The Gone-Away World
By Nick Harkaway
Alfred A. Knopf, 512 pages, $25.95
The world consists of matter, energy and information.
Energy can be displaced, but it cannot be destroyed. Matter can be destroyed, but it’s messy. But if a weapon were invented that could suck all the information out of matter—the treeness out of a tree, the DNA out of a man—that bit of matter might disappear. It might simply stop existing. It might go away.
It’s giving away no surprises to explain that an information-sucking weapon—the Go-Away Bomb—has already been invented and deployed when Nick Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone-Away World, opens. Moreover, contrary to assurances, the weapon produced a kind of fallout that, in the aftermath of the Go-Away War, quickly began to make uninhabitable the parts of the globe that had not already vanished.
A small group of survivors, former soldiers of both genders headed by their hero and mascot, William (Gonzo) Lubitsch, worked together with other survivors to help create the Livable Zone. Afterward, they stayed together, building a community in a mostly abandoned corner of the Livable Zone. Now, years later, they’re called upon to save the world again, when another unthinkable disaster occurs: “We stared at the [TV] screen,” the narrator recalls. “It looked, for a moment, as if the Jorgmund Pipe was on fire—but that was like saying the sky was falling.”
But it was on fire.
The Jorgmund Pipe encircles the globe, emitting a constant spray of FOX, the mysterious potion that somehow neutralizes the fallout and creates a Livable Zone. The Jorgmund Company comprised “a mosaic of power we called the System, and the idea was that they upheld the law and maintained the army—the people like Bone, who patrolled the edges of the Livable Zone and chased off bandits and worse things than bandits. But in the end Jorgmund ran the show, because Jorgmund had—was—the Pipe, and that was the thing we couldn’t do without.”
It’s at this point—long after the war, after the Jorgmund Pipe catches fire but before Gonzo & Co. try to put it out—that we time-travel back through history and start catching up with events through the adoring lens of Gonzo’s best friend, the narrator—from the playground sandbox where they met at age 5, through school, martial arts training, college, radical politics, the army, love, the war, the aftermath and—whoa!—back to the beginning, which is actually the middle. It’s only for the duration of this flashback that we can relax a bit, confused but totally hooked.
IF YOU’RE BEWILDERED, that’s because you’re meant to be. Nick Harkaway performs a high-wire act, and the only cloud in the reader’s sky is the near-certainty that he won’t be able to bring it off—which, in literary terms, means to make the ending just as hair-raising and original as the beginning and middle, while continuing to make sense.
He does it, though. He really does. He does it so well that when I’d finished reading it, I wanted to go back and read it again, just to see how all the jigsaw puzzle pieces fit.
It’s a thriller, but not just a thriller. It features Chinese Gong Fu masters, mimes and ninjas, and contains elements of sci-fi, fantasy, old-fashioned romance, apocalyptic horror, adventure, war and even bildungsroman. It’s also blackly funny, a Catch-22 for the 21st century: Looking for a job after a run-in with the System in college, for instance, the narrator learns there’s a “secure annexe” attached to his file. Confused, he asks what it contains, but “my interviewer shushes me … that information has been deemed classified, and she has no desire to be apprised of it in contravention of Section 1, para (ii) of the Information Act and 15, (vi) of the Dissemination & Control Act, and several assorted acts and orders which are themselves secret under section 23 (paras x-xxi) of a piece of legislation whose name is also too sensitive for general release. Unfortunately, with this significant question mark hanging over me, she also cannot offer me a job. And nor, as I have discovered, can anyone else.”
O.K., THE GONE-AWAY WORLD has a neon-pink cover. Toxic pink—with a furry texture. And there are unnecessary digressions, as well as a few passages that go on so long they begin to sound like a particularly clever but obnoxious adolescent showing off.
But these are minor glitches in a work of extraordinary imagination and charisma. Sometimes, there’s matter and energy and, instead of mere information, there’s genius—which, if you’re lucky, is when you get Nick Harkaway and The Gone-Away World.
Nan Goldberg is a freelance writer and book critic living in Maine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.