The always-awesome Corie recently lent me a copy of Nick Harkaway's 2008 debut novel The Gone-Away World. This book is gigantic (532 pages), but that didn't daunt me much since one thing Corie and I share is a love for really long novels. I jumped right in without knowing much about the book and I thought it was... Okay. Not bad at all, but not particularly great. A blurb on the book compares Harkaway's writing to Catch-22 or Kurt Vonnegut, and I could see that, but mostly I got a big whiff of Tom Robbins -- who I loved in my youth and whose quirky humor, obvious politics and need to philosophize I am now a rather lukewarm about. So I was into this book but not loving it when I got about 350 pages in and all of a sudden the whole thing became really quite awesome.
Here's the set up: We start the book in a post-apocalyptic future. Everything is all Mad Max and the only thing resembling civilization as we know it exists right along the Jorgmund Pipe, which emits some kind of gas that keeps the bad things away. What the bad things are and how everything got like this won't be revealed for awhile. Our hero and his friends are a group of ex-military who specialize in putting out fires and containing hazardous situations. When the Jorgmund Pipe bursts into flames, the uber-corporate government gives them a call and they spring into action.
Then we go back in time to the narrator's pre-apocalypse youth, and learn of his close friendship with Gonzo Lubitsch and his family, his school days, his work with a master of an ancient Chinese martial art, his college days, his entry into the military, and his marriage. This is all sometimes funny, sometimes interesting, and sometimes has a lot of holes in it, goes on a little long, and is less humorous than the author thinks. Then we get back to the "present," and everything changes for our narrator.
I'm not going to reveal the catalytic event and subsequent twist, but I will say that I didn't see the twist coming until just a couple pages before it happened. And this twist did what twists almost never do: It didn't make me feel cheated and it made me re-evaluate the first two-thirds of the gigantic novel and really like what before I had thought was just okay. If you have some patience in you and like long sort of sci-fi / sort of political satire / sort of humorous novels, then give this one a try. I swear it is worth it just for flipping that switch in the narrative.
[Also, I just now found out that Nick Harkaway is John le Carré's son. Weird beard.]