It’s always something of a disappointment in my post-reading about a novel to discover a review which has summarized it so precisely as to render any opinion or words I can conjure, secondary. Such is the case with Nick Harkaway’s 2009 The Gone-Away World. In The Guardian, David Poole writes the novel is“…a bit like spending a week with a hyperactive puppy: there are delightful moments aplenty, but it's slightly wearing over the long run. Still, any author who has come up with the beautifully silly plan of melding a kung-fu epic with an Iraq-war satire and a Mad Max adventure has to be worth keeping an eye on.” Summing it up perfectly, this review will, accordingly, be brief.
As Poole insinuates, The Gone-Away World is exuberant fun. Foremost linguistically, I feel I should capitalize EXUBERANT FUN. Bending and twisting characters and dialogue into lexical elbows and knees, meaning is always clear but the approach angles and result are linguistic loops and swirls—anything but ordinary. From scene to syntax, there seems no digression untaken, which can be really engrossing, but also annoying. Here is one such digression (leading to several other digressions, before getting back on track):
In the distant past, in what might be described as the Golden Days of War, the business of wreaking havoc on your neighbours (these being the only people you could logistically expect to wreak havoc upon) was uncomplicated. You—the King—pointed at the next-door country and said, “I want me one of those!” Your vassals—stalwart fellows selected for heft and musculature rather than brain—said, “Yes, my liege,” or sometimes, “What’s in it for me?” but broadly speaking they rode off and burned, pillaged, slaughtered and hacked until either you were richer by a few hundred square miles of forest and farmland, or you were rudely arrested by heathens from the other side who wanted a word in your shell-like ear about cross-border aggression. It was a personal thing, and there was little doubt about who was responsible for kicking it off, because that person was to be found in the nicest room of a big stone house wearing a very expensive hat.
Little of Gonzo Lubic’s story is rendered in direct terms. Everything twisted humorously (overt to discrete, toilet to wordplay), his coming of age through life in the military, time as a truck driver, to first-hand experiencer of the Go-Away War is the definition of verbose. On more than one occasion the writing is up to the snuff of Michael Chabon and David Mitchell, which makes it all worthwhile, while in long stretches it can be too much—the puppy just not able to stop jumping and licking. Such a force, if you don’t like Harkaway’s prose, it’s impossible to enjoy the story. If you love his style, it will only enhance proceedings, as what lies beneath is a very standard comic book story.
While I would have added a Quentin Tarantino reference to Poole’s formula for The Gone-Away World to make it tip-top perfect, there’s no doubt he’s captured its sentiment. Readers bothered by more than standard uses of language and persistent digressions would do well to avoid, while readers who love to see the English language slathered in chocolate and bananas telling stories in over-the-top fashion would do well to buy the novel. It is, after all, a huge amount of linguistically bombastic fun. On that note, you see why Poole is paid and I’m not.