Writing an adroit novel is a challenge any time, but especially if you're going to throw in ninjas and mime troupes. Setting the story in a post-Apocalyptic world also requires more than a bit of imagination. Throwing in a twist readers don't see coming but find entirely acceptable is a Chinese puzzle in and of itself. But to do these things while maintaining a witty tone that doesn't begin to grate over the course of several hundred pages rises to the level of absolutely daunting. Although first time novelist Nick Harkaway stumbles at times, he manages to adeptly handle all these obstacles with his The Gone-Away World.
Distilled to its essence, the novel is the story of life on a near-future Earth suffering the effects of the Go Away War. The events leading to the war — a small nation refusing to pay interest on a loan from an international banking group it neither asked for nor ever used — are a excellent example of Harkaway's incisive turns at satire. The war gains its name because it debuted the Go Away Bomb which, in turn, takes its name from what it does — make people, places and things "go away." You know, disappear — completely. But if too much of the world goes away, you end up with a reduced "Livable Zone."
The Gone-Away World, now available in paperback, opens in a a remote portion of that Livable Zone with a group of war veterans being retained by the powers that be. They are needed to put out a large fire in a production center and pipeline for a substance that keeps the zone livable and the "unreal world" from encroaching upon it. Yet after that first chapter, Harkaway doesn't return to that point in the story for more than 300 pages. Instead, he traces the life story of our narrator, the lifelong best friend of Gonzo Lubitsch, the almost Rambo-like special ops soldier everyone tends to look to when things get tough. As the detour lengthens, you wonder about its purpose or the reason Harkaway started where he did. It all becomes clear, though, with a twist that should catch almost all readers off guard but, in retrospect, makes sense.
The twist is one reflection of the novel's shrewd pacing. When the surprise comes, it doesn't hit you upside the head. Instead, it is almost casually disclosed as the narrator puzzles over recent stupefying changes in his life. This approach leaves you thinking the revelation is no more than a random thought until it actually sinks in within the next few pages and drastically changes your perspective. Leaving the initial chapter to engage in the lengthy look at the past also helps Harkaway draw a distinction between the at least semi-real pre-war world and the totally surreal nature of the post-war world and all it implies. And regardless of which world we're in, there is a persistent touch of wit that creates a refreshing overtone in this realm of myth.
As this all suggests, for the most part Harkaway's writing borders on marvelous. If there's a problem, it is a tendency to overwrite, not in the sense of pretentious language but perhaps spending too much time detailing a scene, a character, a conversation or a discourse. In addition, there's another surprise near the end of The Gone-Away World that isn't quite as smooth as the earlier bombshell. Yet to expect an author to not stumble over the course of more than 500 pages is unrealistic.
Anytime you can combine ninjas, mime troupes, military and political satire, an apocalypse and a love story and still hold on to and please the reader, you've accomplished quite a feat. To do so with your first novel is an even greater accomplishment.