Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway’s ambitious new novel is an exhuberantly entertaining mash-up of genres. It was a misleading winner of the Booklist’s Best Mystery award for 2012, misleading because I think Mystery is the only fictional genre the book doesn’t touch! However, it does cover humourous Douglas Adams-style sci-fi, steampunk, (although in this case it would be fair to call it “clock-punk” because there is far more about clockwork technology than steam in the book), globe-trotting espionage thriller, 1930s boys own adventure story, swinging sixties The Krays-style gangster pic and Orwellian satire on the current state of British policing all rolled into one. The combination of genres doesn’t always work, but I’ve never read anything quite like it, which for me is always a bonus. While the book is plagued by a distinct unevenness of tone, it is great fun nonetheless. It’s a longish book but in this case that’s a good thing. I didn’t want it to end and when I was done, I kept wishing to have another chapter. In a marketplace of tepid, timid offerings, this book is something to celebrate even if there are occasions where the reader feels that the author could have used some restraint.
My favourite part of this book was the beginning where we were introduced to Joe Sprok and his world. Joe Spork is an expert at clock making and the repair of clockwork artifacts who lives above his repair shop in the East End of London off the banks of Thames. Joe looks like a big bruiser of a man but works with super delicate, tiny objects. His father was a famous gangster, Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork in the era of the Krays, but Joe has deliberately tried to take after his grandfather, Daniel the clockmaker. He has chosen to live an honest life and purposely eschews his old father’s colleagues from the Night Market (a market where stolen goods are sold and traded) and friends from the Tosher’s Beat (a network of people who search for valuables in London’s Victorian sewers).
I’ve read books and seen movies about heroes from honest families who go bad (sons of gangsters who continue the family business or old criminals getting together for one last job before trying to go straight) but Joe Spork is the first character I’ve met in fiction to be the straight-living son of a famous gangster. Fiction seems far more interested in the honest man who “breaks bad” than the ramifications of a gangster life on the gangster’s progeny. Although plenty of people like him exist in the world, I’ve literally never experienced his perspective in fiction before. Experiencing a “first” like this is always exciting for me. I was intrigued by Joe’s memories as he flashbacked to his childhood, when he hero-worshiped his gangster father, and how it changed once his father went to prison and Joe came to accept society’s opinion of him. Eventually, Joe comes full circle to a place where he can see the good in some of the things his father did and comes to embrace his gangster ancestry in its entirety. The description of Joe’s deliberate efforts to maintain a gray, purposefully “low-visibility” life are dealt with in a beautifully nuanced way that feels perfectly accurate. His acute embarrassment and discomfort with how his father’s past infamy colours people’s perceptions of him is magnificently rendered. This is a corner of human experience that I’ve never seen described so thoughtfully before. In these opening chapters, Harkaway really made me fall in love with Joe as a character. This love took me through what for me were some of the rockier passages in the book towards the end where it spins off into surreal fantasy and Joe loses his moorings.
Joe’s one remaining concession to his old life as the heir to the house of Matthew’s empire is the maintenance of his friendship with Billy Friend, a perpetually frisky “waiting man” (undertaker) who runs a lucrative sideline in selling items “from estate sales” (re: stolen from the deceased). One day he brings a piece of intricate, unusual clockwork to Joe to fix. When Joe is amazed at the workings of the device he demands to go with Billy to deliver it to the owner who turns out to be a half-mad follower of Victorian critic of aesthetics John Ruskin living in the ruins of seaside village which was decimated by a mysterious government military project in the 1950s. He fits the device into a strange mechanical beehive which activates thousands of clockwork bees all over the world who spread truth around the globe in an effort to “turn men into angels.” How exactly the bees cause enlightenment is never quite explained, although we do get some of the most excellently absurdist descriptions of people and places I’ve ever read outside a P.G. Wodehouse novel. That’s when the story goes into serious flashback mode, to the martial arts training of former cold war superspy Edie Bannister, the now elderly woman who secretly gave Billy Friend the device.
