Friday, June 03, 2016

Book 43: I'm like two more reviews away from Nick Harkaway getting a restraining order against me.

It really says something about how great the first 90% of The Gone Away World is that the finale is the least memorable part of it -- especially because the finale is, itself, a phenomenal piece of writing that caps the story perfectly.

I've read The Gone Away World before, but I wanted to go back and read it again, so this time I did it on audiobook. What I was surprised about was that I remembered, almost verbatim, that first 9/10 of the story, but could only vaguely think of what happened after the big reveal in the story, the swiping aside of a curtain that moves the book from great to phenomenal. I think that's because, like I said, while the ending is great, what comes before it is so perfect as to obscure the closing chapters. It's like sitting on a sunny beach on a bright, calm day with a blue sky having just enough white fluffy clouds in it overhead, and in your hand is an icy drink and the sun is warm on your face, and off in the distance just barely audible a radio is playing a song you love from when you were 13, and your beautiful wife is lying next to you while your kids play in the breakers, and then someone puts Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel there, too. (The ending is the Sistine Chapel.) I can only think of two books that have made me think this: this one, and The Passage. In each the beginning part of the story is so overwhemlingly good that nothing could compare, it has to go down or at least not keep going up.

The Gone Away World is told from the perspective a nameless narrator who hangs on the edges of the life of his best friend, Gonzo Lubitch. He tags along with Gonzo, an athletic daring handsome guy who attracts all the attention and never wants for excitement, through growing up, learning martial arts, going to college, getting briefly abducted by the government and suspected of being a terrorist, getting forced into a shadowy branch of the military, ending up in a war on a small island that results in "The Go Away War," in which all the major countries use a new kind of bomb that takes away the information from matter, resulting in things just... disappearing. This has the unforeseen effect of leaving the world swarming with matter waiting to be formed into something, and when that matter comes close enough to a human mind, it goes through 'reification,' becoming what that person is thinking about. Because this results in a nightmarish sort of existence, a pipeline is built around the world to spray a chemical that neutralizes the free matter -- and then the pipeline is attacked, and Gonzo's crew has to fix it.

That all sounds complicated enough, but the book is so much more than that. Nick Harkaway crams the book full of characters and details and ideas and philosophies, and what's most amazing about it is that not a single one of them is wasted. Every single sidetrip down some minor character's past, every single conversation in a bar, every throwaway reference to bees or Tupperware -- both of which play major roles in the book -- ends up being absolutely integral to the book. It's amazing and awe-inspiring, even more so the second time around when I could really focus on the details. If you've ever seen a cartoon where someone like Bugs Bunny throws a bunch of bricks in the air and then they come down and form a perfect castle, then you know how it feels to finish a Nick Harkaway book. It's like reading a giant magic trick where he spend the first 2/3 of the book showing you a bunch of only-vaguely-related things and then at the end they resolve into a story that becomes almost four dimensional.

It's a book that's entertaining, but has enough action, thoughtfulness, and sentiment to make it feel like something more than 'mere' scifi. And throughout it, Harkaway's writing manages to be the smartest kid in the room but somehow still likeable: big words, new words, sentences that roll on and on like friendly hills, characters who come alive in two or three words of description. It's the kind of thing anyone who likes to write will be able to appreciate, the way people who like dancing would want to watch ballet: it's intricate in detail and simple in execution.

I know I rave about Harkaway every time I mention him, but his books really deserve it. Anyone who likes science fiction should read at least one of his books.  Probably more than once, because I really did enjoy this even more the second time around; I was able to focus more on the sidestories and little eddies of information, to think about the multi-leveled way the title works into the story (put it this way: more than one world disappears throughout the book.)  This one was so good that as soon as it was done I thought about just starting it over from the beginning to go through it a third time.  He's the only author I've ever written a fan letter to -- twice. (He's also the only author who I probably insulted when I left a comment on his Instagram where he was showing a banana bread he baked and I said at first I'd thought it looked like a slab of ground beef. I didn't mean it to be an insult. It's hard to get tone right in a comment on Instagram.)

There are things I like to do over and over in life. I like to go to the zoo, all the time. We have a free zoo in Madison. It's not very big, but it's big enough, and I go there about 4 times a year, even in winter. I like to go to the art museum over and over, too. Every year the boys and I go and wade up the river by the nature trail, swimming in the deep part and playing splash games. I do these things over and over because each time I do them they not only remind me of how great it was the last time I did them, but I get something new out of them again, and my enjoyment of them stretches back into the past to connect me with those earlier mes, but also stretched into the future, because of the knowledge that I will be doing this thing again sometime in the future, that future self of mine looking back on the present me and remembering each time how nice this thing was, and how I've enjoyed it so many times.

I've added reading Nick Harkaway books to that list.

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