Author: Nick Harkaway

2012, Knopf

Filed under: Literary, Mystery, Thriller

Nick Harkaway is an undeniably ambitious writer, a romantic, and an effusive stylist. These qualities can add up to a rollicking read like The Gone-Away World, where the characters and plot never stray far from established genre territory, but the vivacity and fun of the storytelling carries the day.

Or a romantic, ambitious stylist can turn in a bit of an overworked dud. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happened with Angelmaker. This time around, Harkaway entirely reinvents his voice and his subject matter, and winds up missing the mark.

The Gone-Away World follows a gang of post-apocalyptic heroes-for-hire as they try to save the world from an evil corporation/government. Harkaway packs the story with comedy and adventure, and he succeeds in making it a hell of a ride.

Angelmaker follows a clockmaker whose primary goal in life is to not become a gangster. Harkaway, staying true to the voice of a staid clockmaker, reigns in the rambunctiousness, and the whole thing feels much flatter as a result, more like a chore than a rollercoaster. It took me three months to finish reading it, and I’m one of Harkaway’s biggest fans.

Joe Spork, our clockmaker, is the son of Mathew Spork, a very famous gangster and the leader of a vast criminal brotherhood. Spork does not want to be a gangster himself, and he wants nothing to do with the criminals who adore him. He wants to live a quiet, boring life. Which makes for a quiet, boring character. His voice goes like this:

Under normal circumstances he shies away from the idea that he is what a certain class of crime novel calls an habitue of the demi-monde, by which it is implied that he knows gamblers and crooks and the men and women who love them. For the moment, he is prepared to acknowledge that he still lives somewhat on the fringes of the demi-monde in exchange for not having to talk about it.

This style—which does not fit a character named after a piece of novelty cutlery—mercilessly bogs down the proceedings. Harkaway has the wit and panache to write fun prose, and he’s clearly holding back in order to emphasize Spork’s inevitable transformation into a dashing crime lord. (That transformation is inevitable because if the novel does not use the criminal brotherhood, there’s no reason for it to exist.)

And I’m fine with that. I understand holding back early in order to make a dramatic moment when Spork changes, but that change doesn’t come until page 350, out of 475, and by that point I’m lost.

During those first 350 pages, almost every non-Spork character is more charming and fun than he is, but Spork gets the majority of the narrative. Certain all-too-brief interludes—like one about a “girl superspy” who infiltrates a psychotic dictator’s inner circle—are great fun, but they made me positively dread sinking back into Spork’s narration.

Also, Harkaway tends to bury his best lines in rolling fields of bland wordiness. For example, after Edie Banister (the girl superspy grown old) has to shoot one of the villains’ henchmen, Harkaway gives us this amusing passage:

The trouble with shooting people, Edie Banister now remembers, is that it’s so hard to do just one. Having shot her would-be assassin, and now being, as it were, on the lam, she has to return to her former quite abstemious attitude and not just shoot anyone who impedes her passage. She has already had to speak to herself quite firmly about nearly shooting two irritating pedestrians and a slow driver.

That’s a nice joke, but it could be better. It could be cut down, and it hews a little too close to Spork’s boring voice—but the main problem is that Harkaway digs it a grave. The next few sentences:

She is positively proud not to have ventilated Mr. Hanley, the street-sweeper, who popped up behind her as she was leaving and wished her good morning, and she is really astonished at her own good behaviour in not shooting Mr. Crabbe, who was merely walking by on the other side of the street, but whom she has never liked.

This is why Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Longer is almost never funnier. This might seem like nitpicking, but that last sentence adds another 59 words, almost doubling the length of the paragraph, and slowing the pace by half. Over the course of a (long) novel, these eddies add up to a swamp.

That said, if you enjoyed those passages, you stand a good chance of enjoying the book—such is the nature of Harkaway’s style-first approach. It will help, too, if you can entirely suspend your disbelief. Harkaway’s romanticism leads him to always shoot for the grand gesture—the bombastic super-villain, the over-the-top plot twist. Sometimes these grand gestures are utterly charming. Other times—too often in Angelmaker—they can capsize the feeling of a consistent fictional world.

One of the primary recurring themes of this novel is clockwork. That would seem to suggest that even complex artifacts have visible, logical inner workings. The clockwork world eschews even the obscured operations of electronics—everything in this arena should have a clear, simple explanation.

But Harkaway’s tendency toward the grand gesture cannot contain itself within such boundaries. The plot revolves around an engine that unexplainably creates absolute truth, and the superhuman villain commands an army of magical, faceless monks who can leap off four-story buildings (a high enough fall to kill a human), hit the ground like a sack of beans, and then hop up and run away.

The Gone-Away World worked so well because a surreal post-apocalypstic setting gave Harkaway the freedom to indulge his most absurd whims without jangling the tone he established early on. Angelmaker, both in style and premise, carefully establishes a world that’s realistic to the point of mundanity, so it feels a bit silly when Harkaway indulges his fantastical imagination to such a degree.

All that said, the third act of Angelmaker rips along magnificently, and without Joe Spork’s wet-blanket attitude and his plodding prose, this could’ve been a pretty fun book. Unfortunately, Joe Spork is not an optional feature.

Harkaway’s a rare talent, and I’ll be reading his next novel without question, but this one is a miss.

Similar reads: The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway; Reamde, by Neal Stephenson