The ‘Harkaway World’, as I’ve dubbed it, is claiming to be ‘The Literary Debut of 2008’. Well it would do; after all what we have here is an ambitious version of reality created by a debutante (and polymath) novelist. Well, in the shadow of such fanfare, and in the case of any much-toted new release, I find myself fighting immersion with weapons wrought from dents in the narrative, and plot faux pas. Perhaps my education has bred a cynical reader ready to tear works apart, but whatever it is in spite of it all, The Gone Away World survives.
At their best, visions of near-apocalyptic Earths are disturbingly real. At their worst they are cliché, but they’re always the test of an author. Real credit to Harkaway comes here then, because not only does he comfortably create one, he douses original immediacy and threat with ease, where others would be intent on prioritising potential carnage. When, for example, in the opening pages you learn that the Jorgmund Pipe is on fire (and what a hellish disaster that is in itself, let alone if it falls!), the narrative could quite easily deteriorate and stumble into warbling heroic sci-fi, with little thought to plot-line groundwork: I’m glad to report it doesn’t.
What it does do is turn into a sprawling, highly gratifying read, exploring the fascinating historical episodes of the narrator with each chapter, delivering truths and real incite where most would be content to deliver one-liners and fluff. Not only this, the book provides sideways glances at society, literary flourishes, a catalogue of characterisations any author would be proud to call their own, and a finely structured story which necessitates the rather plump size of the title. However, there are irritants in the midst.
The – what I hoped would be occasional – tangents on subjects such as the usefulness of sheep in war, and shrew tachycardia (not all are animal based), appear a little too readily for my liking. Fascinating products no doubt of the narrator’s – and author’s – piston-powered brain prove Harkaway is a great source of knowledge, a fine researcher… or both. But said tangents occasionally detract from otherwise cohesive descriptions and text-book scene-setting, and further, sometimes disrupt the reading rhythm. Equally, there’s is the odd occasion I found myself questioning a clearly intelligent narrator, which is not something I think Harkaway wants for his reader.
‘Christ, since when did we have a cadre? I’m not even sure what one is.’ was the exact phrase which crinkled my nose, because not only does this narrator know about shrew tachycardia, but I found myself (rather refreshingly) reaching for the OED on more occasions than I can count on both hands and feet. In short, I don’t believe such a well-informed narrator doesn’t know what a cadre is. Yet such disbelief in our guide through this world is thankfully rare.
Lastly, and most irritating, Harkaway has a fondness for his narrator breaking into italics for no clear reason I can discern. He also does so in excited brackets (oh yes, like this!). Still, being aware of these, and putting them partly down to an overpowering and supercharged enjoyment of the author in the books writing, I can overlook them.
What of influences then? I’m already hearing comparisons with Heller and Adams, but I don’t feel either completely justifiable. Most of this chat concerns Harkaway’s personnel, where Gonzo Lubitsches are placed next to Sally Culpeppers, Assumption ‘Evangelist’ Soames sits with Wu Shenyangs and Zaher Beys, and a house-full of others are waiting to intrigue you. All superbly rendered and canny in their existence, comparisons with Hitchhiker’s or Catch-22 are of course complimentary, but should be taken lightly. For what Harkaway is doing here smacks of the new you get when a talent announces itself. Italso smacks of knowledge, and an author who is a fine student to both high-held literary devices and innovation, which is what you want from your début novelists purported to have written the year’s big hit.
You’ll notice I could go on about The Gone Away World, and it’sbecause it’s that sort of book. It’s the sort of book which I’ve no doubt, in university terms to come, will be pawed by awe-inspired English students. It has it’s minor annoyances for me, but I’m pretty sure there’ll be no greater début, or a more confidently ambitious book this year. ‘More than anything, I wanted this book to be fun’, says Harkaway on the book’s website. Well I’d like to tell him, he’s done that, and a fair bit more.