Read August 2013
Recommended for fans of absurdist thrillers
★ ★ ★ ★
I opened Angelmaker with high expectations. I enjoyed The Gone-Away World a great deal, and admired the blend of characterization, humor, and social commentary with a solid underlying concept. While those elements are in place for Angelmaker, it was a struggle to read until it gained momentum halfway through.
It has been a challenge to figure out why, but I think at heart, the beginning reads a little like a collection of short stories or vignettes, which makes the thriller plotting drag. There is an ominous situation; Joe, the clockmaker/restorer of mechanical odds and ends is visited by some very suspicious people. He is unnerved, and resolves to find out more. After phoning a friend, it’s quick trip through underground London (literally and figuratively), which segues from the the current situation to three days ago and then deeper into Joe’s past. The narrative jumps to Edie, an elderly lady of suspicious skill sets, who earlier had Joe repairing various mechanical oddities. As she leaves the apartment, we are treated to a long walk down Edie’s memory lane. It does gestalt together at the end, but quite honestly, it’s a bit more patchwork quilt than pointallist painting. The time shifts remind me a little of The Rook, only in that case, O’Malley’s time jumps were strictly between the same character, maintained a linear tracking and were therefore significantly more cohesive: two parallel plotlines that dovetailed together. Angelmaker is more like a complicated weaving, but instead of being enraptured, I find myself wandering away.
There’s some great bits:
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ari is reticent on the poison issue. Ari regards cats as lessons in the journey through life. Cats, he explains are divine messengers of patience. Joe, one shoulder still sore from a near miss two weeks ago, says they are Satanic messengers of discord and pruritus. Ari says this is possible, but by the working of the ineffable divinity, even if they are Satanic messengers of discord and pruritus, they are also tutors sent by the Cosmic All.
‘They are of themselves,’ Ari says, clutching this morning’s consignment of organic milk, some of which is leaking through the plastic, ‘an opportunity for self-education.’
‘In first aid and disease,’ mutters Joe Spork.
‘And in more spiritual things. The universe teaches us about God, Joseph.’
“Not cats. Or, not that cat.’
‘All things are lessons.’
And this is so close to something Grandpa Spork once said that Joe Spork, even after a sleepless night and a bad cat morning, finds himself nodding.
‘You are welcome.’
‘I still want cat poison.’
‘Good! Then we have much to teach one another!'”
Does that cat have anything to do with the story? No. Does Ari? Not really. This elaborate conversation exactly demonstrates the fun, the challenge and the problem in Harkaway’s writing. Necessary? No. Fun, yes. Convoluted and elaborate? Yes.
Harkaway is very good at the small scale work of combining incongruities to create an absurd whole, which is perhaps why people acclaim Angelmaker as absurdly humorist story. But absurd and thriller are a tricky mix; like a black bean and corn salad (one of my recent attempts), it can be a delightful taste mix. It can also be a mushy mess.
“He has a head shaped almost exactly like a pear. His brain must be squeezed into the narrow place at the top. His cheeks are wide and fatty, so that, if Mr. Cummerbund were a deer or a halibut, they would excite pleasurable anticipation in those fond of rich foods and delicacies.“
He does capture elderly dogs well:
“They have long ago settled between them that he is to be disturbed between three and nine only in the direst of emergencies or if there is steak. The steak should be meltingly soft and warmed over in the pan. The emergencies are more exigent: fire, earthquake, rains of frogs, the arrival of a cat in the building.“
I notice some readers squirmed at the violence, but I found it usually understated:
“The revolver makes an absolutely huge noise. To her relief, the back of Mr. Biglandry’s head stays on, although it’s clearly a close-run thing.“
He often starts with standard dialog and then sparks it up with absurdist social commentary:
“Mr. Pritchard! What are you doing?… My grandfather is weeping in Heaven, or he would be if there were such a place, which there is not because religion is a mystification contrived by monarchists! Again! Again, and this time do it properly!“
His convoluted writing often conceals clever references:
“From the back of Polly Cradle’s car and disguised like Mr. Toad escaping from the clink, Joe Spork stares at his home.”
He has an Adams-esque way with thoughts:
“‘Well,’ Mercer says after a moment, ‘that was insane. But apparently it was also a good idea. I find the combination unsettling. Please try not to have any more good ideas until I get to measure them against the possibility that you have gone entirely off your rocker.'”
And pieced in, oh-so-delicately, is some heartfelt philosophy:
“Love causes people to do stupid things. That does not, she realizes now, make them the wrong things.“
I like Harkaway’s writing, I really do, and yet I’m struck by just how often I was willing to set it down to go to sleep, about the exact opposite my reaction to thrillers and mysteries (which normally falls in the “one more chapter” category). It’s a little more like reading bon mots by a philosopher or humorist, and a little less like reading a single yarn from a fine storyteller. Great ideas, challenging philosophy, nice characterization–all good reasons to read it. Gripping, cohesive action? Not so much.
I will note, especially in contrast to a number of other recently read books that pour on the cultural-referencing humor, that Harkaway manages to stay true to the emotion of the book and the family drama at its heart. He also does some interesting things with sexuality, which rather bothered me at first, until I realized he seemed to be turning an unusual character into James Bond.
After finishing, I realized that Harkaway has rewritten The Gone-Away World for a different milieu. Read it if you like more literary, humorist works, likely Breakfast of Champions, Catch-22 or A Confederacy of Dunces, and not so much if you are looking for a mystery/thriller/steampunk focus.