I didn’t expect to be in tears at the end of the new Nick Harkaway novel, Tigerman. Harkaway’s laugh-a-minute skill with references to both high and popular culture kept me so entertained that the foreshadowing barely registered.
Tigerman is about a nearly-retired British sergeant serving out the remainder of his time on the fictional island of Mancreu, a former British colony so badly polluted that allied forces have decreed that it will be destroyed. The sergeant, Lester Ferris, acts against the Graham Greene-reminiscent setting in order to fight for truth, justice, and the Mancreu way on behalf of his friend, a local boy young enough to still believe in such things.
Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that Lester is less like the “whisky priest” in The Power and the Glory and more like a British version of Thomas More in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. Both Tigerman and Love in the Ruins follow the actions of a traumatized main character at the edge of a self-immolating civilization–there’s a poisonous “discharge cloud” in Tigerman, whereas it’s mid-altering “heavy sodium vapor” in the swamp in Love in the Ruins. But the main difference between Lester and Thomas More is that Lester has a child to protect.
As the novel begins, the British have given up their claim on Mancreu “to the NATO and Allied Protection Force on Mancreu, NatProMan,” an abbreviation which gives any reference to the governing body a comic resonance. Industrial chemicals pumped into caverns below the island have combined in new and explosive ways, until the world’s governments have decided that the island must be destroyed. The natives are leaving with only a few months to go before the island’s destruction, although some, like the boy, have reasons why they don’t want to leave.
When Lester and the boy (who remains unnamed throughout the novel, although he refers to himself as”Robin”) witness the death of a mutual friend, an idea is born: “’we should fight crime,’ the boy said. ‘That is what we should do.’” Lester’s crime-fighting identity is inspired when Lester, sitting at the friend’s grave contemplating necromancy, has an encounter with an island tiger: “he turned around into a completely alien intelligence, a huge soup-plate face with wide, reflective eyes.” The boy sums up the idea for Lester: “unassuming sergeant for fallen empire by day! Foolhardy boy companion! And it will be hard work. Gather evidence, data, follow leads. Good men fighting to protect and serve in a town where there is no law….But then later…when the moon is in the sky and the evildoer thinks he is safe…Tigerman strikes!” Lester justifies the silliness of becoming Tigerman by saying he wants to show the boy “a win. A world where sometimes someone does fix it. Doesn’t just walk away.”
Harkaway seamlessly intersperses action sequences with ideas about living in a place where civilization is coming to an end, including a long and entertaining explanation of the use of subtext in British speech and how that relates to The Waste Land:
“You had to listen to what a Brit was saying—which was invariably that he thought XYZ was a terrific idea and he hoped it went very well for you—while at the same time paying heed to the greasy, nauseous suspicion you had that, although every word and phrase indicated approval, somehow the sum of the whole was that you’d have to be a mental pygmy to come up with this plan and a complete fucking idiot to pursue it….The thing was, Brits actually thought that subtext was plain text. To a Brit, the modern English language was vested with hundreds of years of unbroken history and cultural nuance, so that every single word had a host of implications depending on who said it to whom, when, and how….The Waste Land was a fucking terrifying document of gasping psychological trauma, and it was plenty relevant to the island, but the important point about it was that Eliot was trying to make use of something called an ‘objective correlative,’ which was an external reference point everyone would understand in the same way without fear of misapprehension….it was very British. Only a British poet…would imagine that the gap between people living in the same street was so fucking enormous that you had to read the entire body of English-language poetry from 1500 to the present day in order to have a background which would allow you to communicate something as simple as ‘your dog is pissing on my lawn’ and be reliably understood….All the same, there was something glorious in that complexity, in the fact that Brit communication took place in the gaps between words and in the various different ways of agreeing which meant ‘no’.”
Harkaway’s triumph in this novel is the way he combines subtext in the dialogue with references to great works of English literature, comic books, movies, and even internet memes in order to infuse the action of the novel with comedy and the meaning of that action with tragedy. Like the chemical reactions going on underneath the island of Mancreu, shades of meaning and allusion combine to create a point of view from which readers can see sadness behind the comic situations. The boy’s internet-based English, for example, (“full of win”) is especially poignant once you discover how he has learned the language. Lester’s largely-unvoiced thoughts, like that “it was an irritation to the Sergeant that men who one moment before had been braying for the sexual favours of a fiend could appeal to the Virgin in the next. It smacked of sloppy thinking” show how much he cares behind his habitual appearance of keeping a stiff upper lip.
