Monday, October 6, 2008

The Gone-Away World

I just read a book that I enjoyed so much (and exclaimed over so frequently) that Ron asked me if this could be my book of the year. Usually I pick a new book that I've liked and send it to the people on my Christmas list who might like it. This one could be it.

There's just one slightly negative thing about this book--it takes a good while to get into it. It took me about 70 pages, and that's with the encouragement of bookchronicle, who has it on her list of the ten best books of the year. The book is Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World.

One of the things that made me start to enjoy the book was this reference to ninjas:
"Just hearing Master Wu say 'ninja' is like hearing a concert cellist play 'Mama Mia' on the ukulele. Ninjas are silly. They are the flower fairies of gong fu and karate. They can jump higher than a house, and burrow through the ground. They know how to turn invisible. They...can do things which are like magic."

But I think what got me hooked is this passage on p. 72:
"'And the moral of this story?'
'Don't leave the path.'
'No. The moral of this story in so far as it has one is that cannibals can study logic, and that if you are going to leave the path, you better have your wits about you and know better than to trust the first scary old lady who talks to you in a public place. 'One of my sisters lies and the other tells the truth!' What a load of crap. For God's sake, why doesn't he ask the barman? Or just retrace his steps? The man's an idiot.'"

Yes, The Gone-Away World has ninjas and a pirate king and secret societies and an evil villain with a fearsome weapon, and it's set in a sort of post-apocalyptic world so it's kind of like science fiction except that the world maybe turns out to be different than you think and your idea about what is normal has to change a bit, and by the time you get to the end of reading it, you've done more than laugh at the funny parts (and there are plenty of those), and you've done more than follow the digressions from the main plot (and boy, are there a lot of those). What you've done is that you've become a slightly more thoughtful person than the one who began reading this book. Partly this happens because of the way the story is told--you begin with a group of people who are called on to solve a crisis, and then you go back to their youth and find out how the crisis came to be, and then you go along with the narrator to analyze the way the fictional world works, like trying on corporate thinking for size, and finally you have to take a stand with the characters, as good and evil are sorted out.

I read this book more slowly than I read most things. It took me about a week of dipping into it for maybe half an hour a day, at first. The thing is, there are stories in this book that can almost stand alone, like the story of the man who acted out the scene from a button I found in Washington D.C. in the 1980's: "I don't love you since you ate my dog." And there are characters and situations that are satisfying to read about in a way that doesn't seem to advance the plot, like the story of K. and why he calls himself that. And like the introduction to this teacher:
"'What I an about to tell you,' says Professor Derek the following day, 'may make me sound like a crazy person. So I need you to remember, to bear in mind very carefully, that I have an IQ of such monstrous proportions that if, for the sake of argument, I were totally insane--if the palace of my intellect were a scary ivy-covered mansion in Louisiana with peeling paint and dead flowers and a garden full of murdered corpses planted by a man named Jerry-Lee Boudain--I am so much more intelligent than anybody else you will ever meet that there would be no way for anyone to tell....what you need to get your heads round is that I am such a massive geek, such a totally terrifying concentration of nerdhood, that I have actually cracked the code for human social behavior using mathematics. I am able to interact with people on what appears to be a casual non-scientific footing, and even get laid like a regular guy, because I made an intense study of behavioural and statistical ethnographics, and I am constantly running a series of predictive and quantitative calculations in my head, which provides me with acceptable human responses within the normative band and counterfeits qualitative judgement so well the difference is within the margin of error.'"

As other reviewers have noted (there's one on The Gone-Away World site), the sheep images are among the funniest parts of the book (besides the fact that everyone who reads this book will be compelled to try putting their teeth on a doorknob). I loved this bit about the sheep:
"sheep are a nightmare if you're trying to construct a perimeter defense, because they can end up cutting a path right through it and leaving themselves in pieces as markers showing the cleared route to all comers....sheep surviving for a prolonged period in a heavily mined area will gradually evolve, and left long enough would develop into more intelligent, combat-hardened sheep, possibly with sonar for probing the earth in front of them, extremely long legs for stepping over suspect objects and large flat feet to distribute pressure evenly and avoid activating the fuse. A warsheep would be a cross between a dolphin and a small, limber elephant."
A warsheep! That is just a funny word, sort of reminiscent of Douglas Adams at his best (and Harkaway does list Adams as one of his influences, along with P.G. Wodehouse, Conan Doyle, Alexandre Dumas, and Neal Stephenson).

The story of how the narrator survives being shot and how he then helps to save the world is the focus of the last third of the book, where everything comes together so unexpectedly (for me) and so satisfyingly that it's hard to describe, except perhaps to say that it's like finding out what the watermelon in Buckaroo Banzai's file cabinet is for and not being disappointed by the explanation. Here's one facet of the explanation that won't entirely spoil the plot for you:
"The Go Away War and the Reification were a great chaos which brought an end to everything we knew. By accident or subconscious design, we destroyed the pattern of our lives, reduced our species to tiny pockets of survival and engendered a world whose very fabric responded to our thoughts. Humbert Pestle, silver at the temples and tough like a yew tree, survived the cataclysm but was appalled by the havoc that it wrought. Seeing in his mind the cogs of the great progress scattered willy-nilly all about, Pestle longed to put them back in the clockwork and make it run again. Nor was he alone. We all of us looked at the turmoil around and were afraid, and instead of going out to meet it and sniff it like good mammals, good primates, we got cold feet and fell back upon our cold blood; like lizards on a cloudy day, we wished ourselves back in the comfort of our holes; we wanted our finite horizons of predictable problems and predicable joys."

This is not a predictable book. It's an amazing book, about honor and sacrifice and what makes us human. Long after you think you've settled in to being amazed as you read, you'll continue to be amazed over and over.


bookchronicle said...

I love, love, that you loved this book too. I was getting worried that I'd keep recommending it and you'd keep losing interest.

Jeanne said...

Eleanor points out that "what makes us human" is such a cliched phrase! I defend the use of the phrase on the grounds that some significant characters in the book are not human in conventional terms, and that part of the book is about whether the other characters can accept them as humans.

Nick Harkaway said...

Really, really glad you had so much fun with it. Been on holiday so I'm behind on my emails and blogs and so on. But: yay! Thank you.

Dreamybee said...

Wow, this sounds interesting! I think I will have to add this to my TBR pile. I'll come back and let you know what I think of it...should be before 2015 at the rate my TBR pile is growing! :)

Serena said...

Hi, I hopped over from Hey Lady's cream of the crop post. I have to put this on my list of books to read...I've never heard of it.

Thanks for the recommendation....ninjas and pirates!

Jeanne said...

A testimonial:

It’s probably been about 2 years since you sent me The Gone-Away World. You warned at the time that it might take a while to get into the book. I started it and actually liked the characters immediately, but as often happens, I found myself without sufficient reading time. So I put it down to be read when I had longer stretches of time to devote to it. The same thing happened three or four times. (I think I’ve read the first 50 pages of the book at least 3 times.) But finally, finally, last week, a sliver of “prime” reading time presented itself, and I started the book in earnest.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this book. It was so much fun. I laughed aloud often. I read passages to ___. (She liked the argument that girls are able to grasp the bigger picture and thus should be the ones in charge of weapons of mass destruction.)

It was a rollicking good time, and I thank you belatedly but sincerely.