By John Clute
26 March 2012
Here's a spoiler. The world does not end in Angelmaker. But nothing in the Jumping Jehovah through a Hoop exorbitance of Nick Harkaway's storytelling in his new "romp" does anything to mask the closeness of the call. Harkaway's second novel may exhibit, at times pretty floridly, the genial gemutlichkeit brawl that made The Gone-Away World of 2008 such an irrestible faux-spoof until the knives began to cut, but just as in the earlier novel there is a kind of bravery here; the kind of sprezzatura it takes to face front. Both novels may thieve heartily from the tropes and genres of the last century, and both may be pretty cunning about doing so, but both books make me think—this may seem a bit odd—of Samuel Johnson. At his own level, Harkaway does what Johnson did, which is whistle in the dark. In his already-archaic marble-veined Latinate tongue, a tool capable of muscling some extraordinary arguments about right behaviour in a wrong world, Johnson danced a tourrette pas de deux with his culture's thin-ice narratives about life being sensible: knowing (as he and his biographers made clear) that beneath the ice lay "infinite vacuity": lay a melancholia that might be called vastation. Similarly, the coat of many colours stained out of uplifted genres that automates a novel like Angelmaker seems to mask, in Harkaway's case, some Horror of True Sight: fantastika as juggler's gear, kohl coquetting the sprezzatura gaze. Nick Harkaway in motley is a sage. Steampunk, like Latin grammar, is a bucket to bail with.
So then, Angelmaker is a Steampunkish Glitter-Noir tale set mostly in the twenty-first century about averting the icy fixity that Johnson saw beneath his twitching feet and that—now we have become planetary—we can see before us like Juggernaut. Its long and winding plot may seem to chase hares in pursuit of a Mcguffin, but in the end—as in The Gone-Away World—the hares have steel teeth and the McGuffin is the real thing. The Apprenhension Engine that everyone seeks is a genuine Boojum, an intricate device whose effect will be to make the world legible: a holy clockwork: a thought experiment come true. "Apprehension" is a play on words: the experience of anxiety: the understanding of the truth. As we discover after 300 pages of circumbendibuses that lead us back to 1939 or so, the Apprenhension Engine has been constructed by a young genius named Frankie, a woman of the Hakote, which is something like a family or society whose members are genetically predisposed to grasp the where and how of the numbers that understrate the world. Frankie has been savagely damaged through her exposure to our fallen history, raped, betrayed, mutilated by the caltraps of the times we live in. She has decided to end the cruelty of history by making human beings capable of seeing (and telling) only the truth. (The echoes here of China Mieville's Embassytown  are unlikely to be deliberate: but both present a rhetoric in which truth and neurology are linked.) Frankie is discovered by one of the protagonists of the tale, Edie Banister, a Modesty Blaise the Temporal Adventuress kind of gal (though it is the novel that skips about in time, not she: so that she seems to have time-shifted the decades when it is in fact the book doing vitus dance) who becomes Frankie's lover. Frankie is speaking:
"Your brain is a special sort of stone. The stream [ie the "basic stuff of the universe"] runs over the stone, the surface ripples, yes? We call it a standing wave. So, your mind is the ripple. . . . For the mind to apprehend the truth—to know, rather than simply to believe, the nature of the wave must change. The ripple must extend so that it is able to touch the bottom of the [stream], to know the reality directly . . . The machine I make will extend the wave. It is like this new sonar: a new sense. A sense of knowing the truth. From this it follows that the world will change in positive ways. . . . [B]y how much might the lot of man be improved, in a world where truth was ubiquitous? How much positive adjustment is necessary to pass the tipping point and enable the spontaneous formation of a utopia?"
We may forgive Harkaway the use of "tipping point" in what seems a post-Gladwell understanding of the term, and concentrate on the expositional and minatory points he is conveying here, both central to the overall tale (and physically dead centre in the text). We sympathize with Frankie's profound desire to expose the truth of things, and with the terms of her description, but only up to a point: because we are also apprehensive (as Harkaway intends us to be) about what kind of world would remain after everyone knew that everything they knew about everything was true or not: because Frankie, all unknowing of the peneplainal world wide web whose utterands we are becoming, is describing the sort of Harmony of the Spheres that Wikipedia might create were Wikipedia an Apprenhension Engine.