Because he cares about not getting caught, Lester thinks about how to differentiate how he acts as himself from how he acts as Tigerman, and this leads him to remember what brought him from his former post in Afghanistan to his present one on Mancreu:
“He went on patrol in a Mickey Mouse hat he’d gotten somewhere, and he carried his gun like a swagger stick. He’d never seen M*A*S*H, so he didn’t realize he was travelling a well-worn path. And after each patrol he’d push it a bit further until they had to take notice. They’d put him in a secure hospital cell indefinitely, and he’d carried on the game for weeks and months and faked a suicide attempt and bitten an orderly and finally he’d broken down and explained that he was faking it, he just wanted so very much to go home. And the doctors told him: ‘It’s okay. You’re going home, and no one’s going to punish you.’ But he deserved to be punished, he said. He’d faked it. ‘Yeah,’ the doctors said. ‘We always knew you thought you were faking it. But that’s the thing: you never were. It was real, and now you’re better.’ Which was about the most disturbing fucking idea the Sergeant had ever heard, until he came here and it was just life, and then he had the really disturbing idea that everyone in the world was carrying on this way all the time.”
Like Thomas More in Love In the Ruins, who has discharged himself from a mental ward with his ontological lapsometer as a diagnostic tool, Lester Ferris has been set loose with the knowledge that he was once crazy, and he uses that knowledge as a way to understand his peripheral role as agent of a former government, a government that no longer cares about Mancreu except for the possibility of being embarrassed by publicity about the island.
After one of Tigerman’s most astounding displays, the attention of the world does focus on Mancreu: “when you cut it together the way they had it was like a movie: Tigerman bursting from a burning building, smashing through a wall. He raised an army and faced down a gang. He chased a car on foot and near as dammit caught his prey. And then he vanished with the aid of his mysterious minions into the night, leaving his deeds unexplained and self-explanatory. Meat enough for a dozen stories and substories, for analyses and commentaries, and all of it allowed them to play that footage again, to show what one man—one hero—could do on a dark night in a town on the edge. And—despite all editorial efforts—the question was beginning to form in the unspoken and the tacit: how much did all this have to do with that cluster of dark ships glimpsed in the corner of the frame?”
Surrounding the increasingly lawless island is a cluster of ships that islanders call “the fleet.” They are a side effect of NatProMan control of the island, attracted to the lawless zone surrounding the island, where illegal and immoral actions can be hidden in a flotilla of ships anchored under no national flags: “in this maritime twilight it was often hard to tell where nations ended and other entities began; where corporate activity shaded into organized crime, spying into a trade in unlawful commodities. Clustered… lay a mass of unaffiliated shipping: prisons for deniable detainees and hospitals for unethical procedures; data havens, grey banks, untaxed subsidiaries; floating harems and forced-labour factories, auction houses for contraband goods; torture facilities for hire. So long as it never touched the shore, the business of the Fleet was invisible.”
The heroics of Tigerman ensure that the world finally notices the illegal acts that have been going on aboard the ships. The boy says “if Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of 50 Shades of Grey starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel, they might just have approached this level of frenzy.”
But for the destroy order on Mancreu to be lifted and for the ships to depart, even more publicity will be necessary. The boy’s determination to make the world see what is going on is expressed, characteristically, with a reference to the movie Serenity. Lester does not recognize the reference, but the cognizant reader does, and knows what the boy is going to do.
All that Lester can see is that “the boy was doing a great thing. It was terrible and it was all kinds of wrong-headed and dangerous, but he was making it work. He was near as dammit leading the world around by the nose, and he was a genius and an action hero and everything he wanted to be.” At first Tigerman had been a game, but now the boy has become a hero and Lester has discovered that he needs to act as Tigerman in order to protect the boy: “If it wasn’t going to cost him his life the Sergeant would be inclined to let him get on with it, but you had to draw a line in bringing up a young person, and this was definitely on the far side of it.”
The ending makes me cry every time I reread it, hoping to get a different result. It’s different from the ending of Love In the Ruins where there is a new life built in the ruins of the old. Here there is a sacrifice to save the island and end the tide of lawlessness. There is hope, but it is in the bottom of the box that Tigerman’s actions have opened. There is a garden, as in the ending of Candide, but it is a vast and variably poisoned one, not the kind of garden on which we can mark off plots and call just one of them our own.
The ending resonates like the phrase “no man is an island” (John Donne). It reminds me that “after the first death, there is no other” (Dylan Thomas). By entertaining us with the comic effect of the way groups of people can act–a government, for example–and making us care about the tragic consequences for individuals, Harkaway creates new meaning for bravery and heroism in the connected world of the twenty-first century.