Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
16 May 2012
In his notorious broadside against this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award, Christopher Priest wrote that "[Charles] Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long." That description of Rule 34 is one of several statements that make it seem as if Priest hadn't actually read two thirds of the shortlist he was criticizing (or indeed all the books he praised) but it doesn't come from nowhere. It is a criticism that you could much more readily make about Stross's Laundry novels, and the news that he has planned a nine book story arc for them does make me fear that a piss-soaked carpet is on the horizon.
The thing is, most people don't think puppies are always irritating. Most people actually quite like puppies. In person, Nick Harkaway has a puppyish quality and it is infectiously appealing. Reading his latest novel, Angelmaker, however, I couldn't get Priest's arrow out of my head. Harkaway's protagonist—Joe Spork—has a puppyish name and the narrative bounds enthusiastically along with him:
One thing is plain to a hedgehog, as his unlamented father would have it: this is not your average music box. He should call a newspaper. He should call Harticle's. He should call his mother—not because any of this but just in general (p. 78).
That hedgehog folksiness is puppyish enough but Harkaway's fatal flaw is the one Priest identifies: he never stops. Beat, beat, beat and then a punchline that hits a duff note. Not long after that there is a ten page anecdote about undertaking told by a character who interrupts himself after a bad gag to parenthetically note: "Yes, I know, it's weak, but doing what we do you find the laughs where you can" (p. 86). In a hallmark of Harkaway's style, both of these seemingly casual asides are revisited deep into the novel and turned, if not on their head, then definitely askew. It isn't enough; he relies on self-awareness to save him when what he needs are his words to stop condemning him.
Harkaway is much, much better when he ignores the low hanging fruit and indulges his delicious slyness, such as when describing adolescent lesbian awakening: "Edie has read some Greek drama, and is feverishly aware of possibilities. Such understanding is the one of the benefits of a classic education" (p. 138). Harkaway's own classical education is apparent when he has her quote Sappho a few pages later.
Edie Bannister is a World War II spy turned self-described nonagenarian supervillainess who has released the literally mind-boggling Apprehension Engine onto the world. This MacGuffin is the car Spork chases as the novel grows from puppy to shaggy dog. The two characters are bound together by a secret history which Bannister doles out in flashback adventures which are far more interesting than the contemporary mystery that contains them. She has been trained for a mission to acquire the Engine—in the guise of Commander James Bannister, RN (not subtle)—from a foreign despot, Shem Shem Tsien. It is a silly, wonderful romp, a camp Bond farce with Carry On moments involving accidental orgasm via concealed plantain. In this context the Orientalist caricature baddie is less offensive than he might be: "a Svengali, a Mesmerist, a blackmailer, an extortionist, and a kidnapper (all things one might expect . . . in a Cambridge man)" (p. 154). Harkaway is, of course, a Cambridge man. Fittingly, perhaps the best way of describing Angelmaker is as a Footlights revue in novel form (although you might say that Douglas Adams, an actual member of Footlights, got there first with the similarly joyfully digressive The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy).
Most of what is interesting about the novel is the incidentals but the meandering is also a war of attrition against the reader. "Yes, yes, I know, I wander" (p. 160). This is another little old lady who is more than meets the eye and she asks us to forgive her for her lack of brevity. But just before that we've had: "Then for a month it was vital that we constructed a cinema for elephants, although . . . we are reasonably certain that represented a digression" (p. 157). Author's ellipsis and well, no shit. Angelmaker is 566 pages long—not unusual in contemporary genre fiction but you feel every one of them.
You feel them most when they return to our hapless protagonist. Son of a gangster and grandson of a clockmaker, Spork unknowingly has the Engine encoded in his DNA. This leads him to embrace a world he has rejected, that of his dead father and the many loveable rogues of his circle. Here, criminally, the novel succumbs to the English disease of gangster hagiography. Harkaway acknowledges this—the epigram quotes US critic Robert Warshow on gangster films—but he doesn't manage to plead mitigating circumstances. This Mockney geezer infatuation is symptomatic of a rather juvenile novel, one where Harkaway's political sensibility is all but submerged. Compared to a serious novel about the uncanny power of mathematics and the battle for history such as Dead Water by Simon Ings or even a hidden London novel about the weirdness between the cracks such as Kraken by China Miéville (both 2010), Angelmaker seems cartoonish. It isn't steampunk—it isn't even clockpunk—but it has some of the unfortunate exaggeration and exuberance that characterizes that benighted subgenre. Everything is larger than life; the showdown takes place in a castle in London with a moat full of piranhas.
