The Gone-Away World is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. A sprawling adventure spanning decades, it never misses a chance to laugh at the absurdity of life as—as the narrator so aptly puts it—hairless mammals. I always appreciate this outlook, because we are ridiculous, highly flawed creatures making our way as best we can.
The story begins in a bar in what appears to be the wilderness, but we soon find out to be postapocalyptic England—sort of. A mini-disaster has just happened, a large fire burning up the pipe that is the lifeline to the entire region, and our narrator is a member of the crew called in to put it out. What is the Jorgmund Pipe, exactly, and what is FOX, the necessary ingredient for life on earth? We go back to the beginning of the narrator’s life to find out what happened before, during, and after the Go Away War that made the world what it is today.
From here, the novel covers everything—a whole life, from childhood friendship through schooling through university life and first loves and first radicalisms through the military. As a teenager our protagonist began studying martial arts; he had no aptitude for the “hard forms” his best friend Gonzo excelled at and so apprenticed himself to Master Wu, practitioner of the soft-form gong fu in the style of the Voiceless Dragon. Fellow student Elisabeth is smart, mysterious, sexy, and ultimately untouchable, even years later when the two mourn Master Wu’s death together.
In the military, our narrator is, we find out, involved somehow in the creation of a new generation of weapon: the Go Away Bomb. It will make the enemy Go Away. There is a bit of a physics-related explanation of what this means, but it’s important only in a general sci-fi way; the physics of the novel do seem internally consistent. The Go Away Bomb is supposed to be ultra-clean—no fall-out. But while the narrator is participating in the un-war du jour, someone gets carried away and mutually assured destruction suddenly stops being a deterrent. The Go Away War has happened and a huge portion of the earth has been completely destroyed.
Terrible things happen after the end of the world, but the hairless mammals rebuild. Society is in some ways completely changed, and clearly life will never be exactly as it was before. But in other, sometimes striking ways, things remain as they were. The male half of a long-cohabiting couple is urged to “marry that girl,” because she’s been waiting for it for years and why the hell aren’t you already, and somehow it makes sense that domestic life would remain so similar. People still go to work every day and become petty bureaucrats, still sit around and have a few beers at the pub. But meanwhile, towns vanish, a change of the wind can bring more than just weather, and it’s hard to trust anyone you haven’t known for a lifetime.
It turns out our narrator can’t even trust himself or his own memories, and is in for an unpleasant surprise after being called in on this last, most dangerous of jobs. But his misfortune leads to a fascinating adventure that weaves the whole world of the novel tightly together in a very satisfying way. It’s hard to say much more without spoiling it, but the last third or so of the novel is completely fun, completely exciting, and exactly how I would have wanted it to end.
One of the things that worked best for me was having a very playful but introspective narrator. He is thoughtful and smart and serious but freely willing to admit his more pathetic—and human—side. Surprisingly, the large number of fight scenes in the novel worked well also. My eyes usually glaze over at that sort of thing but somehow the descriptions of hand-to-hand combat (ninjas and gong fu figure prominently) were just as apt as those of bruschetta and erogenous zones. Harkaway can turn a phrase and keep things peppy and silly and interesting and touching all at the same time.
On the other hand, I know that his style wouldn’t work for everyone—wouldn’t work for a lot of people, in fact. If phrases like “raised a sceptical eyebrow” bother you, don’t even open the book: you will only give yourself indigestion. But if that sounds like it might be to your taste and you’re interested in a hysterical-realist postapocalyptic story of love and gong fu and how the hell to get on in life, I would definitely recommend this. It makes multiple mentions of Frege; need I say more?