“The Gone-Away World” by Nick Harkaway

“Ninjas! Pirates! Mimes! Tupperware?”
Score: 5/5

Nick Harkaway

I heard of this from someone on a mailing list who had read it and posted a review here.  After reading her review and the others there, I figured it would at least be an interesting book – after all, it had pirates and ninjas, and how could that be bad?

And it wasn’t bad.  It’s rather good, in fact, but it’s very hard to explain why.  \it’s hard enough to explain what the book is even about.  Here’s the author’s attempt, from his web site:

It’s really, really hard to describe to someone who hasn’t read it. I have trouble. So do most booksellers. It’s an adventure story, in that the characters have adventures, but not everyone who loves it usually likes that kind of thing. It’s a war story, in that there’s a war in it which changes everything, but it’s not a guns-and-naked steel story. It’s a love story, because people love, and they do crazy, wonderful, awful things for love – but… it’s not a romance.

And yes, as you may have heard, there are ninjas. Very few serious books have ninjas. This is one of them. It’s also a comedy, of course, because serious things are funny.

So there you go.  I’m not even going to try going into more detail than that.

Most reviews seem to make a big deal about the fact that John Le Carré is his dad.  I’m not sure that fact is really too important, their styles and subject matter seem quite different and I can see it being a hindrance more than a help sometimes.

But really, what came through when I read the book was the author’s love of words.  The loquaciousness of some parts is breathtaking, but even some of the short descriptions are wonderful.  Here’s one of the less brief bits for your consideration:

Sally pointed out that we had trucks; that our possession of and facility in the handling of trucks was key in regard to the identity as truckers, which in turn was key in regard to the pencilneck’s presence in our midst, that presence being a consequence of his desire to deploy those talents in the service of the populace and the enterprise for which he was plenipotentiary spokesperson, ambassador and man on the ground, and in whose short-term interest he now sought to bilk, cheat, con, and bamboozle us out of due legal and contractual protections in line with industry practice and good solid common sense, but whose shareholders would, like the aforementioned wider population, unquestionably look with disfavour and consequent litigiousness upon the inevitable wranglings and disputations resulting from said rooking, hornswoggling, grifting and humbuggery, should any ill befall in the due exercise of our discretion and judgement in the course of whatever hare-brained adventure the party of the first part (the pencilneck) chose to inflict upon the soft skin and girlish charms of the party of the second part (the naive and open-hearted drivers of the toughest and most competent civil freebooting company in the world).

See what I mean about verbosity?  And (you can check) that’s just one sentence! The rest of the book isn’t written like that, by the way – that paragraph is (I think) trying to convey the nitpicking and precise language used in negotiations and contracts, as in the deal-making which was taking place at that point in the book.  But you don’t hear words like ‘plenipotentiary’ from someone who doesn’t enjoy the feel of words.

You don’t hear the word ‘plenipotentiary’ enough these days anyway, but that’s another matter.  Usually it just makes people go ‘Waah?’ and leave their mouths gaping open.

Another pillar of wordsmithery in this book is the swearing.  Pretty much all the swearing is done by just one character, and I highlight it only because it is done so well.  Ronnie Cheung, the character in question, has some great lines and I was going to show you one in particular because it is both offensive and hilarious, but I can’t find it and I’m buggered if I’m going to search through all 200,000 words for it.  Just trust me – he has some truly pithy comments.

While I was reading, I got the feeling that the author had been in the military.  Something about the way some scenes were described, and something about the detail he went in to, made me think he’d served in the army.  Apparently not.  I also got the feeling that he’d had some martial arts experience, and that turned out to be true.  Sortof.  It says on his site:

He has trained in fencing, aikido, jujitsu, and kickboxing, and is notably bad at all of them. On one occasion he successfully knocked someone down during a sparring session, and (being English) instinctively lent over the help them up. His memories of what followed are confused, but video footage shows him apparently attempting to swallow his opponent’s foot, then flying through the air like a ballistic jelly.

…although I figured Tai Chi would be in there too, since there’s quite a bit of soft-form martial arts in the book that reminds me of a lot of what I’m failing to learn at my Tai Chi classes.  Some Guardian bloke thinks so too.

And after all that, I’m sure you’re none the wiser about the book.  It’s fun, and it’s well worth reading, and I haven’t seen any review that does it justice so I’m buggered if I’m going to make an exception here.

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