Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway shouldn't work. It's a book that's kind of like the meals you make after you've been shut in your house for a week or so, cobbled together from the “provisions” way back in the cupboard; you know the long grain rice you bought on a health kick, the Chinese five spice you got for that one recipe, the canned salmon that's always been there. You throw it all together in the pot, because you're tired and you've been watching anime on Hulu for a week, and maybe you've been drinking, OK, you've totally been drinking, but who can blame you, I mean, have you read the news lately, and somehow, staggering and chaotic, the result is fantastic.

Angelmaker is the story of Joe Spork, clockmaker and grandson of England's last great outlaw, who finds himself unwittingly turning on a machine built by a brilliant French scientist with the highest of ideals during WWII, that could destroy the world. Once you've reached the big transition in the story, you realize just how much of the beginning is exposition, set up, establishing of the conflict of the characters. Maybe two-thirds of the book is background and character development, which you don't often see in what could be described as an adventure story. And boy, does Joe spend a lot of time thinking about how he just wanted to keep his warehouse and fix clocks. To make matters worse, the first part is rather flashbacky, telling the story of British super-spy Edie Banister and her lifelong conflict, starting about WWII, with a villain with god-like aspirations named Shem Shem Tsien. And then when the pace of events pick up and things start happening all over the place, rather than weaving together a single narrative Harkaway just breaks up all the events and lays them out in short, sometimes single paragraph long, sections. I mean, Harkaway even uses The Fred Weasley (which to me, will always be The Boromir because it was written first, but well, such is pop culture.) This is not how novels work.

And yet...

And Joe Spork shouldn't work either. He's an old tired form of a character. When the story opens Joe Spork is a mild-mannered clockmaker, who played by the rules, and wanted a quiet life of working on clocks and mechanisms only hoping for a little bit of love and comfort from the world. Well, right then you know he is completely and totally fucked. So it's no surprise when he is tortured for five days by a shadowy arm of the government. You've met Joe Spork hundreds of times, in hundreds of different books. But... I'm not sure he's ever been this interesting.

And what do you call this thing anyway? It's like Nick Haraway shook a whole bunch of books and tropes and images from the back of his brain into a blender, hit the button, and walked away to make an Old Fashioned, or maybe check his email. There's a good bit of steam punk in here. Some late Philip K. Dick with the idea of identity replication and transmission through data recording. Plenty of Jules Verne. Some Dickens London underworld business. And the idea of the world being destroyed by the truth couldn't have happened without post-modernism. Parts of it read like what you'd expect from a penny dreadful; you know, Opium Khans, automatons, baby war elephants, and all that. Also, Ruskinites building trains and submarines. It's the kind of brain-stormy mash-up that happens after you and your friends have been mixing your cocktails a little to stiff and a little too tall for a little too long and you decide to finally get all those brilliant movie ideas down on paper. It shouldn't come together.


Despite all the different styles and elements of Angelmaker, the one book it reminded me most of was, say it with me now, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Why? What did you say? James Wormold sells vacuum cleaners in Havana. The only thing he wants to do with his life is support his daughter Milly. Selling vacuum cleaners isn't doing it, so he connects with MI6. Unfortunately, MI6 only pays him when he sends them information and he really doesn't have any. So, he gives them information. He even passes off a schematic for a vacuum cleaner as a schematic for some horrifying Soviet destruction machine. And then, well, things get interesting. It is absolutely preposterous. I mean, it assumes that the rocket and missile people back in England don't know enough about rockets and missiles to spot when a schematic would never make a rocket or missile anything. It's also brilliant and hilarious and perfectly captures the self-delusions that drove much of the Cold War. For satirizing the systems of power, Our Man in Havana is up there with The Man Who Was Thursday and Catch-22.

Angelmaker doesn't reach that level of social significance, but it is the best kind of entertainment. Harkaway trusts his readers to keep in all straight in their heads, he leaves in much of the science and a whole lot of the talking, he brandishes the outlandish (a submarine made of ice!) with glee, he injects new life into old forms, and he tells a ripping spyscifipicarvenromanture novel, that's about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on (assuming that's how you read).

This is usually the part in the review about “breaking all the rules” of writing, where the critic talks about how the creative writing professor would fail this manuscript or imagines all the things the conscientious editor would beg Harkaway to cut, blah, blah, blah, look at how I see through the conventions of “traditional” storytelling, and all that. I have to admit, that idea sounds true and it sounds good and it gives the critic a few very handy “concluding,” phrases, but the idea is really just setting a riding lawn mower on a field of scarecrows. The only “rule” there has ever been about writing is: “Make the reader think and/or feel,” and the other “rules” that appear to have developed aren't rules so much as they are best practices; shit that has worked before. And people have always written against and in response to those best practices, finding new ways to make readers feel and think. There is really only one lesson we can draw about storytelling from Angelmaker (or any other excellent book); Nick Harkaway is a damn good storyteller.

1 comment:

  1. Yes he is. And I like your image of books and tropes in the blender!