The plot is turning: the villain of the novel, Shem Shem Tsien—tyrant, torturer, a man who dissects victims without anaesthetic for fun—has Frankie in his hands, and fully understands these implications. As he tells us more than once (obedient to the pulp idioms he's honouring, Harkaway gives us several Infodumps by Boast), Shem (for short) has devised a cunning scheme to transform the planet into an infinitely repeated iteration of his Mind, by creating a huge series of recordings of himself that (I don't understand this bit, really, but then I bet neither does Nick Harkaway) that will catalyze the planet into coterminousness with Himself upon his activating the completed Apprenhension Engine, the technological fix to end all technogical fixes. He will become akin to the all-seeing Eye of Homeland whose gaze fixates our will from the top of the pyramid on the back of the American dollar bill; he will become God.
Most of the novel, which unpacks like a Dali clock back and forth through the deliquescence of time, revolves around Shem's attempts to assemble the scattered elements of the device over the seventy years between its invention and the present day (as a recorded man he uses more than one body, more than one mask, and does not age much). The protagonist of the book, whom we have finally reached, is dorkish Joseph Spork, son of a wide-boy dad, grandson of a master clock mechanic; he is a man fordoomed by genetic chiasmus to fix clocks and the odds. The tale begins; the now-aged Edie Banister seems to have given him something very ominous to repair, and he finds himself under threat from what turn out to be Shem's minions. We will not attempt to trace the path he begins to trace, or describe the luminous and terrifying metal bees whose dance is capable of infecting a human mind with truth that kills. It is perhaps enough to register the enjoyable stages that mark his learning to stop performing his overweight Clark Kent routine, and to listen hard to his Inner Dad (Harkaway's plays on his own father John Le Carre's novelistic plays on his own father are pure knight's-move: Dad's Dad you're nicked!). In the course of all this Angelmaker gradually sheds most of its gear—Steampunk; Family Romance; Clark Kent Strips Off Tale; bildungsroman; Modesty Blaise Fucks Cute Romp; Indiana Jones Fucks Cute Romp; Secret History of the World PRESS HERE FOR TALISMAN Tale—and Joe Spork finds true love (she's a pain in the ass, but hey), listens to a final boast from Shem ("You see? I am the future"), and dismantles the Apprenhension Engine in time to keep the world from freezing shut.
But of course the future has almost already happened to the world. Angelmaker is a genuine tale of fantastika, and adheres to the remit of the twenty-first century tale of terror: which is to tell porkies till the pig dies. And the truth of what we have done, and where we live now, shines through the charnel.
If we do not exactly get how deadly serious Harkaway is for a hundred pages or so, this is his fault. There is an awful lot of blowing of wind before this craft catches the Trades, and Harkaway is really too hugely skilled a writer, too effortlessly mythopoeic a fabricator of Tales for our Time, to permit himself so many pages clearing his throat, blustering into the story like some walrus galumphing down the kelp into Ocean. Angelmaker only begins to bite round about page 90/100, when an aliquot sample of Stork's Whole Sick Crew (Harkaway does love Whole Sick Crews, cf The Gone-Away World) arrives in the tiny doomed village of Wistithiel on the north coast of Cornwall, a region whose sodden jane-face chthonic gnarls (John Martin without-the-laughs) he conveys superbly; and the book begins to do what fantastika does best in 2012, which is to tell story so that reality figures the metaphor, not the other way round: and frightens us half to death about the world, as we should be.
But really, the first hundred pages are in fact no joke, which is a shame because Harkaway has too much to say to spend more pages than Heart of Darkness saying nothing at all. Here, for example, on page three, Joe Stork musing about his late wide-boy father, Mathew, wondering if Mathew
ever killed anyone. Or, indeed, whether he killed a multitude. Mobsters, after all, are given to arguing with one another in rather bloody ways, and the outcomes of these discussions are often bodies draped like wet cloth over bar stools and behind the wheels of cars.
I think Harkaway should have written this bit of tat, because it felt good to do so, then cut the whole thing after the word "another"; but—and who am I to talk—even if he hadn't the sheer kill-your-little-darlings wounded-surgeon grit to get the secaturs out, how much better the long last sentence would have read if he'd just cut out "in rather bloody ways" . . . P G Wodehouse would have. Less is funny, more is not. But all is forgiven after page hundred, when Stork strips down to Beowulf, and deepsixes the Boojum.