Friday, May 29, 2015


Nick Harkaway's Tigerman is a slippery book --- by turns a colonial narrative, a modern action-adventure, and a heart-rending account of the emotional trials of parenthood. This unusual combination meant that my reading brain swung wildly from one framework (high school English class, reading Things Fall Apart, Heart of Darkness, Rudyard Kipling, Interpreter of Maladies) to another (James Bond, modern techno-spy thrillers, social media management to cause political change). I had trouble establishing preconceived notions... but that is a good thing. The opposite of a complaint. This book kept me on my readerly toes.

The focus, in limited third-person, is on Sergeant Lester Ferris, a semi-retired soldier who is the solitary remaining vestige of British colonial administrative/diplomatic/police presence on Mancreu, a fictional island in the Indian ocean, populated by "an unbothered ethnic jumble of Arab and African and Asian, with the inevitable admixture of Europeans." (p. 12) The island is slated to be nuked into oblivion in a futile attempt to prevent the dissemination of festering industrial waste dumped there by imperial Western companies. Lester fills his days with merry bumbling around (consuming tea, chatting with locals) in the usual colonial-novel style, including befriending a clever street-kid, the pub owner, the witch doctor, the spookily mysterious shaman, and other residual police/political presences on the island.

So far, so typically colonial narrative. Aging military man's body a metaphor for toxic-waste-ridden island a metaphor for the failures of Western imperialism. But every few pages there is a modern touch: a mention of Twitter, people watching YouTube, cell phones, sophisticated cryptography, weaponized drones and spy satellites able to resolve faces.[0] The effectively nameless Clever Street Kid (CSK) refers to comics  from the 50s and internet collectives (Reddit, Anonymous)  in the same breath.

The effect of these weird juxtapositions and limited third person is captivating. Lester draws big, overgeneral conclusions about the world around him[1], but is inward-turning. His internal monologue is mostly silent, and not especially self-reflective, but a dry, jolly humor [2] shows through. He usually thinks single, compact thoughts, and doesn't explain them to himself --- so that even when readers were present for his planning scenes, his later actions and motives are unexpected. Lester's mental focus is unusual to read, a truly different perspective than my own; he fixated on things I would have let slide, and completely missed obvious clues and hooks that would have absorbed all my focus.

Tigerman is full of little snide over-the-shoulder winks to the reader. Or maybe Lester is just the kind of person who continually makes such remarks to those around him (and his own internal monologue), whether they will be appreciated or not. Either way, this was a clash of expectations that I enjoyed. The head researcher describes one of her interns thusly:
"A genius. I cannot come up with enough jobs to keep him busy, so I permitted the other interns to assign him their extra work. ... He established a trading floor for basic tasks and cornered the market in coffee-making futures, and then the espresso machine very mysteriously broke down. So he is a task billionaire. He has calculated that if the others do all his chores and nothing else for seven thousand years, they will be free of the debt."  (p.107)
The book is well worth reading for these nuggets of joy. Its only off-putting feature was its conclusion, the climax and denouement, which came out of left field (although lightly foreshadowed, in retrospect) and left me unsatisfied. It felt sort of like the publisher might have snatched the manuscript out of the author's hands and declared it prematurely hatched. It seems slapdash, unfinished; it did not match the rest of the novel for polish or flair.

... or maybe I am bitter because the story turned out bitter, it did not end the way I was hoping. I admit this possibility.
This post's theme word is apopemptic, "relating to departing or leave-taking." Mancreu's existence is an extended apopemptic metaphor for all kinds of human culture.

[0] For example: "If Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of Fifty Shades of Grey starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel, they might just have approached this level of frenzy. But probably not, ... because not everyone liked Benedict Cumberbatch."(p. 275)

[1] These are pithy nuggets:
  • "It seemed unlikely that this crime would remain mysterious for very long. There was a limited number of things you could do with four tons of fresh fish." (p. 48)
  • "In America, everything was diagnosable, probably even positive traits could be treated if you wanted to get rid of them." (p. 86)
  • "Serious criminals... had been transferred to prisons in Scandinavian countries where the crime rate was actually dropping so fast that the prison infrastructure was having trouble staying afloat. Denmark had been a net importer of criminals since 2011." (p.81) This one has a Neal Stephensonian flavor.
[2] For example, at a funeral they sing "some involved Legion funeral song which seemed to the Sergeant's uncertain ear for French to involve a great deal of discussion of veal sausage and the shortcomings of the Belgians." (p. 77) Or in conversation with his superiors: 

"How's your stomach for totally mendacious bilge?" the Consul had asked him. 
"Limited, sir." (p. 37)

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