[the book rat project] Week 8: A Mild Disappointment


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 universe.

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 playful Cryptonomicon.

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: B-


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.


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