Author: Nick Harkaway
Publisher: William Heinemann • 532 pages • £17.99
The Gone-Away World is far AND away, unquestionably and without a shadow of doubt the very finest and best novel ever to be awarded just four measly stars out of five by the universally-respected periodical you currently hold in your hand.
This is a brilliant first novel. It’s a brilliant first, second and third novel squeezed into one overstuffed volume and further pressurised by the author sitting on the lid. It’s stunningly well-written, apart from the badly-written bits. It’s a really good thing, way too much of a good thing, served with good thing salad on a bed of bruised good thing, with stewed good thing and custard for afters. If fat is beautiful, it’s a supermodel. Two supermodels.
There’s this bloke who grows up as the loyal sidekick of the Boy Most Likely To Succeed; they both end up fighting in a bloody-stupid war in Central Asia, in the course of which the new superweapon our hero’s been helping to develop savagely bends reality and ends the world as we know it. A shambolic caravan of survivors stumble through the post-apocalyptic mess; and then we hit the Big Plot Twist...
At which point it all gets confusing and a bit hard to follow. Not that you’ll give a damn, because by then you’ll already have wallowed in 350 pages of Nick Harkaway’s quirky, frothy, super-rich, fantastically entertaining first-person narrative, an artery-clogging hellbrew that tastes of Joseph Heller, Robert Rankin, Hemingway, Douglas Adams and Jack Kerouac, with character names pinched from Saki (but with one letter changed), which is guaranteed to grip you spellbound – except during the lousy bits, where he does the same joke three times, or launches into a self-indulgent digression which, though delightful in itself, interrupts the flow like an invisible cow on a level crossing, and you find yourself having to turn back two pages to remind yourself where the hell you’ve got to.
The Gone-Away World isn’t so much a book as a library (there isn’t a gardening section, but maybe they’ll put that right in the next edition). It’s a post-holocaust novel, a coming-of-age rites-of-passage adolescent novel, a Maileresque Serious Book About War, a Frederick Forsyth thriller, the book Douglas Adams never wrote about Eastern martial arts, a science fiction collaboration between Van der Vogt and Christopher Priest, with jokes by Pratchett on top form, along with some dreary purportedly-funny padding, by Frankie Howerd out of The Desert Song, which leads you to suppose that a few pages from some no-hope submission from the publisher’s slushpile somehow found their way into the manuscript, and the copy-editors were too bemused to notice and/or dare to object.
About two-thirds of the way through, this monstrous contraption starts to run out of steam. The plot twist doesn’t actually make a lot of sense, our hero’s hero just sort of fades away, and the book’s ending is a sudden, perfunctory well-goodnight-then on the doorstep when you were quite sure you were going to be asked in for a coffee. That aside, though, it’s a blast. You’ll love it.
Love can overlook imperfection, which is just as well or we’d all be very lonely. It’s only because 90% of The Gone-Away World is so very, very good that the 10% that sucks is so irritating. This book is the most beautiful girl in the world, but with a big red-and-white spot on the tip of her nose.