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Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway - Edit 1

Before modification by Camilla at 12/02/2012 07:30:34 PM

"If I tell you it's gangster-political with a dash of steampunk you will get exactly the wrong idea", Harkaway told me in August 2009. And gangster-political steampunk it is; but not the kind you might think.

This is no faux-Victorian crime novel. It is unabashedly political and topical, with a generous helping of spies (or one former spy who feels like a generous helping), undertakers, a glorious train and a lawyer. And bad guys (not to be confused with the gangster-bit). Really very scary bad guys.

A select few knew how much I was looking forward to the arrival of this book. Only close family and friends and everyone who has met me over the last couple of years (or bumped into me online). I get enthusiastic, occasionally; and when I get enthusiastic, I do it enthusiastically, with enthusiasm. The Gone-Away World had its wicked way with me. But it is a first book.

Discovering Wodehouse is fairly safe, as is discovering Dumas or Doyle or Woolf or Austen or Peake or any number of other established authors. Falling for the first book of a new author is terrifying: it could all be a horrible, happy accident; what you loved about the book might be that which is shed as its author moves on to write the next. And so I approached Angelmaker with equal parts terror and giddy enthusiasm.

It is not The Gone-Away World II. This is a Good Thing: books should be different from each other. It is, however, recognisable as having been written by the same man. This is also good: the reason why I have been waiting for this book is that I enjoy the playful, flamboyant (yet oddly rounded) style and the occasionally insane turns and twists of Harkaway's frankly alarming imagination.

The book provides a weaving of different stories, different perspectives, even different times. Primarily, this centres on Joe Spork (please note the Dickensian quality of Harkaway's use of names in this book, by the way) and Edie Banister: one, a clockmaker struggling to avoid becoming anything like his gangster father; the other, a former superspy fast approaching ninety. Throw in a clockwork doomsday machine aimed at making a better world, a secret side to London, argyle socks, old supervillainy and a government bent on blindness, and you are approaching something that might look like Angelmaker.

I called the book political. By this I do not mean that it is in any way drearily didactic; the ludic style of writing alone would keep that from being a problem. Like Harkaway's first book, however, it shows a concern with the loss of self, or rather with the relinquishing of identity and autonomy to a perceived authority. In Angelmaker this structure of evil is shown in two types of bad guys, one of which belong to the world of speculative fiction, the other of which is perhaps more terrifyingly realistic. Central to the terror of the monsters is the sanction they have been given by those who would give up moral authority to shady people. The book is steeped in moral indignation over rendition flights and Guantanamo, and in between the playful language and funny characters there is a distinct warning against quietly relinquishing rights in the face of danger.

Combined with this, there is a (to me) delightful celebration of the heterogeneity in that which is not mass-produced: clockwork mechanisms, index cards, hand-made trains, unique teeth, and a hopefully one-of-a-kind dog, face off against the evil that happens when technology becomes co-opted by someone bent on undermining individuality and choice.* This is not unrelated to the political concerns; quite the contrary: an important part of my enthusiasm for Harkaway's books stems from his ability to tie morality and the political, not to a single truth but to precisely that which cannot be reduced to a single truth. So there you have it. It will make sense when you've read the book, I hope.

There is one more thing. I was not going to go there, but it seems impossible to avoid: Le Carré. I avoided the point in my review of The Gone-Away World because I felt it was irrelevant: the book and the author did not require propping up. That is still the case, of course; but suddenly Le Carré (or, more specifically, the fact that he is Nick Harkaway's father) is part of the background.

Angelmaker, in addition to all the other things it might be said to be, is a book about a son struggling against the overpowering legend of his father (the famous gangster). Back when The Gone-Away World was published, Harkaway wrote a piece on the subject of writing as Le Carré's son. He said that "It's not that he casts a long shadow; it's more that it seems pointless to stand next to a lighthouse and wave a torch". I do not propose reading Angelmaker as being "really" about the experience of being the son of a famous author; that would be preposterous. I do believe it adds a dimension to the book, however: it seems to be having a lot of fun poking the concept with a stick. It is hard not to read Edie Banister as a reply to Smiley. Not because of any similarity between the two (quite the contrary), but because their reactions to the disillusionment of the cold war and what follows are so very different: it seems to say "this is another type of story, altogether; stop looking for the Circus".

There is more to say (questions of identity, of the nature of truth and the question of forcing reality into one Truth), but I'll leave the book alone now. Go read it; then we can discuss it.

For a less wordy introduction: watch the book trailer for Angelmaker

*I am fairly sure that is not the intention (considering Harkaway's apparent enthusiasm for e-books -- "Edie Investigates", the short story connected to this book is only available in digital form), but the Ruskinites seem to me to be the clearest indictment of the e-book I have seen in a long, long time: the celebration of the separate and particular against that which would make all copies identical. But that is perhaps somewhat beside the point and may belong more to my brain than to the book per se.

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