Mining the Great Midden of Genre

By Mark BouldJune 21, 2012

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

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 Admiral Nelson’s Seaview) called Cuparah, which is apparently Hindi, or possibly Gujarati, for “shut up.”

There are characters with names such as Cummerbund and Titwhistle (“Those are our actual names, I’m afraid. Life is capricious”). There is a brotherhood of undertakers, an omnicompetent firm of lawyers who are actually good guys, kind of, and a criminal demimonde that owes as much to The Ladykillers as it does to Brighton Rock, to Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates as it does to Oliver Twist. There is a sort-of multicultural London, less fantastical but more implausible than that of China Miéville’s Kraken (both novels allude to the 1975 comedy film One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing). There are rescues by war elephants and a serial killer. There are excursions, alarums, shenanigans, malarkey, and inappropriateness. And an ending that looks like it might have borrowed a trick or two from Miéville’s The Scar, but on closer examination bears (surely not!) a dishearteningly uncanny resemblance to the dénouement of Next, Lee Tamahori’s dreadful, Nicolas Cage-starring Philip K. Dick adaptation. All of which is rippingly yarned with a very English diffidence, a simulacral tone that teeters continually on the verge of the parodic (for example, Harkaway’s depiction of the Cornish is so absurdly caricatured that, if the jacket bio did not tell us he was born in Cornwall, one might suspect he had never been west of Oxford).

But does it all add up to anything? Is Angelmaker more than the sum of its (admittedly huge and delightful heap of) parts?

Some reviewers have fallen for the shtick about Joe not wanting to be like his father, assuming it offers insight into Harkaway’s relationship with John Le Carré and the tensions and expectations being his son must surely have imposed; and some have connected this to the sense of belatedness that haunts the novel. The latter is the more interesting point; but the former is a quasi-Oedipal con, a low-down genre move, an irresistible auctorial gag, and a clichéd first-novel compulsion made over as a reviewer-taunting second-novel riff that also indicates how even the most formulaic Spielbergism can be imbued with meaning and significance. But in terms of belatedness, the question with which Harkaway wrestles throughout Angelmaker is not how to write about covert British intelligence agencies in the shadow of Le Carré (or, indeed, how to write picaresque adventures after Tobias Smollett and George MacDonald Fraser or espionage adventures after Ian Fleming and Peter O’ Donnell, or how to write about London after Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle and alongside Miéville and Ben Aaronovitch, or how to write comedies about the affectations of British social classes after P.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python, or how to write about everything you can think of after Thomas Pynchon). Rather, it is the relationship between the particular and the general, between novel and genre, between genre’s creative profligacy and the middlebrow tendency to reify such liveliness as formula.

Harkaway belongs to a generation of British writers who learned respect for the craft, and craftiness, of genre from David Pringle’s magazine Interzone, from the cadre of the British sf boom, and from the cod-pronouncements and anti-manifestoes of the New Weird. Consequently, it is no surprise that this bumper book for boys is populated by Ruskinites and their ilk, people who champion artisanship over commodity production. Or that the true horror of the dreadful Apprehension Engine is that it threatens to close down quantum uncertainty, thus precipitating a heat-death of the universe that would reduce chaotic, non-linear dynamics to Newtonian linear determinism. Normally, one might expect such an argument to be wielded by some ill-informed literatus denouncing genre-as-formula, but crafty crafting Harkaway knows full well that such an ideologeme is itself formulaic and thus wide open for repurposing and transformation. For Harkaway’s art is a termite art (albeit without Manny Farber’s preferred economy of expression) that burrows in and through and beyond the great midden of genre. And in Angelmaker, manic munificent midden-mining Harkaway returns once more giddy with it all, and insanely generous — generous, some might say, to a fault.


LARB Contributor

Mark Bould teaches film and literature at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. He co-edits the Studies in Global Science Fiction monograph series, and his latest book is The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso, 2021).


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