Pirates, Ninjas and Apocalypse

My pursuit of great literature over the last year or two, Alison, my intellectual sherpa, has led me through books about comic strip artists, hermaphrodites, dysfunctional families, book dealers, losers in New Orleans and the magical world of Oz. On the verge of giving up on great books about ninjas, pirates and apocalypse, I suddenly discovered that The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway, has all three … and more.

I lucked into this book. Alison warned me before we went to Michigan for a week that we’d spend a lot of our time quietly in front of her parents’ wood-burning stove, and I forgot to bring fresh reading material. She had a stack of books but I immediately discarded most of them as “chick” material. At the bottom … The Gone-Away World, one of the best books I’ve read in recent years.

By reviewing books, I hope to encourage people to read the things that I’ve enjoyed, so I have to be careful to avoid spoilers. A (very) brief synopsis, then: our nameless hero spends several dozen pages in the present, then promptly lapses into a 300-page recitation of his past, taking him through childhood and adolescence. Over that time, he achieves a best friend named Gonzo, becomes a practitioner of gong-fu, a subversive, an operative and a soldier, and watches as the world as we know it comes to an end and a nascent system of human survival is born. A few more pages in the present … and then the book undertakes one of the most original, interesting and jolting plot twists I’ve ever read.

That’s going to have to do it for you. I won’t go into where the pirates and ninjas come in, except to say that it isn’t as brazenly boy-book as it sounds. There is a surprisingly poignant love story woven throughout the book, and an inspirational conflict of characters reacting to the end of the world — some as we’d want to, versus some as we’d expect people to. Honestly, I’d like to see this book translated into a graphic novel. The story is that good.

A great novel – and this one is – is about more than terrific story, though. Harkaway (the son of John La Carre, as I’ve subsequently come to learn) weaves together some great characters. They are as logical in retrospect as they are varied, and his concept of the story he is trying to tell is clearly reflected in his choice of the why behind each character’s traits and actions. Robert McKee could find no fault in the construction of the story; the details are Steinbeckian in their richness, even as Harkaway restrains himself to include only those points the reader needs to grasp the essential happening of each phase of the story.

You will find yourself reading every word of this book. One detail or comment or event leads to the next, and to the next – you can’t skim pages. That doesn’t slow the story because the whole thing is such a rollicking good time. More than that is the way Harkaway tells the story. It reads like stream of consciousness, if you were an amazingly clever and observant person who has a very deep reference drawer. Harkaway’s way of describing even mundane events gives you the sense that something quirky and interesting has happened.

Finally, the imagination that has gone into this story is extraordinary. It’s a rare man who can craft a grown-up book involving ninjas, pirates, gong-fu, war and love without making it either cheesy or an epic revenge story. Even the way that the world “goes away” in the way is a fascinating science fiction idea. This is a story that takes a little commitment from the reader on the front end. The apocalypse is not the Mad Max-type, with badass motorcyclists running around in S&M costumes, so it takes a little bit of time to understand what is happening and why. The story shines through, though, and the farther you get into the book, the more you’ll love it. Spend a week or two with this book. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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