Friday, January 2, 2015

Tigerman: A Novel, by Nick Harkaway

"On the steps of the old mission house, the sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican." So begins the novel, Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway that pretty much defies categorization. io9 calls it "existential pulp," comparing it to comic book fiction, but with serious questions about "existence and personhood." The Independent calls the novel, "post-pulp." Harkaway himself says of his novels, "My books are hard to categorise: they have elements of the fantastical, so they often do end up on the science fiction shelves, which is like parking a skidoo among motorbikes: sort of makes sense, but not a perfect fit."

As Jason Sheehan writes for NPR, Tigerman is the story of Sergeant Lester Ferris — a British soldier who has "seen too many wars in too many places," and is now approaching an uneventful retirement babysitting the brevet-consul position of the doomed island of Mancreu. The island, like so much of Harkaway's book, is imaginary.
Due to past ecological insults visited on the island by greedy corporations, unnamed but familiar, Mancreu now occasionally belches clouds of toxic waste, and is thus due to be cleansed any day now by fire and high explosives, courtesy of a panicked international community, fearful that the rest of the world will be somehow 'infected' by the island's inflected disease. One is reminded of global warming, except the world doesn't seem to be paying attention.

As the story unfolds, Mancreu exists in a sort of legal limbo. No one wants it, so no one rules it, and anarchy prevails. Mancreu has become home to the sorts of characters who seek out lawless places. The 'Bay of the Cupped Hands' has filled up with the Black Fleet — a dangerous if motley collection of intelligence posts, gun boats, illicit hospital ships, drug labs, torture centers and money laundries — and the bars with journalists and spies. Lester, because as the sole remaining representative of the U.K. government's former colonial apparatus, he has been ordered very clearly to not care about any of it, turn a blind eye, mark time, and for God's sake, don't give any interviews to the Press.

But the Sergeant isn't the sort of man to watch as dogs are kidnapped, fish are stolen, drugs are stockpiled, and most of all, a street kid is in danger of being orphaned, if he's not already, and thrown to the mercies of the global refugee debacle.

This boy, who Lester sees as possibly the son he never had, sees himself as Robin to Lester's Batman, or any superhero will do. And the boy, who gauges everything by levels of awesome, ultimately convinces Lester, at a certain point, to become a superhero called Tigerman, and to right wrongs, large and small. Lester goes along with it because he loves the boy, although he will not use that word, worries over the boy, indeed, saves the boy as mysterious evil-doers viciously gun down their friend, a barkeep, with his fingers possibly in nefarious doings.

Mancreu is, of course, a microcosm of all man's petty lusts and foibles. Harkaway's prose are especially telling when he writes along these lines. When describing an initial conversation the sergeant has with the former British Consul to Mancreu, for example, the man warns Lester not to answer the phone. "By the time it rings, the situation is fucked up beyond all retrieval anyway." He then compares Mancreu to Iraq, saying, "Should have had a better bloody plan in the first place. Should have said what we said we were doing in Afghanistan and left Iraq alone." Harkaway then has him say, "Conduct oneself with a bit of dignity and don't let the local staff get murdered. Avoid the sexual torture of prisoners, that's always a good one." Yes, indeed that's a good one.

As Sheehan writes, "for all the strangeness that lives in Tigerman, Harkaway never loses his grip." What is strange is necessary and just right and altogether enchanting and awful. The sergeant is always a soldier and too old to play superhero even when he is Tigerman. And you are, of course, pulling for the boy and the sergeant and the sergeant's dream of saving the boy and having a son and when the story ends you can not be disappointed, because it ends as it has to.

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