Harkaway's first novel—the over-hyped, under-bought, fascinatingly flawed The Gone-Away World (2008)—underwent an extraordinary paradigm shift before the final act. It seemed at first as if he were going to do something similar here. However, instead of pulling the rug from underneath the reader, leaving them flat on their back in dazed appreciation of the ceiling, Harkaway only manages to give the impression that the rug has temporarily unmoored itself from the polished floor beneath, giving you one of those unpleasant heart-stopping judders where, anti-climatically, nothing much actually happens. When the tone of the novel changes you feel it on your skin like a pressure drop, a dreadful augur of bad weather, but when the lightning strike arrives it is feeble—Spork is turned into a superhero through neuro-linguistic programming—and then sun days are here again. As with most big genre books, it is all wound up with indecent haste—a dozen pages of speechifying and putting the old gang back together before another two dozen where Harkaway runs over the plot with a train. He doesn't seem particularly comfortable with the novel as a form and I wonder if the serial narrative would suit him more.
Rereading my review of The Gone-Away World I was struck by how closely the same strengths and weakness, not to mention characters, situations and ideas, recur here. I wrote then that the overwhelming problem with that book was that it "falls awkwardly between two stools: revelling in its own fantastic adventure whilst stressing that it is telling the truth. This is one of those books that makes a point of saying that real life isn’t really like it is portrayed in books. Not those other books, anyway; this book, on the other hand . . ." Harkaway's interest in Story is diminished this time round but he still wants to have his cake and eat it, to comment on a world he has rejected. Here is Spork seeking something true amongst the Sturm und Drang panto:
He loves Mercer like a brother, but sometimes the plumy, playful verbiage is obnoxious. It conceals emotion. Actually, it mocks emotion, the better to pretend to be above it. (p. 208)
Yes, sometimes the plumy, playful verbiage is obnoxious. Surely Harkaway knows the door he is opening here but nothing he does elsewhere in the novel shuts it. This is made clear half a book later when Spork’s desire receives an answer of sorts by Mercer being told:
We are now going to hug. As a group. The experience will be very un-English. It will be good for you. Do not speak, at all, especially not in an attempt to diffuse the emotional intensity of the situation. (p. 468)
But, of course, this is itself guilty of mocking emotion; Harkaway is incapable of playing it straight. Speaking is Mercer's sister, Polly, who, within pages of meeting Spork, sleeps with him. Well, "sleeps" is the wrong word: she vigorously and elaborately fucks him despite his feeble nice guy protestations. Later she pointedly talks to the reader through Spork: "I am not your booby sidekick or your Bond girl" (p. 470). But this is exactly what she is; a non-character, a warm, firm hand, a fantasy figure introduced at exactly the point the novel seeks to deny it is a fantasy. A rapacious gaze is employed throughout Harkaway's text and whilst usually it is generous, sexy and unproblematic, here it is just crass. (Jonathan McCalmont noted the "impossibly sexy and sophisticated ex-girlfriends" in his Strange Horizons review of The Gone-Away World; if characterization in these books takes a back seat then female characterization is locked in the boot.)
So, has the reader been sold a pup? Yes but, as I said, lots of people like puppies. I ended my review of The Gone-Away World—since it wasn't clear from the preceding criticism—with the summation: "By the way, I liked it a lot and I'm looking forward to his next novel." I'm tempted to say something similar now (yes, this is one of those irritating more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger reviews). I will continue to buy and read Harkaway's work because there are sentences, paragraphs and pages of knock your socks off brilliance here. But there are many more paragraphs of prose porridge and, when it is plain that he is such an obviously gifted writer, that makes me feel cheated.