Sunday, January 11, 2009

NWF Fiction Review Feature 1: Trevor Calvert reviews THE GONE AWAY WORLD by Nick Harkaway

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Welcome to Omnidawn Blog's first NWF Review Feature. In future features you will find reviews of recent books of fiction that reflect "new wave fabulist; fabulist; speculative; nonrealist fiction" tendencies.

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The Gone Away World
by Nick Harkaway
Review by Trevor Calvert


Reminiscent, at least tonally, of Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr.Strangelove, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World is an intriguing and timely addition to the symphony of contemporary fantastic and fabulist fiction. While most neo-fabulist writing is voiced more with magical-realist and fantastic tones, Harkaway’s first novel plays more with the science fiction genre; yet, labeling Harkaway’s first novel as science fiction is erroneously reductive.

The Gone Away World thrusts the reader into a world where something-bad-has-happened, and as readers we are not quite sure what, or even if this is meant to be our world—all we know is the Jorgamund Pipe, as its namesake implies, now winds its way around the globe, maintaining reality. But before we can figure this out, our nameless narrator skips back in his past to a world we do understand—our own—and begins from there.

The narrative follows the protagonist as he grows up in suburban England, learns Kung Fu, finds love, discovers some facility with politics, and is maneuvered into a job with military intelligence. Far from buying into militarism, the protagonist at best has a bitter and problematic view of his employers. Indeed, introducing a militant element (and the novel hinges on this) allows Harkaway to make insightful criticisms of the military complex and the sort of worldview that maintains it. Really, nothing overtly unreal happens until chapter six—wherein the narrative hits a second stride and wades into the realm of the fantastic.

Science fiction is known for its surprising and insightful story-telling, yet as the genre has aged, some facets have become more commonplace: androids, sentient programs, space-cathedrals, and alien races either bent on destroying us, or more recently, resisting our colonization (apropos topics change with the times). The Gone Away World includes none of the above. In fact, a good portion of the novel reads as "straight" fiction (albeit strange) before the science surprises us by wiping out most of reality. Not the world itself—we already have bombs that do that—but the very informational structure of the world. And there is fall-out.

Nick Harkaway’s novel stems very clearly from the anxious nuclear tension that existed throughout the cold war. Many people can recall the ridiculous idea that huddling beneath a desk would provide protection from nuclear attacks, or the pervasive and creeping dread of fall-out. Harkaway’s book takes that frightening time, and shuffles the most absurd elements into a macabre and dangerous future where the world is very certainly not our own.

Despite a strong narrative voice and engaging storyline, the book does have its flaws. Harkaway can be too wordy, and the writing sometimes feels a bit disjointed. One example: “Leah is staring at me with wide eyes which have more than a little approval in them, and she hastens to reassemble Carsville’s arm in what I suspect may be an unnecessarily painful way, because he passes out and therefore cannot give countervailing orders to his men, who snap into action as Gonzo tells them to move out” (p.181, US edition). At other times, the narrative becomes tangential and must find its way back to the main thread (Harkaway never moves as far away as Pynchon, but neither does he venture out with as much aplomb); nonetheless, riding through these rougher sections is worth the passage because Harkaway scatters throughout the book’s landscape surprising narrative twists and vistas.

Readers of definitively experimental neo-fabulist writing may not like Harkaway’s narrative as it is classically straightforward; however, the content is fresh, and as a whole it slides gracefully around rigid genre identifiers (much like some if its characters’ kung fu).

With this "Gone Away World" as the novel’s backdrop, Harkaway introduces a well-realized cast of characters (military spooks, mimes, a kung fu teacher, ninjas, the French, a few pirates), and despite the calculatedly wacky lineup, resists slipping into the easy tropes of freewheeling, humorous fiction. Instead, he crafts a world that allows his careful and wry commentary on love, politics, fear, and culture to illuminate the world-as-it-is.

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Trevor Calvert is a writer, bookseller, and recent library-school-graduate living in Oakland, California. He has a book of poetry, Rarer and More Wonderful (Scrambler Books, 2008) and has been published in various journals and magazines. Some of his interests include puppets, vocabulary design, and martial arts.

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