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Smuggler’s Ponderings: thoughts on Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
Alfred A. Knopf/ Vintage, February 2012, HC/PB: 568 pages

From the acclaimed author of “The Gone-Away World”, blistering gangster noir meets howling absurdist comedy as the forces of good square off against the forces of evil, and only an unassuming clockwork repairman and an octogenarian former superspy can save the world from total destruction.

Joe Spork spends his days fixing antique clocks. The son of infamous London criminal Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, he has turned his back on his family’s mobster history and aims to live a quiet life. That orderly existence is suddenly upended when Joe activates a particularly unusual clockwork mechanism. His client, Edie Banister, is more than the kindly old lady she appears to be–she’s a retired international secret agent. And the device? It’s a 1950s doomsday machine. Having triggered it, Joe now faces the wrath of both the British government and a diabolical South Asian dictator who is also Edie’s old arch-nemesis. On the upside, Joe’s got a girl: a bold receptionist named Polly whose smarts, savvy and sex appeal may be just what he needs. With Joe’s once-quiet world suddenly overrun by mad monks, psychopathic serial killers, scientific geniuses and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe, he realizes that the only way to survive is to muster the courage to fight, help Edie complete a mission she abandoned years ago and pick up his father’s old gun . . .

I was supposed to have written a review of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker for Kirkus last week but I just couldn’t finish the book.

In principle, I should have loved this – heck, I had hoped Angelmaker would be so good it would even feature on my top 10 this year. It’s an outlandish Literary Fantasy novel featuring automata, London-based gangsters, World War II shenanigans and espionage with a plot to destroy the world using clockwork bees.

But an extremely bloated plot with obnoxiously verbose descriptions (of pretty much everything the main characters come across as they wander around) plus a recently discovered aversion for third person first tense narratives unfortunately kept me from finishing the book.

It was the toe you see, that eventually did me in.

At one point in the narrative, main character Joe Spork is about to leave a room when he is stopped in his tracks by a toe. What follows is an unbearably long description of said toe which is, if you care to know: pale and round and the perfect size to be sucked. Also, and I quote: “a toe which knows the world, which has done the wicked, secret things other toes only fantasise about”.

It is uncanny the amount of information one can gather from a simple toe. Said toe is of course, linked to other four toes which are in turn attached to a calf (slender) connected to a leg belonging to a woman called Polly (referred to as “Bold Receptionist” for far too long in the narrative after she is introduced) who has the dubious and eye-rolling ability to transform utterly innocent words like “sandwich” into erotic pronunciations (according to the hero’s point of view, of course).

It was exactly at that point that I had to leave to attend a talk at Anglia Ruskin University by Philip Pullman on his new book Tales From the Brothers Grimm (the talk has been recapped brilliantly by The Other Ana over at Things Mean a Lot).

Pullman’s new book is a collection of straightforward renderings (and not embellished retellings) of 50 Grimm tales and as Mr Pullman discussed the book one of the things he said struck me as quite interesting: the fact that in these tales the characters are not real people. The very nature of the tales, which are more preoccupied with what happens next rather than with the emotional background of said characters. These characters can be perceived as puppets, as creatures without any real depth because there is a shortness of description which leads to nonexistent characterisation. To be clear, this insight is not necessarily a shortcoming but rather, provided as a means to understanding this different type of narrative mode (and its motifs). The lack of internal characterisation is exactly what gives fairytales such a rich and lasting life because they are meant to be rearranged and retold according to each storyteller’s gifts. Because characterisation is not set in stone in those stories they can be elaborated on upon their telling.

It was then that I had a EUREKA moment about what exactly was bothering me about Angelmaker.

It was its over descriptive nature of the storytelling, that often veers into random territory and results in the complete lack of actual characterisation. Ultimately, this leads to the absence of any emotional resonance. Interestingly enough those are brought forth for the exact opposite narrative technique of that of a fairytale, one that is hurt by excess rather than dearth. There is an excess of description here and we end up being told rather than shown who the characters are and how they feel. It is not something that the author is completely unaware of, by the way, as his main character remarks about his extremely verbose friend: “sometimes the plumy, playful verbiage is obnoxious. It conceals emotion.”


I put the book down around that time when Joe met Polly’s toe (about half way through). There was nothing for me there to make me want to continue and I was quite frankly bored out of my mind at that point. Not even the awesome 90 year old lesbian self-proclaimed kick-ass supervillainess (and former spy) whose story was a thousand times more interesting than Joe’s was enough to keep my interest.


  • Fangs for the Fantasy
    December 6, 2012 at 9:04 am

    I’ve had bad descriptions before (seriously, Laurel K Hamilton can spend a whole chapter describing someone’s clothes and 3 paragraphs describing how very blue some blue eyes are) but that much on a toe? A toe?

    TBH this is one of those moments when I think I’ve learned too much about the author – like Robert Jordan’s spanking fetish and this guy’s foot fetish

  • The Hipster Owl's Bookshelf
    December 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Wow. And I thought Tolkien’s 5 page descriptions of a tree was brutal. I take it back!!

    But really…

    “…a toe which knows the world, which has done the wicked, secret things other toes only fantasise about”.




  • Maximina Lock
    January 2, 2015 at 4:45 pm

    Thanks for the good article, I was hunting for information such as this, going to have a look at the various other blog posts.

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