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Why I Stopped Reading: The Gone Away World

My brother doesn’t typically recommend books to me, he’s usually too busy doing other stuff to have a lot of time to ready. So when he sends me an email saying I should read Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World, I take note.

Trying to describe The Gone Away World is difficult. It’s post-apocalyptic novel that fuses humor and satire with ninjas, mimes, comic books and video game elements to create something that is definitely unique, at times laugh out loud funny but sadly, ultimately, exhausting to read.

In this future, the ultimate weapon makes people, places and things ‘Go Away’ and replaces them with a fantastical landscape where people’s nightmares come to life. Consequently, humanity has escaped into a walled civilization where pipes spray a mist to keep the ‘Gone Away’ at bay. The story starts with a fire raging at a particularly important pumping station and our hero and his team are called in to put it out, like a futuristic version of Red Adair’s oil well fighters.

Harkaway has a unique writing style that can best be described as the bastard love child of Marcel Proust and Minister Faust. If that sounds interesting, it is, when it’s firing on all cylinders. Which is the frustrating thing about the book, it rarely does so. Harkaway his prone to lengthy, excruciatingly detailed digressions and flashbacks, in fact the entire first 100 pages or so is one long flashback, peppered with pop culture references and riffs on comics, video games and a bunch of other stuff.

Some of this is really terrific. For instance, the narrator’s sensei (master of the ‘Voiceless Dragon’ fighting style) has an awesomely entertaining fight sequence against a bunch of assassin ninjas. Another scene has the narrator and his date being escorted on their night out by a spec ops team acting as waiters, cooks and maitre des, all while in the middle of a battle field. And lets not forget the digression on the efficacy of using sheep to detect landmines and the hilarious scene of a bunch of mimes entering what’s basically a biker bar and using their unique ‘skills’ to get out unscathed.

And that’s the big problem I had with The Gone Away World. The times when Harkaway nails his combination of satire, humor and scene are outstanding. Unfortunately, there is a long slog between them where the writing style and its digressions just wore me out. And being a long book with smallish type just adds that much more stuff to wade through. It was about 2/3 of the way through, after a major event happens to the narrator that I realized I didn’t care any more. Sure the good was great, but there wasn’t enough to keep me going. The weight of the book was oppressive and I wanted to be done with it all ready, so I decided to stop. Note that I am not saying this book is bad or the writing is sub-par. It isn’t. I am saying the style became repetitive and exhausting for me, but Harkaway does write well, specializing in nice turns of phrase. I just wish there was more of the stuff I liked.

Which is rather unfortunate because I’m guessing there is more good stuff in there, I just couldn’t bring myself to keep going (it had all ready taken me almost two weeks to get to where I was). Maybe someday I’ll go back and finish.

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

11 Comments on Why I Stopped Reading: The Gone Away World

  1. I’d have stuck the word “confused” in a few dozen times if I’d done a review of this one (I seem to remember doing one that was very similar in tone, but I can’t find it anywhere).

    I also remember saying that my impression was that if the editors had exercised a bit more influence/control, the book would probably have been a lot better (and a heck of a lot shorter – save the stupid mimes and ninjas for another story).

    Highly acclaimed for its “literary stylings”, GAW, in its final incarnation, was marketed to the wrong genre.  Instead of being shelved in the (ever-diminishing) SF&F section, it should have gone in the “literary stylings and/or epic poetry we’re not entirely sure” section.

    Don’t blame you at all for putting this one down.


  2. JP,Steve- I disagree. I’m with the brother on this one. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found neither the mimes or ninjas stupid. I thought they fit the world perfectly, where all the weird things that people imagine literally come to life. It’s unfortunate that one would stop reading the book 2/3 of the way through…Yes there are portions of the book where the story could be shortened, but I’ve found that with just about every book I have ever read.

    Nick Harkaway really brings things together in the last 1/3 of the book and I am surprised that the major event didn’t affect you at all. I also find it strange that you would describe multiple scenes in the book terrific, yet not have the motivation to finish the book.

    Turns out this is one of the most enjoyable reads I have had over the past few years…and I read a lot of SciFi =)

  3. I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to finish this book twice. I really did like the writing and I kept telling myself that this is a book I should enjoy. But I kept on getting weighed down with all the lengthy descriptions and found that I kept on losing the point of the narrative (maybe that’s just my ADD talking). I’ll go back to it eventually and try again because I think it will be worth the effort. I just need to make sure I have no other books on my reading list that I’m dying to get to, which rarely happens.

  4. I’ve gotta say, I thoroughly enjoyed this book when I read it, although I completley understand how, JP & Paul, it can prove to be a slog. I do think though that the manic inventiveness displayed in the last third needs the first two to provide the reader a suitable conection to the events and characters. It was patently bonkers though.

    A quick word on marketing though: In the UK botht the hardback and mass market editions of this book were marketed in the Fiction sections of most bookstores that I saw it in, including the one I worked in, but it would probably have been better suited to the science fiction & fantasy sections.


  5. Bill, unlike JP, I did finish it and the single largest criticism I can level against it (and that I stand behind) is that MUCH more editing, chopping and refining was required.

    It is one thing to go off on a bit of a tanget to develop your character(s);  it is another thing for a well-established author to play around, take you for a (comfortable) ride through their imagination that has little or nothing to do with the actual story – but this is not the prevence of a new author, nor for one who obviously has a penchant for long, narrative description.

    If the editors had imposed one simple rule – no more than two adjectives in a row in any single sentence – the book would have been a third shorter!

    I was also mislead by the marketing presentation of "science fiction";  this is a quasi fantasy/weird world/Burroughsian drug-induced fever dream, just about anything but SF.  As an SF novel it is internally illogical.

    Everyone’s MMV, but I’m glad I got an ARC of this thing rather than having purchased it off the shelf.

    I fully expect more and better from Harkaway – you can see the talent peeking through, but I almost get a sense that he’s writing "too hard" – covering up his real talent with extra verbiage because he’s not yet sure of himself and is over-writing in compensation.

  6. I really wanted to like this book because of the ninjas and the mimes and impetus behind including them in the story in a terrific manner. The rest of the book just didn’t live up to that ideal for me and as I said, the constant digressions and tangents left me exhausted. When I got to the point where I stopped, I wanted the book to be over all ready and when I realized I had over 100 more pages to read, I just gave up. 

    Besides, I had a book on top of my ‘to read’ pile that I really wanted to read, <b>Geosynchron</b>, so that’s what I did. I’ll keep an eye on Harkaway’s next books because I think with a bit of ironing he could have one hell of a rip roaring, hilarious story to tell.

    I believe the term I could use here would be ‘interesting failure’, which I had never fully thought about until now.

  7. I think there’s a very strong case for not reading the last 200 pages of the book.

    The novel builds beautifully to a grand revelation that ties all the strings together… and then it goes on for 200 pages so that the hero can fight evil corporate ninjas.

    I think it’s a lovely (if flawed novel) and I rate Harkaway as a writer because of his genuinely beautiful prose style and his control over atmosphere.  He’s not as good with narrative but I think that he’s a name to watch out for in the future and I am looking forward to his next book.

  8. It took me three attempts to get into it, but in the end it was my favourite book of 2008:



    You have to relax though, enjoy the ride and the long winding asides. Plus I loved the ending.

    Give it another go when you have the time to wallow in it.

  9. Meandering, schmearneding . . . this book will last.  It is the kind of book that creates its own audience. Trying to fit it into categories of genre, or suggesting that somehow you have insight onto some kind of editor’s scalpel (no two adjectives in a row) that would have improved the book, only underscores the uniqueness of the book, and the fact that no fucking way could you have written or imagined it.

    The last third is the payoff, like it or not. 

    I also could not get into it the first couple of times I tried.  I kept trying though, because it was recommended to me by my brother as well.  When I relaxed into the book, just as one must relax into “Moby Dick” and allow the author his digressions on cetalogy before magic starts to happen, I found myself in the midst of that elusive experience all readers seek, regardless of category, a book that became a friend, and that now that I’m finished with it, I miss, like you miss a friend.

    And for crying out loud, the mimes/ninjas thing?

    If you don’t like it, it’s just because you didn’t think of it.







  10. Do the comments above include the category ‘incredibly tedious’ style, in general.  A saving grace was its humor was not the ‘self prententious’ and ‘self conscious’ humor that one finds in Christopher Moore; the narrative does not need to stop each time you make a joke (Jesus took a whiz, LOL) so you can make sure I get the joke.  If I read over one hundred pages and find it still uninteresting as an author you’re most likely doing something very wrong (I think I learned something about this during my freshman college’s composition class).

  11. ghost palm // May 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm //

    i’m with you…but….i stuck it out the ending is awesome!!!

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