Change Your Stripes
This 2014 genre mash-up from Nick Harkaway is well-observed and moving, and though inventive, does not touch his previous novel Angelmaker in terms of creativity, humour and wit.
Windmill Books, 372pp
I first read Nick Harkaway’s novel Angelmaker a couple of years ago and was astounded by his way of combining clever plotting and ingenious detail with warmth, wit and humour. His latest book, Tigerman, is once again a genre-defying piece of work and has plenty of great moments, but simply doesn’t live up to his previous effort. However, he did set the bar fairly high.
The lowdown is this. Lester Ferris, a near-middle-aged military man, is passing his days in the old, abandoned, fictional backwater of Mancreu. He lives alone in a palatial government-owned sprawl atop a hill, and his only brief is to turn a blind eye to the shady goings-on down below. Surrounded by corruption and reporting to a permanently red-faced, brash American commanding officer, he is happy to remain apathetic. That is, until he becomes close to a young, nameless, comic-book-obsessed boy, and everything gets turned on its head. The kid’s limitless energy, with which he reels off words like ‘hunnertenpercent’ and wacky turns of phrase like ‘full of win’, gives new life to Ferris. In Dark Knight-esque style, an unstoppable young force meets an immovable old object. But then the whippersnapper goes one better – he moves him.
And with a detailed set-up encompassing an Allied Protection Force, pollution, government plots, island myths and organised crime, alongside a stack of pop-culture references, it seems likely that Harkaway is going to fashion something as intricate as his previous book. The inhabitants of the Mancreu backstreets are given as much page-room as scientists, government agents and the other rogues who populate the novel. However, despite this, the whole effort just doesn’t have the fizz or the energy of Angelmaker.
But then again Tigerman seems, from the beginning, to be styling itself as a slower, more contemplative kind of book than Angelmaker, which though thoughtful, rattled along at a fair old pace. This book, by contrast, is full of all kinds of emotions – of those that come with age, of ebbing and flowing memories, of longings, frustrations and regrets. All are present in Ferris, who is beginning to think that his chance to have some kind of life beyond combat, and make some sort of difference, has all but faded. And so the book continues as a fusion of a comic-book story (the title does come to be important) and a meditation on family. The crimes taking place on the island come to be merely incidental, something Ferris and others can busy themselves with to distract from what really matters – the relationships. These are only given more heft over time by a slow, almost imperceptible ticking time-bomb (of a sort) which is introduced early on in the story.
This pressure-cooker environment is where Tigerman could have elevated itself, but I find that it doesn’t – it remains somewhere on the border between crime drama, eco-thriller, comic-book story and a tale of two buddies. Whilst Angelmaker was skilled at fusing all of its disparate elements together, I find that Tigerman comes out of the bargain juggling many different strands and not quite knowing what it is, whilst remaining an emotional story. In fact, one central plot point near the end, though it made a certain degree of sense, only struck me as incredibly implausible, rendering part of the story ridiculous – though perhaps that was the point. At times life is beyond ridiculous, but we must make a good fist of it anyway.
So Tigerman might not have been quite the roaring success I’d have hoped for, but it’s by no means a bad bet for an entertaining, thought-provoking read. Harkaway will certainly try his hand at anything, and is never less than thunderously ambitious, and that’s something to be applauded. I still look forward to seeing what he tries his pen at next, as whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be adventurous. How sure exactly? Hunnertenpercent.