BOOK REVIEW: ‘World’ strange but familiar

An author’s photograph of Nick Harkaway sits smugly inside the dust cover of his first novel, The Gone-Away World. The cover is specially marketed for American audiences: velveteen, fuschia and electric green. Harkaway smiles smugly, as if assured the bravado of the cover can only be matched by his bombastic debut.

Great Britain’s publishing world was in uproar last summer with the announcement that The Gone-Away World was purchased for£300,000. Critics cried nepotism and fortunate son, because Harkaway, whose real name is Nicholas Cornwell, has family ties to the industry. His mother is a book editor for a prominent publishing company, Hodder and Stoughton, and his father David Cornwell, better known as his alias John le Carre, became quite famous for writing spy novels after being outed as a member of the British Foreign Service’s MI6 by the notorious KGB double-agent, Kim Philby. Harkaway claims this is the precise reason he submitted his manuscript under a pseudonym, but the media aftermath concerning his legacy still leaves him suspect.

The novel begins in the Livable Zone, where the last remains of culture and society have managed to survive the Go Away War.

An unnamed narrator belonging to a group of veterans and ex-paramilitary who congregate in a back-alley place, profoundly called the Nameless Bar, set out to repair the Jorgmund Pipe, which has been set afire. The pipeline protects the remaining from the surrounding apocalypse – namely an insurgent group led by Zaher Bey, a revolutionary (or terrorist, pick your flavor).

Already there are extraordinary tasks and cliched characters. The women are strong and beautiful, and the men – including the narrator and his best friend Gonzo Lubitch – a fraternity. But the reader soon forgives Harkaway these newbie mishaps, as they are suckered in by his hilarious wit and errant pace.

What is unclear and often distracting is whether the novel is intended to exist within our world or outside of it. Set in the near future, the narrator makes reference to real world pop-culture, such as Coca-Cola, Armani suits and Honda Civics. Also, in the world before the Go Away War, Cuba has curiously relinquished its autonomy and joined Great Britain, which causes great political upset in the U.N. The institutions share their real names, while the insurgency comes from the make-believe Middle Eastern country Addeh Katir, a land of anarchist ideals where singing pirates save refugees from certain death by gassing and bombing. The novel seems to pose the question, what if the Cold War had led to hot conflict?

"I grew up in the ’80s, there was a constant theme that the comfortable world could just vaporize at any moment," said Harkaway in an interview with Cynthia Crossen in "Just Asking… Nick Harkaway"(Aug. 30, Wall Street Journal). "I think it’s something we all have a slight twitch about even if we’re not worrying about it all the time."

Like its author, the novel is very British, and thus it is somewhat justifiably Dickensian in length. At 498 pages, it seems to stretch out like a marathon, and any pause in its run feels like a jolted act.

Harkaway could have spared the reader some unnecessary embellishments such as a scene in which an aged kung-fu master plays at burping a Tupperware container filled with his favorite spice-cake while he is surrounded by ninja invaders, or the three-page digression on whether wandering sheep should be considered when planting land mines in the Middle East. However, the latter, while seemingly irrelevant to the plot, feels sadly relevant to the reader.

The story at the very least is one of pirates and ninjas, and of sex and war, which is sure to entice some students. Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World is available at any major bookstore or by lend of the writer of this column.

Nick Harkaway

The Gone-Away World

498 pages; $25.95

Verdict: A decidedly British novel with global appeal.

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