Like father, like son? Identity is inextricably tied to parentage in Nick Harkaway’s ‘Angelmaker’

December 18, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 18, 2014

Absent parents loom large in the fictional realm. A key component of the original Star Wars trilogy is Luke Skywalker’s gradual discovery of the particulars of his parentage (especially the villainy of his father, the genocidal Darth Vader) and Luke’s struggle to develop his supernatural powers without being consumed by his own dark, angry impulses. The rebellious nature of the alternative timeline’s James Tiberius Kirk is shaped in large part by the absence of his father, George, whom director J.J. Abrams killed off in the opening sequence of the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Likewise, the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man makes the research and relationships of Richard Parker, father of the orphaned web-slinging Peter Parker, a key plot point in both of the series’s first two outings.

I’d wager that matters of parentage are even more prominent in British fiction. After all, the United Kingdom has been ruled for centuries by a hereditary monarchy, with power passing (at least in theory) from one generation of royalty to the next.

A major storyline in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy involves Aragorn assuming the position of king of Gondor that, according to genetics and custom, is rightfully his. My recollection of the books is hazy, but in Peter Jackson’s wonderful movie adaptation, when the audience initially encounters this character, he goes by the name of Strider and appears to be a well-trained woodsman accustomed to operating on his own — hardly the résumé of the standard fantasy prince.

The title character of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is also an orphan, like the other characters mentioned above. As is the case with Skywalker — and with Parker and Kirk, to lesser degrees — the deaths of Potter’s parents are intimately linked to his story and to the destiny that he will go on to embrace.

The parentage of Jack Griffin, H.G. Wells’s eponymous Invisible Man, is far less germane to that narrative. Still, the death of Griffin’s father plays a pivotal role in further alienating the character from the rest of humanity, not to mention his own conscience and emotions. This death is unlike the others in that it happens when Griffin is an adult and in that it takes place as a direct result of Griffin’s own actions. Desperate to fund his research on invisibility, he steals from his father. Unbeknownst to Griffin, however, this ill-gotten currency was all borrowed; his father, lacking the ability to make good on his debts, commits suicide.

I mention all this because the relationship of a male protagonist with his late father is a key trope in Angelmaker, the 2012 book by the British novelist Nick Harkaway. The hero here is mild-mannered Joe Spork (yes, Spork), a none-too-successful London watch and clock repairman in his late 30s. Spork’s father was the late gangster Mathew, a leader and legend of the underground Night Market, as the city’s criminal network is known.

Joe Spork the child revered his father. Thanks to the influence of his pious clockmaker grandfather, Daniel, however, the adult Joe Spork treads the straight and narrow, explicitly rejecting Mathew’s violence and law-breaking. Daniel always decried Mathew’s deceit, and Joe slowly comes to adopt this point of view when Mathew is sent to prison and then dies.

Shortly after Angelmaker begins, however, Spork finds that he’s been drawn into a net of intrigue by a longtime pal with shady connections, Billy Friend. (The surnames provide early clues that Angelmaker will be a rather wild and wooly read.) Spork and Friend are actually both pawns of Edie Banister, an ordinary-seeming nonagenarian with a most extraordinary past.

As a teenager in the run-up to World War II, an orphaned adolescent Banister joined a covert British agency known as S2:A. At the time, this agency worked closely with an ancient order of monks. These Ruskinites were clever inventors, engineers and builders who revered craftsmanship and despised mass production. Banister’s lover, who allied with S2:A and the monks, created a mysterious and powerful device, one that could be put to constructive use but that could also be twisted to destructive ends.

In this early passage, Banister contemplates her recent decision to activate the so-called Apprehension Engine:

A few decades of calm, she reasoned at the time, and the world would set itself straight.

But somehow it all went wrong instead. The onward march of progress has wandered off down a dark alley and been mugged. The Berlin Wall and Vietnam; the Rwandan Genocide, the Twin Towers, Camp Delta; suicide bombings and global warming; even Vaughn bloody Parry, the little suburban nightmare who lived just around the corner, who killed and killed and no one knew because no one bothered to find out. Edie Banister had given her loyalty to an empty throne. There was no progress. No stability. There was just the question of whether things happened far enough away.

The Parry thing had been the end of her comfortable certainty. It began, according to the broadsheets, in a new allotment patch in some midway town called Redbury. … [When] they turned the first spadeful … it was over before it began. A grinning corpse, wrapped in a tartan blanket, and then another and another and another, and the burg of Redbury had a serial killer to call its own.

