The whole business

It takes a brave man, or woman, to imagine a world that is, and isn’t, the world we live in, that will tell us convincing tales about what we should and shouldn’t do, about how we should and shouldn’t live, without descending into lecture, or ascending towards parable. And it’s interesting that the tales which do this most successfully should so often be considered exercises in genre, as though that meant they had less authority than other sorts of narrative.

Nick Harkaway, in his first novel, The Gone-Away World, provides us with a handle on the world that actually works, that actually opens a sort of window we otherwise wouldn’t have. It does this in a number of ways. In part, by describing a world that we recognize as essentially the world we know, a world in which Tupperware and Star Wars and, er, cake-making remain points of reference; in part by drawing on other richly imagined worlds, or arcane worlds – I’m thinking martial arts, here – as imaginative ballast. He mentions his debt to the great story tellers of the past, from Wodehouse to Dumas in the acknowledgements (and this tells us everything about the range of his style), but much of the strength of the tale comes from its equally firm footing in the dozens of less formal narratives that compose us: education, cooking, friendship, love, not to speak of the popular imagined pre-/post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max and Dr Strangelove. In part because the exuberance and invention and sheer delight of the language is unfailing, with a goon-show-like energy that only occasionally veers into flippancy. In part because Harkaway knows how bruschetta should be pronounced. (Yes, it matters.)

But all this would count for nothing if the novel weren’t also preoccupied with what Harkaway describes as ‘the whole business of how to be a person’. The novel is haunted by alienation, from the early reworking of it in its pure Marxist state (cf. Fingermuffin, capitalist) to the central trope of the novel, which I won’t reveal. It’s concerned with who we are, as individuals and in our relations with others. The core of the novel is a moving recognition of community and how it might survive, against all odds. This seriousness is never far beneath the fun to be had, although there are moments I feel the latter may be overdone. The riff on fashion towards the end of the novel, for example, struck me as heavy-handed, though enjoyable (and then, with an odd swoop, utterly creepy). And there are passages in the second half of the novel, after it’s caught up with itself (you’ll know what I mean when you read it), when the thrust of the story is slowed down by a tendency not to miss a trick in terms of language, when a surface glamour distracts both the teller and the tale. But mostly it’s spot on. A grand job.

And a hard act to follow. I’m looking forward to the next one.

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