The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Busy as a Bee

A clock-making crime heir named Spork.  A one-toothed, glass-eyed attack pug.  A martial-artist octogenarian spy.  Oh, and the end of the world.  By mechanical bees. 
Welcome to the world of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker.  It’s the first book for my new book club, and I was crazy excited to hear what everyone thought about it.  If someone didn’t like the book, I was considering revoking their Book Club pass.  Thankfully, I had another glass of wine and re-thought my objections.  Especially since no one else finished reading it.  (wah waah)

Just to get the Ripley's Believe It Or Not moment out of the way, let me mention that Harkaway is the son of renowned spy novelist John Le Carré.  And Angelmaker is, above all, an old-fashioned spy novel.  Most reviewers of the book had a field day with this fact, as if they needed the gravitas of Le Carré’s name to give them permission to like Harkaway’s distinctly different book: “It’s OK that I like the madcap, slapdash prose of Harkaway because his dad is John Le Carré.  It’s just like Le Carré with ninjas!”  I think, Gentle Readers, that it’s a load of crap.  Harkaway is fabulous all on his own.  He’s not being reductive, or silly, and no one need apologize for liking his books.  

The most remarkable thing about Harkaway's connection with his father is how the literary son has written a cracking good spy novel without mimicking or lampooning his father’s work.  Le Carré's writing is laconic and his George Smiley is smart and calculating.  Harkaway's verbiage is joyful and ridiculous, over the top and fun.  His Joe Spork is hapless but clever, and a bit of a smartass. Harkaway is coming at the spy novel with a post-modernist, Dickens-meets-Monty-Python sense of fun.   While Harkaway's voluble silliness can edge over into wit for wit's sake, there remains a true sense of heart to the narrative.  There is always a recognition of things in the balance, of the possibility of loss.

Not everyone in the book club was as enamored of Harkaway's prose style as I was.  They found it overdone, even twee.  And I can understand that.  It can be a bit much.  But I found that if you give yourself up to it--ride the wave of it, so to speak--it's really quite delightful.

There is a really sexy train (and its equally sexy submarine sibling).  There are clockwork bees.  There is a fascination with gears and the harnessing of unusual power sources.  There is the preference of handmade over the mass-produced.  But this book is not steampunk.  It is tempting to call it such, but it has as much to do with steampunk as Cirque de Soleil has to do with Ringling Bros.  There is a surface connection, but that’s where it ends.  The Guardian review calls Angelmaker’s genre “arts-and-crafts picaresque,” which is pretty spot-on.
Joe’s father is the legendary Mathew Spork, gangster king of the underworld.  Lest you begin picturing scenes of Godfatherish mayhem, however, please keep in mind that Mathew Spork is more the kind of man to hijack an expensive truckload of hideous golf socks from Scotland than engage in bloody gunplay.  Angelmaker has a sense of nostalgia for crime of a sort where banks and robbed and jewels disappear, but no bystanders are injured and criminals have an unbreakable code of behavior: “good, wholesome, old-fashioned British crime.” This novel is more about the joy that comes with naughty rule-breaking than the anarchy that comes with law-breaking.

Upon Mathew's death, however, Joe has forsaken the life of a gangster’s heir for the quiet regularity of clock repair with his grandfather.  Things are fine, but dull.  As much as this is a spy novel, it is also a somewhat belated bildungsroman.  Joe is thirty-something, but has yet to find his own way in the world.  In the midst of this vague dissatisfaction, Joe is asked to repair a mechanical beehive.

This beehive is actually a device built by the brightest scientific mind of the 20th century, a mechanism which causes a state of absolute truth to occur.  This sounds great, in theory.  But Harkaway's version of total truth leads to a conundrum: if you can see to the heart of things, you can begin to map out where each decision would take you, and how others would react to each decision.  Absolute clarity destroys the magic of "what comes next."  In effect, humanity becomes a sequence of clockwork people, with no soul, no deviation, and no free will.  Apparently, little white lies make the world go 'round.  (read: fiction!)  So this golden beehive, which should lead to the eradication of war, instead eradicates that which makes humans, human.  Why does the doomsday device look like a golden clockwork beehive?  Apian trauma from Harkaway's childhood?  Hard to say, Gentle Readers.  Hard to say. 
Regardless, the device (known as the Apprehension Engine) must be stopped!  And Joe Spork must stop playing by society's rules and begin writing his own. Joe comes to the realization that hiding from his past will make him unable to save the future.  And so he pulls on his gangster boots and kicks some ass.  

And the ass-kicking is glorious!  In the words of Glen Weldon's Slate review of the book, "...we aren’t merely empathizing with Joe Spork’s plight but feeling it keenly. When sinister officials grind Joe up in the gears of the State, his pain is our pain...And when he finally gets pushed far enough to fight back, we find ourselves looking around the subway car for someone, anyone, to high-five."  There is a visceral joy to reading about Joe's recognition of who he is and who he must become to fight the evil that is pushing to world to the brink.  I did not look for someone to high-five, but I did cheer out loud at my book.  The dog sleeping at my feet did not approve.

In order to save the world and humanity as we know it, Joe joins forces with the coolest badass lawyer ever to walk the face of the earth, a saucy love interest with highly specific sexual appetites, a secret society of undertakers known as the Waiting Men, and Edie Bannister, intrepid superspy turned pensioner.  They’re being hounded by hooded monks with a hive mind, a serial killer, agents of the nastiest underbelly of the British government, and a villain that can only be described as Bondian.  I kept expecting Shem Shem Tsien to cackle, “No, Mr. Bond.  I expect you to die.”

And I, Gentle Readers? I expect you to read.  This book is a roller coaster.  Strap in and enjoy!

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