A DECADE AGO, Martin Amis declared war against cliché. With his 2008 debut Gone-Away World and now Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway, son of another famous author, has declared war on précis. Like an ADD magpie, he is distracted by each new shiny thing that comes his way; and he cannot bear not to tell us about every single one of them. Like a precocious schoolboy, he disarmingly stretches one-liners into routines, routines into tall stories, and tall stories into a gigantic one. Like Hitchcock at his shaggiest and doggiest, he is compelled to see just how much running around and promiscuous invention a McGuffin can sustain before the reader blinks and the whole thing collapses. If The Gone-Away World (a sprawling gonzo-phantasmagorical post-apocalyptic road movie that eschewed narrative discipline but included kung fu) was Harkaway’s Iain Banks novel, Angelmaker (full of peculiar characters, schemes and counterschemes, and automata that exemplify rival models of determinism) is his Neal Stephenson novel. But in place of Stephenson’s obsessive ravelings and unravelings of information theory, Harkaway deploys scientific and science-fictional conceits as just more — and yet more and more — ornamentation. All this with not one iota of regard for his reviewers and the impossible task he sets us.
And he more or less gets away with it, too, dammit, because his delight in telling (and telling and telling and telling) is so endearing that even when the execution wobbles a bit, when the wittiness becomes too studied or the tone too wearing or the elaboration of passing conceits too bloated … he soldiers on with unrelenting panache.
So, to précis, sort of. Joe Spork, like his grandfather, Daniel Spork (but not like his father, Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork, the dandy East End gangland legend) repairs clockwork mechanisms. Joe’s moribund trade is petering out just as surely as his vaguely-but-pervasively disenchanted thirtysomething bachelorhood:
I do boring things. I live a boring life … and I don’t do surprises. I’m recently single and I’m about to leave the 25-34 demographic for evermore. I like Chelsea buns the way they don’t make them these days and I fall in love with waifish, angry women who don’t think I’m funny.
But then of course (of course!) he finds himself entangled in a secret history, interlocking conspiracies, family secrets, a quest for the clockwork doomsday weapon known as the Apprehension Engine, and the sundry machinations of a murky government agency, a wacko cult, and an Asian supervillain (equal parts Fu Manchu, Ernst Blofeld, and Keyser Söze) who wants to use the Apprehension Engine to achieve apotheosis and to bring the universe to a standstill so as to retroactively make his ascendance to godhood its very telos. There is an octogenerian lesbian spy who, in a younger version in several chapters, swashes her saucy buckle like a premature Modesty Blaise through the doomsday weapon’s backstory; and there is a more contemporary, devastatingly competent hottie, who redeems the hapless Joe. There are skeletons in closets, mechanical bees, a dog called Bastion, a train called Ada Lovelace (that is even more top secret and high-tech than The Wild Wild West’s Wanderer) and a super-submarine (that is every bit as super as Nemo’s Nautilus or ...read more