Nick Harkaway's first book, The Gone Away World, was a dazzling, frustrating, beguiling romp with an ingenious final twist that pulled everything together marvelously. His long-awaited second novel, Angelmaker, is is equally dazzling and frustrating — but more than anything, it leaves you feeling as though Harkaway's penchant for genre mashups has resulted in something really new.
Call it existential pulp, a genre in which everything is redolent of comic books and action serials, but there are also serious questions about the nature of existence and personhood being asked. Spoilers ahead...
Top image via Tom Jennings
Of course, you could argue that this sort of thing has been done before. There are tinges of pulp in Infinite Jest, for example. You could call this genre "slipstream," a label that was in vogue a while back. But I think calling Angelmaker pomo or slipstream really undersells just how pulpy this book really is. It is outrageously pulpy, to the point where almost everybody talks in speech balloons and a major character is named Shem Shem Tsien the Opium Khan. Everything is larger than life and so colorful it almost blows out your retina, and it's all tinged with nostalgia for World War II and for the glory days of London gangsters. It's a love letter to pulp novels and pulp adventures.
And the clever thing about Angelmaker — the thing that rescues it from the moments where it feels overindulgent — is the way it fuses the pulp and existentialist elements. Fundamentally, this is the story of a young(ish) hero, Joe Spork, who is Finding Out Who He Really Is, in the grand tradition of a thousand pulp heroes. But at the same time, the threat that Joe Spork combats is one of Erasure of the Self — there is a doomsday weapon, the Apprehension Engine, which has the power to do something totally horrible to one's sense of self and reality. (I'm not going to give too many spoilers for what the Apprehension Engine actually does, partly because there are about four different explanations in the novel, and they all seemed a bit contradictory and confusing to me.)
In fact, I'm not really going to provide much in the way of spoilers for Angelmaker, because it really works better if you discover it on your own. Here's what the publisher wants you to know about it:
Joe Spork spends his days fixing antique clocks. The son of infamous London criminal Mathew "Tommy Gun" Spork, he has turned his back on his family's mobster history and aims to live a quiet life. That orderly existence is suddenly upended when Joe activates a particularly unusual clockwork mechanism. His client, Edie Banister, is more than the kindly old lady she appears to be-she's a retired international secret agent. And the device? It's a 1950s doomsday machine. Having triggered it, Joe now faces the wrath of both the British government and a diabolical South Asian dictator who is also Edie's old arch-nemesis. On the upside, Joe's got a girl: a bold receptionist named Polly whose smarts, savvy and sex appeal may be just what he needs. With Joe's once-quiet world suddenly overrun by mad monks, psychopathic serial killers, scientific geniuses and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe, he realizes that the only way to survive is to muster the courage to fight, help Edie complete a mission she abandoned years ago and pick up his father's old gun . . .
Joe is torn between his watchmaker grandfather and his gangster father, and he's grown up with the mythology that his father was a terrible person and his grandfather a saint. And slowly, over the course of the novel, he comes to discover that the truth is much, much more complicated than he ever believed. And even as he discovers the real truth about his origins, he also changes from someone who's determined to follow in his grandfather's footsteps, as a sweet, orderly watchmaker, to being much more his own man.
And meanwhile, the Mad Monks mentioned in the synopsis above are actually what's left of the Ruskinites, who were an order devoted to John Ruskin, the art critic and philosopher, who worshipped the idea of the handmade and the craftsmanlike. There is a sense running through Angelmaker that the old world, the world that was lost with World War II and the decades that followed, had a romance and beauty to it, that both Joe's father and grandfather represent in different ways — the watchmaker and the flamboyant gangster.
Joe Spork himself is not a very engaging character for the first half of the book — he's almost excruciatingly passive, to set up a transformation that happens to him later on — but meanwhile we get a series of flashbacks and interludes featuring another protagonist: Edie Bannister, the 90-year-old woman who starts off all the trouble in the first place. She's a classic creation, a batty old lady with an eyeless, one-toothed dog, who was a master spy 50 years ago. The flashbacks to Edie's swashbuckling spy career, including her rivalry with the aforementioned Shem Shem Tsien and her romance with a young physics genius, Frankie Fossoyeur, are probably the biggest highlight of the book.
But the book, honestly, is bursting with cleverness and humor — its biggest problem is that it has no low gear. We meet an endless succession of colorful characters and swing through a huge string of hilarious, weird, jarring situations. It's so over the top, it redefines where the top is. Luckily, Harkaway also hasn't lost his touch for brilliant turns of phrase, and the narrator describes the simplest actions with a flair that makes them feel vivid and tactile. All of the sections, early in the book, where Joe Spork examines clockwork mechanisms or puzzles out the hidden meaning of a piece of machinery, are particularly brilliant and help sustain the sense that this is a world of clever mechanisms.
All in all, Angelmaker feels like a worthy companion to The Gone Away World, both of them featuring many of the same preoccupations and similar characters. They both feature a hero discovering who he really is, and a mysterious, abstract weapon that can affect the very fabric of reality in some way. And they both suggest that the real fabric of the universe is its capacity to burst with sheer numbers of colorful people and strange incidents. What Angelmaker really adds to the Harkaway canon, though, is the sense that pulpy adventures are a means to explore deep questions about the universe and our place in it. [Amazon]