I’d love to hear how you like the book.

  2. This book sounds very interesting. Well done!

    • Jenny says:

      It is, actually, very interesting. My favorite books/ films/ TV shows are those that do poignancy and humor equally well — never an easy balance to strike. This is one of them.

      • You’re very right. I’d love to be able to do that in my writing. Oh well, that’s what I’m working toward. In the mean time, I’ll keep posting my short stories on my blog.

  3. Laurie C says:

    I borrowed this from the library once and didn’t get hooked right away and had to bring it back. This was strongly recommended when it came out by Nancy Pearl, who’s very big in the library world for her reading suggestions, so I’ve always kept it in the back of my mind as one to try again. Glad to know you loved it!

    • Jenny says:

      Nancy Pearl and I have an uneasy hit/miss sort of relationship, but if she liked this one, it was definitely a hit. You’ll note if you clicked through to Jeanne’s review that she took a while to get into this book as well. I didn’t — I liked it right away — but it’s reassuring to know that others have had the same experience.

  4. Naomi says:

    You got me! It’s going on the list.

  5. Spookily I just posted my review of this today and I agree with everything you said. If you haven’t already you should get a hold of Angelmaker, equally excellent.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I enjoyed your review — thanks for giving me the heads up. I actually just finished Angelmaker, which I really liked a lot (though I think I liked Gone-Away World even more) and plan to read Tigerman when I’ve recovered.

      • I also have Tigerman on my TBR pile but want to leave a gap before I pick it up.

      • Jenny says:

        I do too. Maybe a while. I read The Gone-Away World in May (and am just blogging it now) and I read Angelmaker last month. I might wait a bit before reading Tigerman, so I can recover. These are big, wild, berserker-books.

  6. This was on my “to read” list forever and I eventually just took it off the list because I thought I’d never get to it and my list was too long. I think I’ll put it back on now. Thanks!

    • Jenny says:

      I can’t exactly parse the phrase “my TBR list was too long” because doesn’t it encompass millions of books? But I hope you read it. I’d love to hear what you think of it. Plus, another toaster for me!

  7. Alex says:

    But it’s 600 pages! When do I find the time?

  8. Nicola says:

    You’ve sold it to me! Will give it a go.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m so pleased — it’s out of the usual range of things some people normally read, so I haven’t had much luck yet in getting my friends to read it. But I would love to hear what you think when you read it. I just thought it was wonderful.

  9. I enjoyed this a lot, but yeah, it’s a hard one to recommend to people! It’s very very hard to explain what makes it so unique and cool. My friend and I are buddy-reading Nick Harkaway’s newest book soon, which I’m pretty excited about.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Jenny, I’m glad (but also sorry) you had the same experience and it’s not just my thumb-fingeredness. I lose a lot of people just by saying it’s post-apocalyptic because they’re thinking The Road, and then a lot more when I get to mutants, kung-fu, pirates, and so forth. I think they think it will just be silly. And it is very funny! In parts! But thinky and poignant and smart also! Very difficult to keep people that long into my spiel. Maybe I should start with it? Can’t wait to hear your review of Tigerman!

  10. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    I’ve yet to read it but I have met Nick Harkaway and he is as mad yet sane as his books are (in a completely good way). Tigerman was stunning too.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh! Where did you meet him, at a book event? I would love to meet him. “Mad yet sane” is a wonderful description of the two of his books I’ve read. The funny parts are completely mad but the serious bits, about what it means to be human or what corporations do to our lives, or what role secrets and lies and the truth play in our politics and personal lives, are deeply sane. Great analysis, and I’m looking forward to Tigerman.

      • Annabel (gaskella) says:

        It was a local event (I wrote about it here) and he was absolutely lovely – very chatty, completely bonkers and also passionate about his beliefs etc. His wife works for a human rights charity, so he is very concerned about social justice etc. I must get on with reading his first two books!

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