Sunday, July 07, 2013

Here is the Amazon review I just posted about the book "The Gone-Away World" by Nick Harkaway (Books)

One Sunday early this spring, I was watching "Safety Not Guaranteed" on Netflix.  Lying there on my couch, headphones in, the movie playing away on my Kindle, I was nearing the end of the movie and I began thinking about how it might end, where the movie was going, and I thought to myself that there was only one way the movie COULD end if it was to be a good movie.

So as the movie came to what was OBVIOUSLY the conclusion, I was waiting with bated breath, almost literally, to see if it would end that way, if this movie that so far had been so great, so much better than expected, would win or lose -- would provide me with the ending that would make this a great movie, or would wimp out and destroy everything that had come before.

When the ending came, it made me gasp with surprise, start laughing out loud, and get tears in my eyes.  THAT was how great and perfect the ending was: so great and perfect that it actually elicted real-life emotion for me, not about the characters in the movie or about the ending itself or anything so prosaic as that, but rather real-life emotion (surprise, that is) that was sprung forth by the fact that something SO good, so perfect, so wonderful, could exist in pop culture.

We are so used to watered-down, mass-market, half-effort, almost-great things (if not things that are worse) that we have, I think sometimes, lowered the bar for what constitutes greatness.  It used to be that one had to win five Super Bowls to be considered great.  Now, a quarterback can be considered great even if he never makes it to the championship.  It used to be that the entire world watched as man stepped on the moon.  Now, the Kardashians out-rate a man stepping out of a space capsule and falling to earth.  It used to be... well, you get the point, and the point is that so many things are mediocre that the few things that are good are elevated to greatness merely by not being bland. It's as if the entire world was painted beige and so we were forced to give awards to off-white simply because it was slightly less so.

Which makes rare gems so much the more startling, and amazing, to me, rare gems like "Safety Not Guaranteed" and now, this book.

I can count on one hand the number of books I consider truly great.  They are: Catch-22.  American Gods.  Slaughterhouse-Five.  Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.  And now this book, which might push one of those off the hand on which I am counting in order to create a second space for Harkaway's book.

I cannot remember, ever, in my life, a book that delighted and surprised me and amazed me so much.  This was a book that began on a hot roll and picked up steam and heat with each word, each sentence, each paragraph, each page.  This book careened and caromed through its story and my head with a vulgar life that shouldered aside every notion of what a book should be, what a story must be, and replaced it with image after image of THIS book.

You can get the plot from the synopsis, or from the 132 other (as I write this) reviews of this book.  I'm not going to recap it because the plot, which is head-and-shoulders above almost every other book you will ever read, is not even the most amazing thing about this book.

The real problem with reviewing this book, in fact, is deciding what IS the most amazing thing about it. Reviewing this book is like trying to describe two circuses performing amidst an amusement park where a series of rock concerts are taking place, and you have cotton candy to eat while this all goes on.  Or a giant pretzeldog.  Whatever. Don't get hung up on the snacks. That's not the important thing. I mean, of course, snacks are important, but I feel we're getting needlessly bogged down here in discussing them.

Also: the circuses are entirely staffed by supermodels.

THAT is this book.  There is so much going on that it's hard to know where to look and all you can really do is stare and take it all in and hope that the details lodge in your mind for later picking at and remembering and recapping and enjoyment, that you can take them with you so that as you sit at your desk listening to someone drone on and on, or as you are stuck in traffic, or as you are drifting off to sleep (at your desk or in traffic) you can turn your mind to the supermodelcircusamusementparkconcert that is this book, and remember it and smile and work on it again, until you can get home and continue reading it.

The language: Harkaway uses words like his characters use the hard and soft styles of fighting, changing up here and there and constantly keeping you looking for the next wave.  He makes up words. He makes references you'll have to google.  His vocabulary is about 37th grade, and yet it works: it's the only way this story COULD have been written, in a way that makes you have to tumble around and grapple with the language itself, but it's enjoyable.  It's like wrestling your six-year-old as you tickle him: you're laughing and sweaty and happy and realize that this, THIS! is how you want to spend your day.

The characters: OH MY GOD there are about 150 zillion characters, and that's not even counting the characters who are other characters, but here's the thing about that: each character is so fully realized, with backstory and quirks and language and companions, that you cannot forget them, or even mix them up.  You'll be able to tell Tobemory Trent from Assumption Soames sixty years from now, and if you and I read this book and then sixty years from now I were to run into you and not even know you and simply say "Pa Lubitsch" you will talk about the bees and that will lead you into remembering Ma Lubitsch's three-point turn and then you will get sad as you remember Marcus Lubitsch but then you'll remember how that turned out so maybe it wasn't sad after all, and you'll have walked twenty paces past me, remembering all these people that are somehow as real as you and I even though they're not...

