Tag Archives: Contemporary Literature & Fiction

The Gone-Away World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gone-Away World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Nick Harkaway.

Harkaway The Gone-Away World

Although I came to this novel on the basis of my appreciation of a later work by the same author, it made an eerily good match for the most recent feature film I enjoyed. If you liked the martial arts action, twisted humor, melodramatic pathos, and reality-warping mindfuckery of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, you might find that Nick Harkaway’s doorstop 2008 first novel actually delivers a kindred experience.

The Gone-Away World contains about half a dozen major anagnorises or revelatory plot pivots, each with perfectly adequate narrative preparation and often outright foreshadowing. After getting caught with my pants down by a couple of these, I got really vigilant, paying special attention to what the story hadn’t told me at that point, and my effort was rewarded with being able to anticipate the next big surprise by maybe two or three pages. Then as I kept on reading, feeling pleased with myself, I got surprised again! (Well, I sort of saw that coming.) And again! (OMG, how could I fail to have seen that coming!) It was like losing a sparring bout.

The semi-fantastic post-apocalyptic setting is definitely sui generis (although comparisons others have made to Vonnegut have some merit), and it took me a few of the book’s longish chapters to get comfortable with the narrative framing. But even before that point I found the prose fast-moving and congenial.

There’s possibly an allegory here, certainly a parable. I had to wonder if Harkaway named “FOX”–“the gunk … inFOrmationally eXtra-saturated” (259) that stabilizes reality after the Go Away War has totally disrupted it– as a conscious poke at US propaganda media. The book takes aim at even bigger troubles, though, if you want to read it that way. The repeated tacit references to Andromeda in the final arc were poignant.

On the whole, I liked this novel a lot and found it to be a lively ride. It fell a little short of the tremendously high esteem I have for Harkaway’s Gnomon, but that’s hardly grounds to dismiss it. It is perhaps, as I’ve seen some suggest, more accessible than the later book, while still delivering a considerable taste of what the writer has to offer.

Ares Express

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ares Express [Amazon, Local Library] by Ian McDonald.

McDonald Ares Express

Ares Express is classed as a sequel to the author’s wonderful far-future Mars story Desolation Road. As I anticipated, the continuous characters from Desolation Road are few and somewhat peripheral. It would be a fine stand-alone read, and no one should avoid it for lack of familiarity with the previous volume.

Unlike his first Martian book with its sprawling ensemble, McDonald really focuses this one on the single heroine Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th, and the time-frame of the story is much briefer, so McDonald doesn’t pull off the same astonishing combination of little stories adding up to a big one. Although he still manages to avoid the word Mars throughout the novel, he also furnishes a lot of additional information about the fourth planet and its history, religions, and relations to “Motherworld,” in ways that are more direct than those of Desolation Road

“Naked to our lens, human imagination had engineered its surface. Whether watered by slow canals, galloped across by green or red barbarians; contemplated by a wistful autumn people; the little world next one out, unlike the other globes in the system, rocky or smothered with steam, had always possessed a geography. Names were written on its skin.” (251-2)

Ares Express is full of thematic and iconic connections to Peter Pan. Sweetness kicks off the events of the book by fleeing her arranged wedding: she doesn’t want to grow up, at least not in the way dictated by her family — part of the engineer caste perpetually living on the massive nuclear-powered trains that serve as the principal long-distance transport on Mars. The Captain Hook role is occupied by Devastation Harx, a cult leader attempting to incite planetary cataclysm from his airship cathedral. The book is chock-full of urchins and micro-societies of voluntary castaways. 

While the central course of events in Ares Express make up a coming-of-age novel, the most significant secondary plot-line features the adventures of Sweetness’ Grandmother Taal in her efforts to rescue the girl (and the planet). As a counterpoint to the rollicking cinematic action of Sweetness’ journey, Grandmother Taal’s story is more literary and episodic.

It’s no wonder to me that McDonald took about thirteen years to finish a second Mars story — his vision is too fine to waste on a rush job, and it’s clear that he had the necessary inspiration to continue here. Maybe there’ll be a third someday!

The Third Policeman

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Third Policeman [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Flann O’Brien, introduction by Denis Donoghue.

O'Brien The Third Policeman

I am puzzled by the jacket copy on the John F. Byrne Irish Literature Series edition of The Third Policeman, which calls it a “brilliant comic novel.” Surely, this story is dark as dark can be, and portrays a tragedy with exacting, clinical detail. The tale is in fact profoundly absurd, and checkered with the narrator’s preoccupation with a perverse body of scholarship surrounding a narcoleptic alchemist. But that’s bicycling for you.

To experience the full effect of this novel, I recommend avoiding advance glosses of the plot, although the plot is really only a fraction of the value of reading it, but this plot is reeled out in an unusual and impressive manner. Moreover, such glosses tend to have inaccuracies, like the jacket copy’s misconception that the “narrator … is introduced to … de Selby’s view that the earth is not round but ‘sausage-shaped'” while at the police station, when in fact he has clearly done his exhaustive study of de Selby long before.

The 1999 introduction by Denis Donoghue insists on quoting a piece of a letter from author Flann O’Brien to William Saroyan, in which the ending of the book is perfectly spoiled. This same letter excerpt also appears at the end of the book, having been appended by the editors at the original (posthumous) 1967 publication, apparently in the belief that readers might need this assistance after failing to comprehend what they had read, despite it being as plainly put as possible. Donoghue’s introduction is otherwise worth reading (after the novel), with its brief biography of O’Brien (pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan) and a debatable attempt to classify the book as Menippean satire.

But the real attraction of this book is the wonderful language, which alternates among three modes. There are artful descriptions of imponderables. “The silence in the room was so unusually quiet that the beginning of it seemed rather loud when the utter stillness of the end of it had been encountered” (105). There are careful reviews of academic argumentation. “His conclusion was that ‘hammering is anything but what it appears to be’; such a statement, if not open to explicit refutation, seems unnecessary and unenlightening” (144-5 n). And there are personal encounters featuring ambivalent dialogues in spare and careful language. “And as I went upon my way I was slightly glad that I had met him” (49).

The book is organized into twelve chapters. If these reflect an esoteric infrastructure such as astrological houses, I haven’t persuaded myself so. The pace of the prose is fast, even if the pace of events described is sometimes so slow as to be entirely immobile. The Third Policeman had been on my virtual TBR pile for many years, and my actual one for some months, when I finally read it in a matter of a few days. Alas, I may read it again!