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February 20, 2012

One of the best feelings in the world, at least for me, is to be near the beginning of a big, complicated novel that is going to be full of plots and sub-plots and comic digressions, and to ration it out in little bits, to keep real life at bay for a while. And what’s even better is when it’s a novel by an author I’ve previously liked. So when I found out that Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker was coming out March 20 in the US but earlier in the UK, I did what enterprising book-lovers learned to do when the early Harry Potter books came out, and ordered a copy from Amazon.UK. It arrived the evening of February 13th, and with massive restraint (and the addition of the ebook short story Edie Investigates), I managed to make it last until the morning of the 18th.

The first thing I was enchanted by is the story of a woman who mounts her headboard (and by “mounts” I mean attaches to the wall, using tools and technical know-how) to magnify the vibratory effects of passing trains. Then I got caught up in the complete life story of an octagenarian spy who can still quell potential enemies by merely shifting her weight towards them. Finally, I got interested in the story of a man who thought he was choosing a virtuous life but found himself reassessing the meaning of virtue when he comes into his inheritance. Ultimately, of course, these worlds collide.

Along the way, there are such pleasures as hearing a character explain that “cats…are divine messengers of patience,” and that “there are some texts whose importance is not immediately apparent to the uninitiated. Dangerous books.” There are secrets to be unraveled, about robed “Ruskinites” and the Book of the Hakote. There is a woman who offers “a gift of science to a world of horrors” and there is plenty of description of those horrors, although not without mitigating amusement and admiration for how people cope.

Reading about the exploits of the octagenarian spy, Edie Banister, is one of the novel’s chief pleasures. A fiction writer has to be a pretty close observer of human nature to capture so much of what it feels like to be an old woman still being called upon to use the skills she learned in younger, more flexible days:

“The trouble with shooting people, Edie Banister now remembers, is that it’s so hard to do just one. Having shot her would-be assassin, and now being, as it were, on the lam, she has to return to her former quite abstemious attitude and not just shoot anyone who impedes her passage. She has already had to speak to herself quite firmly about nearly shooting two irritating pedestrians and a slow driver. She is positively proud not to have ventilated Mr. Hanley, the street-sweeper, who popped up behind her as she was leaving and wished her good morning, and she is really astonished at her own good behaviour in not shooting Mrs. Crabbe, who was merely walking by on the other side of the street, but whom she has never liked.”

In addition to thinking about what Oscar Wilde would say in a similar situation, Edie demonstrates her cleverness by exhibiting a perspective the other characters lack, and a Malcolm Reynolds-type attitude towards the battle she’s fought for so long:

“Love causes people to do stupid things. That does not, she realizes now, make them do the wrong things.”

When Edie teams up with Joe Spork (at one point, joined by Joe’s mother, Harriet), they make “the escape of the decade, a corker in the annals of derring-do with added points for age, infirmity and spontaneity. Edie considers the thing something of a masterclass, and hopes someone, somewhere, will take note and teach it to the young.”

Joe is introduced on the first page of this massive novel, as “the heir of crime,” a figure who, in his ultimate caper, causes other crooks to leave a calling-card crediting him, a la Simon Templar, and he brings most of the plot threads together on p. 529, summing it all up by saying:

“There’s a wicked sort who wants something he can’t have. He can’t have it because if he gets it he’ll likely kill us all. He’s a lunatic and a bad egg. He’s not a crook, he’s a devil, and that’s all there is to it. I mean to put a stop to him. I mean to stop him dead. And if I don’t, well, it’ll be down to you lot anyway, because he’s bought the government or some such thing, and is sheltered in their breast. If I don’t do the job, my lords, ladies and assorted crooks, we shall all go down six feet. Think of him as a mad bugger who wants to test a nuclear bomb in Trafalgar Square. He doesn’t, but it’s as good as.”

In the end, “Joe Spork is the most arrested man the world has ever known,” but telling you that doesn’t mean you know what has happened. And you do want to know; you want to read this book for the meandering fun it offers, and the unforgettable characters who might have, quite possibly, saved the world adroitly enough that we never even knew it.

Just one final thing. The most delightful and appealing character in this novel may well be Joe Spork’s lawyer. That’s right, a lawyer. When’s the last time you wanted to stand up and cheer for a lawyer? And yet, how can you not want to cheer for a man who can get his client out of a tight corner with such finesse, such panache, as Mercer, who has the most delightful monologues in the novel, including this introduction:

“if we marked lawyers the way we do military aircraft, I would have painted on my fuselage the outlines of a number of untouchable government departments now defunct. I am Mercer Cradle of the old established firm of Noblewhite Cradle, and I can sue anything. And is this your henchman? Do you know, I’ve always wondered what that means. How exactly does one hench? Is there a degree in henching, or is it more of an apprenticeship?

I can’t get enough of Mercer or his sister Polly. I would like to be in on this group hug:

“’Mercer,” Polly says, “we are now going to hug. As a group. The experience will be very un-English. It will be good for you. Do not speak, at all, especially not in an attempt to diffuse the emotional intensity of the situation.’
They hug, somewhat awkwardly, but with great feeling.
‘Well, Mercer says, after a moment, “that was certainly—‘
‘I will hit you with a shovel,’ Polly Cradle murmurs.
The clasp goes on a second longer, and then they step back.”

I must borrow what Mercer says in a different situation to sum up my reaction to this novel: “Well…that was insane. But apparently it was also a good idea. I find the combination unsettling.” But also really good fun.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2012 10:09 am

    Sounds fantastic!

    • February 20, 2012 10:34 am

      Especially in light of your fondness for steampunk, I cannot see how you could possibly fail to love everything about this novel.

  2. February 22, 2012 12:22 pm

    SOunds like you exercised some good self-control in savoring the book and making it last as long as possible. I don’t have such good willpower. If I’m loving something, I gobble it up straightway!

  3. February 22, 2012 1:44 pm

    Sometimes I do that too, but when a plot is complicated enough, I enjoy taking it a little slower. It’s like looking at a Victorian pre-Raphaelite (“spaghetti-fed Jesus”) painting–you really don’t want to miss any of the voluminous detail.

  4. March 21, 2013 9:39 pm

    I have never wanted to remember so many ‘lines’ from a book. A HUGE statement about man and the machine with a complex plot is heavenly reading for me and I am savoring every last noodle, Jeanne.

    • March 21, 2013 9:45 pm

      I am so glad! Everyone in the world should read this book.

  5. hbdivegirl permalink
    September 2, 2018 2:07 pm

    Thank you! Delightful essay on the experience of reading a Nick Harkaway novel and specifically “Angelmaker.”

    I’m at page 19 and swept deliciously away, again!
    (I found your essay by searching “Hakote.” Serendipity of the best kind.)

    • September 2, 2018 10:11 pm

      That is a very interesting serendipity. I had to look it up myself, and there’s not much there if you look up “hakote”! Glad you found and liked the essay.

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