For me Edie Bannister’s flashback portions, which take place in the 1930s and detail her training as an international superspy, perfecting her expertise in martial arts on a fantastical train and souped up steampunk submarine, are by far the weakest sections of the book. Joe Spork’s introduction is grounded in fascinating specifics about his world that make you taste, touch, feel, hear and see what he does. With Joe’s early scenes, Harkaway excels in giving the reader the flavour of a real place by highlighting a single revealing detail that brings to mind a whole picture. In Edie’s section this style is jettisoned for a cartoonist lesbian spy fantasy that seems more like something from Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy comics than anything vaguely pertaining to real emotions, places or people. In Edie’s work as a spy, she comes in contact with a villain named Shem Shem Tsien, the ruler of a fictional nation called Addeh Sikim. We know right away that he is really evil because he is introduced to us with a totally unnecessary graphic scene of him torturing a bishop. He also has aspires to god-hood. Never a good sign.
The character of Shem Shem Tsien is draped with foreign signifers of various kinds. Although his name is Chinese-sounding, he comes from a country with an Arabic sounding name. He is often referred to as the Opium Khan, with opium being famous for the British opium wars which are linked in the popular imagination to China or Afghanistan where the opium poppy is grown. Khan is the honorific given to rulers in India. He reminds me uncomfortably of the “yellow peril” villains of pre WWII times or the cringe worthy “Mandarin” from Iron Man comic books. I think perhaps the author assumed that giving a specific origin place to the character might cause him to be accused of prejudice. However, using a muddle of Asian cultural signifiers for the villain and giving him a fictional country ungrounded in reality feels odd when the beginning section of the book takes such pains to ground the reader in such fully realized real world locations as East London and Soho down to the tiniest details of the clockwork mechanisms Joe works with.
Basically, Edie ends up fighting Shem Shem Tsien to a standstill around the globe for many years as Shem Shem comes up with increasingly dastardly plans to ascend to godhood, eventually culminating in him granting himself a kind of bizarre immortality through recording his brain patterns onto the mind of a serial killer and a bunch of Ruskinite monks. In an effort to make it not seem racist, Shem Shem Tsien is never actually physically described except for the vague term “Matinee Idol Good Looks” which really describes nothing. Am I supposed to conjure an image of Cary Grant here or Zac Efron? Because they are two very different things.
Eventually Shem Shem’s people working with the ultra-secret Legacy Board of the British Government (employers of the previously mentioned Titwhistle, Cummerbund and Mr. Ordinary) come to believe that Joe knows where the calibration drum for the Angelmaker machine is, except they don’t actually come out and ask him until after they’ve tortured him for a long period of time. This was the most difficult section of the book to absorb. Although I strongly believe that our supposedly free society needs to take a hard look at what we are willing to do in the name of counter-terrorism it felt like a distinct change in tone from the cartoonish section that comes before it featuring Edie disguised as a British officer infiltrating Shem Shem Tsein’s palace, where the deux a machine is a baby elephant in a box. Basically, Joe is put into a torture hospital and comes out of it, stronger rather than weaker. The old, fearful Joe sheds away, emerging as a new self ready to take on his father’s gangster mantle. Joe feels liberated and begins a crime spree with his new girlfriend, Polly Cradle and various other friends in tow, in an effort to face down Shem Shem and deactivate the machine.
As a female reader, I was also somewhat annoyed by the amount of time both male and female characters spend lusting after the female form. I am not prudish in the least but if there is going to be lots of sexual ogling in a book, for once at least there should be some equal opportunity objectification. Even Polly Cradle “the bold receptionist,” with whom Joe falls in love with is constantly talking about how attractive she is to Joe and how much Joe must want to have sex with her and is constantly referring Joe to everyone in public as “my lover.” I really don’t know any woman who talks like this outside of a man’s imagination. Despite her complaint at one point that she is “an independent supervillain in her own right,” she is really just there for the self-actualization of Joe and his apothesis to gangster superhero.
Even with these issues, Joe Spork, the main character is so interesting and the plot is so compulsively readable and unpredictable that my enjoyment of this novel was barely dampened. I think I only noticed these flaws because the rest of the novel was so startlingly perfect. I highly recommend Angelmaker and find it the most entertaining of anything I’ve read this year. Check this one out if you’re looking for something different that takes you on a real trip.
If your gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!
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