Edie could not help but notice that when Vaughn Parry tortured a prisoner and buried the corpse seven inches down in sandy soil, he was a monster, but when the same thing was done at the behest of her own government in a cellar overseas, that was an unfortunate necessity.

Well, perhaps it was. But if so, the world which made it necessary could go hang.

Banister may be the book’s most memorable character. (The only rival for the title would be Joe Spork himself.) The first two-thirds or so of Angelmaker alternate between present-day action and Banister’s recollections of adventures from her adolescence and young adulthood.

The most interesting part of Banister’s past, and the one most germane to the plot, is her World War II mission to Addeh Sikkim, “a tiny tinpot nation on the edge of the British Raj.” (There is in fact an Indian state called Sikkim, but I assume that virtually nothing in Angelmaker is meant to represent actual people, places or events.) This episode not only shows Banister coming into her own as a secret agent, it introduces her scientist-lover and her archenemy, a nefarious British-educated despot named Shem Shem Tsien. The lives of this trio turn out to be inextricably linked, with consequences that resonate even in 21st-century London.

Once Banister arranges for an unwitting Joe Spork to activate the Apprehension Engine, he attracts uncomfortable scrutiny from a covert British government agency called the Legacy Board, the successor to S2:A, as well as from the Ruskinites. Spork seeks the aid of a high-powered lawyer named Mercer Cradle (yes, I know) and receives succor and assistance from Mercer’s associate, the pneumatic Polly. Banister has a change of heart about activating the Apprehension Engine after learning more about the current nature of the Ruskinites. As Spork becomes more and more willing to take the fight to his enemies, he finds himself increasingly able to recruit a large group of skilled and powerful allies to his cause.

Angelmaker is a single book that reads like three or four different books. In its early going, the story is reminiscent of a John le Carré novel with some comic touches. (When a country barmaid comes on heavily to Spork, he responds so haplessly that Billy Friend can only look on in mute astonishment.) Many of the Banister passages seem to be modeled on young adult adventure fiction, or maybe the work of Clive Cussler: These chapters feature a sleek, powerful, secret British steam-powered locomotive towing an exotic code-breaking machine tended by scantily clad young woman, the spy caper in Addeh Sikkim and various battles against vicious foes.

The modern-day action tends to be rather grim and carries an edge of menace lacking from the younger Banister’s exploits. But gradually, the two stories converge, and the anything-goes pulp tone of the Banister tales swamps the more naturalistic tone struck by Spork’s narrative. Similarly, Spork embraces his inner swashbuckler. By the novel’s end, its protagonist has become a very different man than the mousy law-abiding sort whom we met at the beginning.

As Angelmaker approaches its climax, matters all around seem quite cartoonish. Harkaway creates some fun spectacles on the page, but it’s rather hard to get fussed about it. After all, cartoon characters like Superman usually win their battles, don’t they?

This is Harkaway’s second full-length novel, following his 2008 debut, the very enjoyable science-fiction tale The Gone-Away World. But I wonder if Angelmaker was conceived and begun first.

That’s because Gone-Away is a bold science-fiction tale that bears minimal influence from the author’s father, who happens to be John le Carré, the aforementioned acclaimed espionage novelist. Harkaway, who purportedly adopted a pen name to avoid being lost amongst a sea of British authors with the surname Cornwall, plausibly may have traveled a path in real life that resembles Joe Spork’s fictional arc in Angelmaker: Revering his father, then wanting to rebel against his father and finally asserting an identity that incorporates some of his father’s material and some of his own.

The problem, for this reader anyway, is that Angelmaker initially gives signs of having something important to say about the modern condition before it fully shifts into pulp-fiction nuttiness. At least in The Gone-Away World, the book’s pulp flag was hung plainly in view pretty much from the start.

I can only give Angelmaker a mixed recommendation, alas; there was just too much silliness at the end for my taste, even if it is stylish and enjoyable nonsense. Still, Harkaway’s third novel, Tigerman, was published this year, and I’m likely to give it a chance. The author can compose an evocative sentence, he’s full of original ideas and he gleefully plots up a mean streak.

One last note: Le Carré has written 23 novels (by my count of this Wikipedia bibliography). I don’t know if I’ll ever become as big a fan of Harkaway as I am of his father. But here’s hoping that the younger Cornwall has as productive and prosperous a writing career as his dad.

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