The Gone-Away World - Nick Harkaway Kurt Vonnegut Jr! T. Coraghessan Boyle! Joseph Heller (maybe)! Tom Robbins! and now it appears that Nick Harkaway can be added to the list of humanistic, cynical, insanely creative authors who truck in wild & wooly tales that blur the boundaries between reality & fantasy and are filled with enormous digressions, bizarre conundrums, slippery plot twists, and the kind of dark irony that feels like a surprise smack to the head.

>the following review contains the occasional spoiler, sorry<

The Gone-Away World is about a terrible war that destroys most of the world. It is about the weapons used in the war and that changed the world; it is about the psychosis behind what caused the war. It has two heroes - a brave & thoughtless alpha type and his quiet & thoughtful beta best friend - and their past lives (a Lot of their past lives), growing up & going to school & joining the military & falling in love. It is about the nature of friendship. It is about identity. It is about conformism & corporatization and the relationship between those two things. It has ninjas & mimes & dreams made real. It has an absolutely stunning twist that comes about two-thirds of the way through the book, the kind of wonderfully mind-boggling twist that forces the reader to re-evaluate everything that has come before. It is a book that often flirts with brilliance - when it is not too busy being remarkably tangential and self-indulgent.

The book is not for everyone. Well, what book is? If you are familiar with the authors I mentioned above, then you will be familiar with its particular sort of tone. The voice is jokey. Aggressively loopy and lighthearted, even during brutal scenes. It can be somewhat hard to take over an extended period of time - and this is a long book. And then there are the digressions.

- I'm a digressive person. I think it is a part of my charm (oh and I got lots of that) but I also know that it is something that confounds and sometimes annoys people. Me and my tangents and my little jokes. I see that glassy look in the eye that some people get when I go off and into the blue. Most people just don't even get what I'm talking about, they just wait til I'm finished and then get back to what we were talking about because who has the time to figure out all of my references? One night during a council meeting break I was talking to a fellow council member about Doctor Who and how much we love that show. When I reconvened the meeting there was a motion to eliminate some funding for a program deemed redundant; I responded by saying "Exterminate! Exterminate!" in a robotic voice. Clearly this was a tribute to Doctor Who's robotic villains the Daleks as well as a subtle critique of the council's bloodthirsty need to eliminate funding. But everyone had that glassy look in their eyes as I tried to explain, including - horribly - that one council member who was a fellow Doctor Who fan. Sigh.

But back to the book. The Gone-Away World: not for everyone. Readers who are automatically attracted to the plot synopsis (futuristic society, futuristic war, futuristic weapons... dreams made real, bizarre monsters, ninjas...) may find themselves trapped in a book that is distinctly not a genre novel and probably should not be considered as straight-up science fiction or fantasy. So, genre readers, beware. You may not find what you are looking for and you may end up being frustrated, bored, and wishing you had embarked on a different journey. Trust me, I've seen the aggravated reviews! So consider yourself warned. This is not a scifi novel filled with robots, speculative science, etc. And then of course, to potentially frustrate you further, there are the digressions.

- There have been quite a few people in my life who have named me Best Friend. There was Marc in South Bend; hey, he was also my first love. There was John and Michelle in Virginia Beach; fortunately there was no rivalry because we were all best friends together. There's Marcy in Orange County; we shared a love of acerbic put-downs & arguing & of course our inherently queer nature. There was J-P and Ian in San Diego; unfortunately in this case there was a rivalry and the two detested each other - which was awkward because we all lived together in one tiny apartment. Sorta funny to contemplate because J-P is rather flaming while Ian is resolutely straight. Were they competing for my bisexual soul? Since then there's Brian, Steve, Scott, Jill, and Graham. Is there a common thread to all these close friends? I suppose one thread may be that those friends were both similar to me yet completely different. We complemented each other in important ways. I was assertive to John's inwardness, calm to Marcy's anger, an anchor to J-P's flights of fancy, John Waters to Ian's Barry Levinson (hello, Baltimore), a balance to Steve's chaos, and now a terminal nerd to Graham's timeless cool guy. Oh, Graham. Will Rachel read this review and report back? I sure hope not. Skip this review, Rachel.

But back to the book. I'm reminded that one of the things that really appealed to me was its contemplation of friendship. This is a truly sweet-natured novel and its thoughts on the nature of 'best friends' are likewise sweet. I don't know if Harkaway is exactly saying that best pals complement each other in a yin & yang way - and the crazy twist of the book actually rather undercuts that idea. But it is a fetching concept and I really responded to it on a personal level. I also responded to its ongoing take on How to Avoid Being a Part of the Machine.

- I was a part of the Machine! I worked for AIG! I fooled myself into thinking that it didn't really matter due to the fact that I also lived in a really counterculture world and had crazy anarchist thoughts and demonstrated and went to jail for my beliefs and was a queer radical and etc etc etc. I fooled myself into thinking that as long as I thought differently from my AIG cohorts that I wasn't really like them, not at all, no way. But that was nonsense. I may have thought differently but I was still a cog in the machine. Actions are what count and my actions were those of a cog. Happily, I grew up and got the fuck out of Dodge, goodbye AIG, fuck you corporate culture.

The Gone-Away World's contempt for conformist thought and corporate culture is beyond withering. The whole novel acts as a ferocious assault on both. That ferocity and the constancy of Harkaway's critiques - filtered through the novel's resolutely cheery, goofy absurdism, so don't think this is some kind of angry political tract - are both a strength and a weakness. The weakness: Harkaway has picked such an exceedingly easy target that at times it gets a bit much. A bit drop-out-of-society/hippy dippy/Fuck The Man/etc. A bit eye-rolling. Or maybe I just have a knee-jerk reaction to easy targets.

But it is also a real strength. Harkaway is super clever and his frontal assault on conformism goes in many surprising and thought-provoking directions. At one point the terrible changes that can happen when being exposed to Gone-Away weapons are paralleled to the gradual change a cog in the machine can go through as they slowly lose their individuality and empathy to the bottom line and to being safe in the company of like-minded people. People can turn into monsters in different kinds of ways, in books and out of them. I really feel that idea. Also, ninjas are inherently conformist! At some level, I always knew that. Stupid conformist ninjas, ugh, they're the worst.

Anyway, fun book! It's a head trip and an adventure and it also hates conformism, so what's not to like? It is also hella digressive but hey I'm not the sort who really minds that.

Plus a plush pink cover that is really cool and original and velvety to the touch! Not sure the texture of the cover has anything to do with the novel but maybe I'm missing something. I really like the feeling of that cover. It would be sorta neat to have a bed cover made of that material. Except not pink. And maybe not for my bed. I'm not sure if that would make my cat very happy as it's not a very cat-friendly texture. But what is a cat-friendly texture? I suppose something that feels like a cat post. Ah, cats. I love cats! I wonder what my cat is doing now. Digsy, where are you? I love Digsy. Such a sweet cat.