WARNING: This post contains MASSIVE spoilers for Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World. I mean huge. If you haven’t read The Gone Away World, stop reading this and start reading the book instead. Go. Go now. It’s wonderful. You’ll love it. Trust me.
Everyone who’s still here read it? Yes? *Mr Burns voice* Eeeexcellent.
Now, prompted by my (probably irritatingly evangelical) urgings, @alittlebriton read The Gone Away World earlier this month, and when she was about two thirds of the way through she texted me to say: ‘Huh. It’s the Fight Club thing.’ Apparently this is a pretty common reaction to TGAW’s big twist, which I find really interesting because having gone away and thought about it, I’ve concluded the following:
It’s the exact opposite of the Fight Club thing.
Now, it’s possible that I’ve reached this conclusion because I’m a contrary, ornery jackass who needs to disagree with everyone all the time. But I don’t think so. I am of course, a contrary ornery jackass, but I think in this particular case. I’m on to something. And what’s more I think the way Palahniuk and Harkaway’s twists are exact negatives of one another is really quite interesting.
Let me expound:
At first look, the similarity between the two stories is obvious – they both turn on twists in which a major character turns out to have been a product of one of the other characters’ imaginations, indeed, more than that – a projection of recessive aspects of that character’s personality. Both books are written so that for most of them you think there are two people, when in fact there is only one: two sides of one mind. One body, and one name.
But that’s where the similarities end. The differences however, are far more significant.
In Fight Club (or so a conventional reading goes): Tyler Durden is an empowerment fantasy, the mental projection of a man trapped and divested of his metaphorical testicles by modern living . Tyler says to the relatable, slightly pathetic unnamed narrator dude ‘I look how you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.’ Tyler has the looks, dynamism and charisma of a superhero, but he doesn’t exist.
In The Gone Away World, it is the unnamed narrator who is the projection. Moreover, and this is the key bit, he’s the normal one: ‘a repository of dull virtues in time of trouble, someone to carry the can, speak truth and own up in class.’ The character we empathize and identify with is (or at least starts out (1) as ) a dream. Gonzo Lubitsch, with his biceps of steel, jaw of chiseled granite and combat skills of Steven-Segal-decapitating-deadliness is (in the world of the novel) entirely real. Where Fight Club puts us in world of quotidian frustration and gives us fantasy of empowerment, TGAW puts us in a world that has gone bananas and gives us a fantasy of… what? Normality? Not exactly. More like decency.
If Gonzo and TGAW’s narrator were top trump cards, the narrator would beat Gonzo in quite a few areas (those dull virtues mentioned earlier). Still, there’s only one field where the Narrator seems more superhuman than the man who dreamed him up, and that’s the field of being ‘A terribly nice chap.’ After all, Gonzo (who is kind of his brother, father and best friend rolled into one) shoots him in the chest and he lets it go with an apology.
Now, I’m not saying this isn’t credible in the context of the book. I think it’s pretty well handled and it doesn’t feel like a cop out. But it is an act of extraordinary magnanimity, a refusal to hold a grudge and meet violence with violence, a refusal to react mechanistically in a novel which pointedly marks out the hazards of doing just that.
Harkaway gives this superhuman faculty of empathy and humanity to a character who starts out life as a projection, as ‘aphasia with legs’, which might seem almost cynical until you remember who’s projection it is. But Gonzo is James Bond on steroids. He is like totally 100% the Man (TM) and the narrator is what he fantasizes about, what he needs, what he feels he’s missing. Gonzo’s a character we’ve seen eulogized and mythologized over and over in stories, and by making ‘The Dull Virtues’ the stuff of his dreams Harkaway lends them a kind of hyperglamour. The dull virtues become super legendary, mythic squared. It’s a pretty badass way to celebrate being nice.
And why not? After all, Humbert Pestle can play Gonzo like a tin whistle. He sees how the machinery of the hero’s mind works, and applies just the right action to get the desired equal and opposite reaction. It’s the narrator, the relatable, fallable dull narrator who Pestle can’t manipulate. He is free in all the ways that Gonzo’s not. Free to be nice in even the shittiest of circumstances. To act like a human being even when the world wants you to act like an eight-ball clocked by the white at just the right angle to sink into the right middle pocket (2). That’s what heroes dream of. You want an empowerment fantasy? Try that.
(1) Actually, this is pretty interesting because in reifying his fantasy projection Harkaway could be thought to be expressing a much more radical (and given what I’ve just said the fantasy characteristics are, a more optimistic) sentiment than Palahniuk, who leaves his Superhuman as imaginary.
(2) Ooh, I just had a thought: TGAW starts with a game of pool, coincidence? Well, almost certainly, yes. But it’s fun to speculate.