If I've learned one thing during the course of the Book Rat Project [the sustained experiment in which a book critic [me] attempts to act as a human algorithm for a willing subject [my Phoenix colleague Will Delman]), it's that a good book is really hard to find. I know that sounds trite and everything, but, like, I'd like to think that if someone (Will) only needed to read books that were both well-received and hand-picked by someone else (me) that they'd all be a sure bet. Well that doesn't seem to be the case at all. Feeling guilty for foisting a book of mediocre short-stories on him, I let Will pick his own book, Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker. That didn't work very well, either. Here's his review:
I was really looking forward to this one. Harkaway’s first novel The Gone Away World was a big, beautiful,
infuriating, occasionally incomprehensible, often brilliant book that always
found interesting ways to upset my expectations. It was also a rare literary
animal: a first novel that gained almost instant recognition as a canonical
worthy achievement (at least in the sci-fi /speculative community). The critics
that compared him to Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut were not, I thought,
engaging in hyperbole.
And the jacket copy only magnified my interest: a steam-punk,
multi-generational, anti-digital gangster noir; a playful romp through London
landscapes both real and thoroughly invented. Angelmaker is the story of Joe Spork,
quiet fixer of antique clocks, and son of London’s infamous Mathew Tommy Gun
Spork, an old-school crime-boss in the John Dillinger mold. Joe’s quiet life
comes to an end after he accidentally activates a 1950’s era clockwork WMD. Soon
he’s running from the UK government, a South Asian dictator, and an underground
cult of psychotic master-craftsmen. Oh, and the book also ponders whether the
existence of an objective truth could destroy a demonstrably quantum
In short, Angelmaker sounded like a 2nd
effort that might avoid the sophomore slump, but for all the strange ideas and
beautiful sentences all wrapped up in a genuinely fun package this is mostly a
less ambitious retread. That’s not to say Harkaway hasn’t achieved something
very impressive—think a bigger, goofier, grander version of The Difference Engine, or a vastly more
It’s just that I was expecting
more than the same basic forms thrown into a safe and vaguely familiar package.
Both books derive the bulk of their energy from big ideas—The Gone Away World had bombs that
scattered information on a quantum level, while Angelmaker has an objective truth machine
that threatens to collapse every wave function. Both books exhibit a strong
distrust of centralized governments, and ironically, a love for secret societies
and organizations. Both books revel in scenes of heavily stylized, difficult to
follow hand-to-hand combat exchanges. Both books spend numerous paragraphs
meticulously describing strange, complex mechanical monstrosities. Both books
feature protagonists that are forced to undergo major personal transformations
just to survive.
What sets The Gone Away World apart for me is that it’s the messier, more
fearless book, the fictional equivalent of an amateur trapeze act. It’s more
lyrical, hysterical and ambitious, if also occasionally incomprehensible. Then
again, I’m a sucker for Harte Crane and I’d probably rate Heller’s Picture This over Catch 22 three out of every seven days.
Can’t say I’m envying Eugenia’s job right now.
The Book Rat Letter Grade:
For next week, I've given Will something that I read and loved: David Bezmozgis's The Free World. If I could keep suggesting new books I love, this would be easier, but I only like about half of the books I read. Check back next week for Will's review, and also for my solution to what I'd like to call the "disappointing book" problem.