“If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker,” Albert Einstein famously lamented after his own contributions to physics led indirectly to the creation of the atomic bomb. Einstein was not alone in seeing watchmaking as an innocuous, peaceful profession; Joshua Joseph Spork, the protagonist of Nick Harkaway’s latest novel “Angelmaker,” goes into watchmaking, his grandfather’s profession, in part out of a desire for the quiet life and a desire to escape the legacy of his father, Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, a notorious London gangster. Yet, as he discovers to his immense chagrin, a humble watchmaker can find himself in a web of chaos that even Einstein could scarcely have conceived.
Nick Harkaway’s new novel is a striking hybrid of Victorian swashbuckler and the post-modern absurd. Its combination of exuberant and ridiculous characters and situations, with old-fashioned adventure and a preoccupation with machinery, calls to mind writers as disparate as H. Rider Haggard, the master of the implausible Victorian adventure, and Salman Rushdie, whose frenetic recent works span continents and centuries within a single novel. It is consistently engaging, occasionally thrilling, and often amusing. But it is also prone to the pitfall that is common to both Victorian and post-modern fiction: excess. The action and characters that burst from the pages are usually an asset to Harkaway’s storytelling; only occasionally does their farce threaten to distract from the main action at hand.
The novel traverses multiple continents and continually switches back and forth between the 1940s—when Mathew Spork was in his prime—and the present day. That is not to say that it is disorganized: there is plenty of well-crafted plotting in this 500 page tome. At the beginning of the novel, Joshua Spork’s simple life of watchmaking is upended when, having taken on the assignment of fixing a vintage clockwork book, he inadvertently repairs an early Cold War weapon of mass destruction. Soon he is thrust into the paths of many shady individuals who desperately desire this device.
The scenario of an unsuspecting innocent at the mercy of dark international forces is familiar, but Harkaway manages to make it work through a narrative that reflects the work of Victorian writers like Charles Dickens. First, his array of characters, though mostly mere plot devices rather than genuine developed humans, is dizzyingly colorful. From the civil servants with the whimsically Dickensian names Mr. Titwhistle and Mr. Cummerbund—“Those are our actual names, I’m afraid,” says Titwhistle by means of introduction—who first arouse Joshua’s suspicion that something is amiss in his world, to the outrageous Asian drug lords Opium Khan and Shem Shem Tsien—“A man who likes, after taking his pleasure, to sleep with his hand upon his conquests”—the characters arrive in a series of vivid caricatures. This method allows the novel to maintain the rambunctious and exciting spirit of a Victorian caper.
Harkaway’s prose is tautly ironic, as befits a novel that takes place almost wholly in the realm of the absurd. Many of these outlandish observations are genuinely funny and ridiculous, such as the comment “The great treat of robbing a bank…is looking in the safety deposit boxes and seeing who had what squirreled away, then arguing over whether to hang it on or sell it on, and very occasionally uncovering something truly special or bizarre.” His habit of alternately referring “Joe Spork” or “Joshua Joseph” for comic effect is highly effective. Harkaway’s instincts let him down badly, however, with the character that is essentially the female lead—Edie Banister, a nonagenarian superspy. Frequently described as a “girl” and just as eccentric as the other characters—at one point wearing a false moustache “which tastes of tiger flank and erotic dancer”—Edie is clearly supposed to be the most absurd character of all, but her characterization is more tastelessly misogynistic than anything else. She employs the needless self-deprecation of being an “old cow” repeatedly, and this description is jarring in a book that is otherwise so enjoyably frivolous.
Like Joshua Joseph Spork, Nick Harkaway has himself acutely felt the need to distinguish himself from a famous father, the spy novelist John le Carré—both Harkaway and le Carré are pseudonyms—the author of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. When Harkaway’s first novel, 2008’s “The Gone-Away World,” appeared in Britain, Harkaway emphasized how unlike his father’s work it was. “It’s an adventure without the faintest attempt at realism. It’s a love story. It’s a serious novel. And it has ninjas in it,” he said in his article in the British newspaper The Telegraph. Ninjas aside, this refreshingly clear-eyed piece of self-evaluation applies just as accurately to his second novel: “Angelmaker” has no more pretensions to realism than its predecessor. This style emancipates the novel from an expected need to reflect upon its various physical and temporal settings. Yet the novel is grounded in the sense that a story of such zany, freewheeling diversity could only be set in a city such as London or New York—global cities that effortlessly combine history and the present, and in which almost any manner of eccentric character or outrageous scheme is plausible.
Thoroughly unlike his father, Nick Harkaway is best understood as the literary equivalent of his fellow Londoner Guy Ritchie, the film director. Like Ritchie, Harkaway is keenly attuned to the surreal potential of London’s underbelly—and as with Ritchie’s films, “Angelmaker” is a wild ride through that underbelly in which every scene and character is memorable. “It is the magic heart of the city,” Harkaway writes of the Night Market, Matthew Spork’s criminal hub, “the greatest and most magical on Earth.” These compelling descriptions, equal parts fantasy and reality, create a novel singularly raucous and commanding in ambition.
—Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.