Writing 52+ reviews is hard. Writing 52+ reviews is harder when I’m supposed to be writing my dissertation, and not reviews. Oops! Well, anyway, here we are.
The Gone-Away World is a very strange book. It’s also a very good book, but it’s a good book that took me awhile to get into and appreciate. Harkaway’s prose is witty and often nonsensical, filled with non-sequiturs and descriptions that seem to mean absolutely nothing, and yet somehow conjure a well-staged — if surrealistic — scene, and end up saying something after all. Here’s an example:
Modern war is distinguished by the fact that all the participants are ostensibly unwilling. We are swept towards one another like colonies of heavily armed penguins on an ice floe. Every speech on the subject given by any involved party begins by deploring even the idea of war. A war here would not be legal or useful. It is not necessary or appropriate. It must be avoided. Immediately following this proud declamation comes a series of circumlocutions, circumventions and rhetoricocircumambulations which make it clear that we will go to war, but not really, because we don’t want to and aren’t allowed to, so what we’re doing is in fact some kind of hyper-violent peace in which people will die. We are going to un-war.
It is understatement to say that it took some time to get used to this style. This is no doubt a unique book, but it also feels like what might have happened if you throw a bunch of other well-known authors in a blender with a dash of telltale British-ness. It has the earnestness of someone like Jonathan Safran Foer, but that’s tempered by the cheeky violence of Chuck Palahniuk. It’s as manic as Neal Stephenson, but every now and again, a character steps in and makes a disarmingly simple — and humorous — point in a perfectly Douglas Adams deadpan style. I haven’t read a great deal of “literary” fiction this year, instead favoring books that are frank and plot-forward, so I’d say that easily for the first third of the book, though I was periodically amused by the wacko metaphors, I was also glancing at my hypothetical watch, wondering when the plot would present itself.
Cobbled together, the story goes like this: the (nameless) narrator has grown up with Gonzo Lubbitsch, our kind-of hero, even though the narrator himself is equally qualified for that title. They attend the same school and university, but everything starts going awry when the narrator finds his political inclinations — and really, the company he keeps, moreso than his actual opinions — inching toward the disruptively revolutionary, and he’s subsequently captured by government operatives trying to root out muckrakers. Somehow, eventually, the black mark on his record leads him right back to the guy in charge of his capture when he’s looking for employment, and he ends up working on a top-secret weapons project that is next-level work from the atomic bomb. Fast-forward to when armies converge on a small Eurasian territory that’s a hotbed of political turmoil, and releasing the new bomb — termed the “Go-Away Bomb” — sets off a catastrophic chain of events that changes the world [dramatic pause…] FOREVER. Now, our narrator, Gonzo, and friends have been tasked with a mission necessary to maintain the little bit of peace and structure that’s left after the world Goes Away.
As I said before, once I got into the flow of the prose and stopped reading “past” Harkaway’s descriptions, looking for plot, and instead relaxed into the acid trip, I really enjoyed this book. It somehow does have its own brand of momentum, even though it seems buried under C-plots about ninjas taking out the narrator’s onetime martial arts teacher or anecdotes about corporate “pencilnecks” losing their humanity as they give themselves over to the machine.
In short, I do recommend this book, but be patient and give it a chance to worm its way into your brain.