Angelmaker is Nick Harkaway’s second novel. His first, The Gone-Away World, had the distinction of being entirely uncategorizable: it’s a dystopian adventure, it’s a love story, it’s literary, there are monsters. It inspired unusual devotion among the booksellers of my acquaintance. It can’t have been an easy act to follow.
Angelmaker and The Gone-Away World have some surface similarities: an essentially kind-hearted man struggles to navigate a world gone strange. There is a supremely capable love interest. There is an emphasis on dry wit, with the kind of hyper-British dialogue that occasionally takes Britishness to the edge of parody. (We just don’t talk that way in the New World, to my everlasting regret.) There are countless things in these books that a more timid author would probably have left out for fear of looking silly — mimes and ninjas in The Gone-Away World, mechanical bees and nympho girl superspies in Angelmaker — and the small miracle is that in Harkaway’s hands these things manage not to be silly at all in the final analysis, but to contribute to plots with deadly-serious stakes and real emotional depth. The plots of both books involve spectacular, world-changing weapons. The Gone-Away World had the Go-Away Bomb. Angelmaker has a clockwork doomsday machine. Angelmaker is a clockwork doomsday machine.
The man who encounters the Angelmaker machine, and who must eventually find a way to turn it off before it destroys the universe, is the marvelously named Joe Spork. Joe is a clockwork repairman. His grandfather was a clockwork repairman before him, but the profession skipped a generation: Joe’s father was Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, legendary gangster and king of the Night Market. Joe grew up on the fringes of a magnificent and strange criminal underworld. The Night Market of his childhood is a secret lamp-lit kingdom of marvels.
Joe lives a quiet, law-abiding life in London, repairing clockwork in a loft by the river, making the occasional awkward phone call to try and set things right whenever another of his long-dead father’s crimes comes to his attention. He has dedicated his adult life to emulating his grandfather and trying not to become his father. The Night Market still exists, but he doesn’t visit.
His latest client is Edie Banister, an eighty-something-year-old woman of mysterious origin. She’s one of the most interesting fictional characters I’ve come across in a while; an orphan, recruited into an obscure wing of the British intelligence service as a schoolgirl during the Second World War, caught up for decades in an enervating battle with an arch-nemesis encountered during her first major assignment.
Joe is quite taken by her. She reminds him, in an inobvious way, of his beloved grandfather. She isn’t going easily into that good night; it seems to him that “she is almost vibrating with rich, distilled energy, as if the process of living all those decades has made a reduction of her spirit which is thick and slow in her chest, but sweeter and stronger for it.” What he doesn’t know is that she has recently set into motion a series of events that might make the world end.
Joe has recently come into contact with a peculiar object, seemingly several decades old; a book that isn’t quite a book, fitted with an axle and perforated in a manner vaguely suggestive of the punch cards on which antique computers depended. A short time later, a veiled man with an unsettlingly mechanical way of moving shows up in his workshop looking for it, and Joe’s life begins to come undone.
One of the things that interests me most about Harkaway’s work is the way he manages to write surrealist adventure novels that feel both urgent and relevant. His novels are fun to read without seeming particularly frivolous, and beneath all the derring-do and shenanigans, there’s a low thrum of anxiety: everything and everyone you love could disappear at any moment. There is nothing that you cannot lose.
The action of Angelmaker cuts between the present and the distant past, the days after Edie’s legal guardianship was transferred to the British government and she became a schoolgirl spy. The writing is lovely. The villains are chilling; the order of veiled monks who stalk Joe and Edie are a hive-mind nightmare who remind me of nothing so much as the Borg. The complexity of the plot is such that a mid-point summary by a major character is required. (“’To recap,’” Polly Cradle says, in a tone that Joe Spork finds both schoolmarmish and extremely sexy, ‘it would seem that at some time between 1945 and 1980, Joe’s grandfather and grandmother..’”)
The struggle with any long-form work is to avoid overwriting the beginning of it — those first few pages that one returns to over and over again in revisions through the endless slog of writing the hundreds of pages that follow — and there are passages at the very beginning of the book when the author’s inclination toward dry wit gets slightly out of hand and the one-liners begin to seem a bit forced. There are moments toward the end when the sheer logistical challenges involved in pulling together the wildly complicated plot leads to some mild awkwardness in the writing. While the “man with back to wall starts behaving in ways he never thought he could” set-up is well-executed here, the giddiness of the third-act glamorization of criminality is an uneasy fit with the character traits established in the first chapter.
And yet: it seems to me that there’s something magnificent about sprawling and ever-so-slightly flawed novels. Its few minor flaws notwithstanding, Angelmaker is a truly impressive achievement. It seems to me that most novelists working today aren’t taking as many risks as Harkaway does, and the novelists who are willing to take risks are the ones who drive and shape the form.