...and that's kind of the point of the story? Maybe? One of them? One of the nice things about this book is it seems to have points while not needing them, to be able to make a point while not making a point...

...and I'll be looking back at you, too, and we'll both shake our heads and realize that this book has stayed real -- it has been reified, as it were (read the book to get that reference!)-- for us all those years, so real that the mere mention of it will cause us to forget we are living in this world so that we can live in that.

The characters are a sprawling happy mess of people that are instantly memorable and fully recognizable by name, rank, serial number, and catch-phrase.  I can remember every single one of them right now, and I am the kind of person who is pretty sure that Iron Man's secret identity is "Robert Downey, Jr."

The plot! OH YEAH THERE'S THAT TOO.  And it's not the plot you think.  Yes, there's a war and it's sci-fi and there's a fire rescue where they use bombs to put out a fire and there's a fight which involves ducks (but at least the narrator recognizes that's improbable) but none of that is actually the plot, unless it is, and is just one of the many plots.  Reading this book is like reading 75 other books all joined together to band as one, like if Voltron were a book.  (Full disclosure: I'm not sure exactly what Voltron is, but I think I've got the concept right, maybe? Is it like a bunch of little robots banded together to be one big robot? Or cars that form a robot? Or people? I'm not supposed to know that.  I'm 44 and 44 year olds don't need to know what banded together to become Voltron. It's sufficient that I have the concept right.)  If a bunch of books all banded together to make one superbook, they would be this book.  Each character is a book in and of him- or herself, and each of them inexorably moves the main book forward, too, so that you never feel bogged down or think "OH GOD ANOTHER BIO OF ANOTHER CHARACTER," even when that character is a seemingly-innocuous spice merchant in a war zone who also comes to matter, too.

That's probably the most amazing thing about the plot(s), is that they feel slapped together, almost, like they were just written a page at a time without worrying about what came before or what came after, only then as you go on through the story you begin to realize just how this all fits together perfectly -- and it's not like you're waiting and saying "Well, is that part going to come back around?" because it just DOES and then you think "OH MAN IT DID!" and you're great with it.

That's what kept happening in this book.  I would be reading it and then hit a part and think "OH THAT IS PERFECT!" and I would laugh out loud at how great it was that something like this could exist, that a book so perfect and so right and so wonderful to read could have just come into my life.

I didn't want this book to end, because it was too good to ever come to a halt.  I wish I was reading it right now.  I wish everyone was reading it right now, so that we could all look up and meet each other's eyes and say "I know, RIGHT!?!?!" with exactly that many question marks and exclamation points put in there, which is the perfect expression of surprise and delight -- surlight, or deprise, I should say, or maybe combining words isn't enough.  Maybe we need to invent a new emotion for books like this, for moments like this in the culture when someone transcends the mediocre, jumps above the merely "good", looks down as he sails high above the "great" and simply keeps on going to join, up in the heavens, that stratospheric realm where so few creative types ever even get to visit.  Nick Harkaway lives there now, and I hope he sends us a postcard from his new residence because that postcard would, I imagine, be simply awesome.


Andrew Leon said...

Um, okay, I'll check it out.

I liked Safety Not Guaranteed. I don't think I liked it quite as much as you did, though.

Briane P said...


Didn't you love the ending?

I think you should be forewarned that any book I like as much as I liked this book may not be for everyone. I should've said that in the review, perhaps, but AH, SCREW IT. People should read this book even if they don't like it, but if they don't like it they're crazy.

Briane P said...

I also think that while I love my writing and I love your writing and I love other people's writing, like Neil Gaiman's, for example, Nick Harkaway is a writer's writer. It's like we are all at the track, jogging and working out and he comes along and not only laps us but does it while singing along with his iPod and doing the hurdles, and it's only then that you notice that his feet aren't actually touching the ground.

Honestly, he makes me envious of his talent.

Andrew Leon said...

I did like the ending. I just assumed almost throughout the whole movie that he was going to be some kind of fraud (like end up being crazy or something), because that's how those kinds of things always end, so I was pleasantly surprised when it actually happened. There were other things in the movie, though, that I didn't like (like the thing with the ear) that kept me from just loving it.

I did go and look through the other reviews after reading yours (mostly the negative ones), and, now, I'm more curious about the book. I put it on my to-read list, but I have a bunch of stuff I need to read first.

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