Sunday, September 14, 2008

John le Carre's son's prodigious debut

Nick Harkaway is the son of espionage writer John le Carre, and this association undoubtedly had some role to play in the huge advance that The Gone-Away World collected internationally. Having said that, it is important to note the worthy gifts of this debutant.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world, a milieu that's attained renewed interest since Cormac McCarthy took home the 2006 Pulitzer for The Road. Harkaway's book is science fiction with a literary bent, a break away from his father's decidedly mass market "pulp" predilections.

We begin the novel some years into a worldwide conflict -- the Go Away War -- that was so brutal it has rendered vast tracts of the earth inhospitable. A massive pipeline, indestructible as the Titanic was unsinkable, has caught fire and threatens the lives of those it guards within its confines.

This is because the pipeline must dispense a chemical -- mysteriously labeled "FOX" -- that nullifies the effect of the deleterious fumes that the Go Away War pumped into the atmosphere. The unnamed narrator, along with his best friends Gonzo Lubitsch and Jim Hepsobah -- all members of an emergency trucking service -- have been deployed to put out the fire and restore the pipeline.

From here, Harkaway takes the reader into the past, detailing the narrator's childhood and the origins of the Go Away War, his fiction borrowing heavily from the absurdity of the present-day world. The narrator is suitably versatile, from training in kung fu as a youngster to later joining a top secret military project aimed at developing the ultimate weapon.

The book jumps back and forth in time, and the only tribute Harkaway pays to his father's craft is the sudden twists the plot takes to nudge the story forward. Harkaway is a humorist, so don't expect a grim tale of crime and redemption. Rather, The Gone-Away World is a fast-paced and intelligent work from a writer one needs to watch out for.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun Times.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

In memoir, novelist faces his mortality

Julian Barnes is best known as a writer of fiction. He has written 10 novels, the most recent of which is Arthur & George. Based on the Great Wyrley Outrages — a series of mutilations of farm animals that took place in the county of Staffordshire at the beginning of the 20th century — that book was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, but lost out to John Banville's The Sea.

Barnes' latest book, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, is part family memoir, part conversation with himself on death and dying. Barnes is a great conversationalist, and this is a humorous book in spite of its serious subject matter.

Barnes introduces us to his quiet, God-fearing father and his rather domineering mother, whose Communist beliefs took her away not only from God but also from her husband. The portrait of family life that Barnes draws is not a charming one, affected as it was by the wide gap between his parents' outlooks and the uncomfortable truce between Barnes and his elder brother, the British philosopher Jonathan Barnes. Jonathan and Julian think variously on almost every major point, and Julian concedes that Jonathan's being older and remote negatively affects the dynamics of their relationship.

Be that as it may, Nothing is really a book about Barnes' fear of dying and how the questioning novelist in him tackles this fear against an overpowering wish to be comforted by the knowledge of God. One man Barnes quotes repeatedly is French author Jules Renard, who wrote movingly about witnessing the death of his father and brother. Barnes is a satirist, so his treatment often verges on the deprecatory, yet in putting forth the wide range of his scholarship, he points to the seriousness of his intention.

Perhaps Nothing is merely a prelude to a more complete book on Barnes' life — a trailer to a comprehensive autobiography. Given his exquisite literary talents, such a book will be eagerly awaited.

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Also read The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes.