It is probably good for both of us that GR reviews have a character limit. For me, so there is a limit on my copyright violations. For you, you won’t have to read every line that I found amazing, remarkable, thoughtful, or funny. It took me two reads to compile my thoughts on The Gone-Away World, and I’m not sure we’re done with each other yet. It’s one of those kinds of books that offers more each time through. Not the lull of a comforting, familiar read, but the folds of the “ah-ha!” kind of plotting, the thoughtful “oh yes!” of appreciation, and the generating of fanciful ideas.
Harkaway’s ability with word choice, not quite absurdist, but at the far limits of possibility, knocks me out. It’s silly and irreverent: “It will be a useful study aid in my newly chosen specialist field of getting-the-fuck-out-of-here-olgy” (p.229)
Then, just when it reaches the limits, the reader/narrator realizes the situation is serious and the irony is washed away, resulting in a powerful emotional exposure and, sometimes, a sad transition to disaster. For instance, there’s an ongoing bit about the narrator’s girlfriend in college who was physically stimulated by their rebellion. It was funny (“we all but wear out the oppressive manacles of the state oppressor and it’s getting to the point where we’ll have to pinch some new ones”) right until it’s brought back home in a way that illuminates the self-delusion, in this case, with real oppression: “This place does not feel like my country. It feels like countries I have read about where things are very bad. It feels, in fact, like exactly the kind of thing we were protesting against, but we thought it was elsewhere. It is not heartening to find that it has come to us” (p.105)
Harkaway’s metaphors come through in the strangest places, but are all the more delightful for the oddity. There’s a prolonged hot spell and Gonzo’s father’s bees are keeping the hive cool by fanning their wings and laboriously flying in water droplets: “Air conditioning by slave labour, if you believe that a hive is run by an autocrat, but Old Man Lubitsch has long ago explained that the Queen is an asset, cherished and nurtured but not obeyed, and that the hives are a functioning biological machine. He cannot decide if they represent an eerie social harmony or a grim nightmare of mechanistic subservience to a purposeless and endlessly repeating pattern” (p.54).
Or thoughts on fighting an endless war:
“We were, in other words, screwed. But we were on top of the situation. We knew we were screwed, and we had chosen the manner of our screwedness. We understood it and to that extent we controlled it. It was like the Nuclear Threat–while it was going on, we didn’t have to think about any other kinds of screwed we might be” (p.257)
He does this over and over again, and then when you feel you might be hitting some sort of ironic, comedic overload (think three or four hours of The Daily Show), he throws in an emotional connection that reminds us these characters are also human.
For instance, in the middle of an escape with the Special Forces crew and a few ancillary staff, the team takes a moment: “A brief council of war is convened, during which everyone takes turns to hold Egon, because he is shaking and needs to be loved, and we are leaving no one behind, not physically and not spiritually, because we are who we are and that is how we’re going to stay” (p.231).
There is a powerful motif of identity running through, and the identity we have as people versus the identity we have in roles, whether chosen or foisted upon us. One of the most moving and ambivalent sections of this dealt with George Copsen, the father of one of Gonzo’s admirers, and a member of the military:
“He lifts the red telephone and says: ‘Copsen.’ Someone on the other end speaks, firmly and simply. General George either grows older or grows colder; it happens to him from within like a tall building being demolished or flowers growing in fast motion, and I realise he is making himself into the cog, rather than the man” (p.188).
What elevates it beyond a discourse on human nature/civilization is the astonishing concept of the Go-Away Bomb, and it’s fallout, the Stuff. (Small spoiler follows) [ “The Go Away Bomb is a thing of awful power, a vacuum cleaner of information, sucking the organising principle, the information, out of matter, and energy. Professor Derek assumed that either of these latter two stripped of the first simply ceased to exist. It seems he was wrong. Matter stripped of information becomes Stuff… desperate for new information. It becomes hungry“(p.255). ] And there is for me, the moral of the story, the philosophical underpinning; the idea of forming and creation from ideas, for what else happens when people meet Stuff, but ideas become almost-real? And what is reality, except our perception of things, our assumptions? And if the nightmares and dreams aren’t quite real, well they do exist in our heads, and in our emotions, our perceptions and our reactions, so that they are, in some ways, real enough.
As I said, it’s that kind of a book.
Everything in this book is so very quotable–I have a sticky note filled with partial quotes and page references. It’s slightly blurry, of course, from dropping it in the bath, but still legible. Mostly. But I love Harkaway’s social commentary. It’s funny in that wry way, when something is unfortunately true (the corporate Pencilneck), funny in that gross way (a derriere shaped stain on the pool table that implies unauthorized activities), and funny in that oddball way such as exploring identity issues through a troupe of mimes, and a group of circus travelers named ‘K.’
It misses five stars because some significant editing could have tightened it up and broadened its appeal (much like this review). The second time through I can appreciate foreshadowing related to the narrator identity. I can see where it got lost before; I was distracted and enjoying the Pencilneck B through M metaphor, and lost the actual plot point. But it was there. It’s the type of thing that editing around it could have given it a little more importance, and likely made the impact a little more profound.
One of the book groups I’m in read it for a monthly read, and it was rather disappointing how many readers felt they had to force themselves to slog through it, even as they appreciated sections. No need to throw every thought into your book, Harkaway; save some for the next time. On re-read, a mere forty pages in I can see where it could have been trimmed already. A paragraph here, a paragraph there, sections musing on someone’s life/death that the narrator is only speculating on. Less can be more; it could have given more prominence to the plot and world-building and evened the pace. After a leisurely pace through childhood, adolescence and college, the grande finale and confrontation seemed rather tacked on.
That said, I found myself alternatively smiling, snickering, tense and moved when reading. In the final Carol-mark of greatness, I believe it deserves a spot in my physical library, and I’m looking forward to giving Angelmaker a try. Four-and-a-half imaginary stars.