Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway – a Kitschies appreciation


Imagine a man on the wrong side of 40 and possessed of alarming eyebrows approached you in a fairground and asked you to have a go on his ride, about which you knew nothing. You agreed, with some trepidation, and when this fairground ride had finished you had just completed one of the most unexpectedly exhilarating experiences ever.

This is not an analogy for Nick Harkaway‘s Angelmaker. This really happened. I don’t even know why I’m mentioning it. After all, I’ve been asked to discuss the aforementioned Angelmaker in terms of the Kitschies Awards, which are presented annually to works of fiction deemed “progressive, intelligent and entertaining”. This year’s Kitschies are announced on February 26 and Angelmaker is in contention. You can’t vote, because the winners have already been decided by a shadowy cabal of progressive SF’s secret chiefs, but if you could I’d tell you to vote for Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker. And I’m here to sort of tell you why.

I did a review of Angelmaker for the Independent on Sunday and you could probably do worse than taking a quick glance for an overview of the book. Here’s the meat of it:

Joshua Joseph Spork wants to spend a quiet life tinkering in his repair shop and indulging his gift for fixing things that no one else can. But as the scion of an East End crime lord, Joe’s peace is an inevitably fragile dream – especially after he is visited by a series of mysterious and grotesque figures in relation to some equally confounding commissions…

…The plot is a jigsaw of pulpish tropes: there are enigmatic hooded monks; female superspies; devilish machines; London gangsters; an underground (both figuratively and geographically) criminal society operating with its own morality; and the small matter of a doomsday device involving lots and lots of tiny mechanical bees, and which Joe’s tinkering unwittingly sets into motion. But Angelmaker is a magnificent, literary, post-pulp triumph. Harkaway is something like a great big Labrador, bouncing up and down in front of you, demanding “Look at this! Look at this!”, until you are infected with his joyous enthusiasm for, well, for everything.

It sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? And it largely is. Ideologically, Angelmaker occupies an enviable position in a utopian world where grubby little arguments positing some kind of non-existent war between “genre” and “literary” fiction are redundant. Angelmaker takes all my guilty pleasures – secret societies just beneath the surface of what we know, super-spies, fiendish villains, feisty old ladies with really ugly dogs, beautiful women having great sex with geeky men – and weaves them into a proper story, beautifully written. And which asks nothing more of you than you enjoy it and file under “fiction”.

Technically, bits of Angelmaker reminded me of Douglas Adams or Neil Gaiman. Harkaway has that very rare thing, an ability to write using genre tropes for a wider, mainstream audience. That isn’t to say his work is “genre-lite” or in any way makes compromises; Harkaway asks a lot from his readers in terms of trusting him to make sense of his squalling, bonkers opening salvos, and always fulfils his promises.

I commented on Twitter that I didn’t want this piece to just be an exercise in blowing smoke up Harkaway’s arse. Angelmaker, like its predecessor The Gone-Away World, isn’t perfect – if it was, Harkaway wouldn’t care about winning the Kitschies or any other literary award; he’d be sitting on his yacht in the Caribbean, probably wearing long white robes and having nubile young cultists pandering to his every need as he bashes out another perfect novel.

Helpfully, Harkaway saw my tweet and offered his own critique on what he thought was wrong with Angelmaker:

Splitting the female awesome between Polly and Edie leaves Polly more caricaturish than I wanted…


I worry endless about the villain as an echo of Fu Manchu rather than Blofeld – orientalism by proxy…

There then followed a protracted discussion on Twitter between Harkaway and his publishers Wm Heinemann about whether 20,000 words of elephant-related adventure should have been cut or not, and what should be done with it now. None of which are really criticisms… I commented when I reviewed the book that sometimes Harkaway’s enthusiastic diversions occasionally threatened to derail the narrative, but really that’s like poking a small child in the eye while it’s trying to show you a drawing of a Triceratops.

All in all, I recommend Angelmaker to you and your friends. It should win bucket-loads of awards and Harkaway should be regarded as a literary treasure. Enjoy him while you can; at some point he’s going to be as well-loved as Neil Gaiman and will be allowed to write whatever he wants with everyone too scared to tell him he’s gone off the boil. One day in the future he’ll probably write a stinker; but that day, if it ever happens, is a long way off and Angelmaker is not that stinker by many, many light years.

Angelmaker must win the Kitschies, or I will release the bees.

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