"Angelmaker" by Nick Harkaway. A Critical Essay

Literature Review, 2016
4 Pages, Grade: 2:1


Angelmaker Critical Essay

This essay explores the novel Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway and its uses of genre, form and characterisation to express concerns and meanings behind death and the modern mind. The genre as steampunk fills the novel full of wondrous inventions from a battle train called the Lovelace, to a gigantic submarine. By referencing articles and works focusing on the construction of the novel and the meanings modern fiction generates, I will argue towards Nick Harkaway’s use of narration and time to develop a story which adapts reality. His use of characters is intriguing as they have a close relationship with the plot, inviting the reader to explore a universe where everything is a cog in a machine.

The author is not only able to employ the genre fully but also bend it believably with this world, creating a novel which adapts and exaggerates reality. This genre, through its use of advanced technology and intellectual superiority displays the concerns Marianne Bonwit highlights as belonging to modern fiction. In her article ‘Babel in Modern fiction’, she states that ‘For, meanwhile, the promise of technological achievement has given way, first to technological organization as a social and economic challenge, and recently to technological achievement as a threat to moral values and to life itself.’[1] Angelmaker, a novel embedded with fears towards the use of the Apprehension device, the technological achievement of a genius, fits perfectly within the confines attached to notions of moral and life degradation expressed in modern fiction. The novel displays a depth of research as the narrator always describes in detail the mechanisms and their relationship to each characters. In his acknowledgements, Nick Harkaway goes on to state the advice he was given when referring to ‘matters relating to supercooled water and submarines.’ demonstrating that to give a true sense of verisimilitude, the author should always aim to have a confident grip on the world he is creating.[2] The genre fits perfectly with the characters as the creations not only give insight into their personalities, but also insight into their world. Machine guns, explosives and huge mechanisms all come to have their own place within the plot.

The idea of people as cogs in a machine is a strong theme throughout the novel. Every individual for example comes to be placed within a larger group, where everyone has a connection to someone important who they can rely on. For Joe, this creates a network of characters each having their own expertise and advice which leads the protagonist on. This comes to question the individual against the collective, as the Ruskinites, a hive group who function as a singular mind are no longer seen as human. The Opium Khan himself through the use of the apprehension device seeks godhood by bringing his mind into the minds of everyone in the world. Uniting them, but at the same time killing them. In his article ‘The Moment of Death in Modern Fiction’, Robert Detweiler argues that ‘Something of that “power of the instant" in its movement "between nullity and totality” is caught and discharged in the efforts of various literary artists to portray the moment of death in fiction or poetry.’[3] Nick Harkaway is able to investigate the moment of death, the stage between being and non-being by fully employing his genre, and investigates what it means to be human. Throughout the novel, Joe makes allusions to the myth of the recording man, who, encased in wires and computers has his every thought and desire recorded: ‘Picture a man, the tale went, in a bed of silk sheets. And picture all around him wires and cameras and men taking notes. Everything about him is written down.’[4] As a child, Joe would have nightmares of the story. The myth would evoke questions in his mind, giving rise to fears of seeing himself chosen as the next recording man. This plays with the notion that humans are more than simply cogs in a machine, that even if every impulse was to be recorded, something would be left behind. By playing with the notion of death, the author is able to create depth in his characters, by showing what they live for and how they fear to die.

The plot also follows the same theme. The plot is not presented in a linear fashion, rather, the novel jumps back and forward in time revealing characters and mechanisms which will come to have a play in the story. James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure argues that ‘Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better. Structure is about timing —where in the mix those elements go.’[5] Angelmaker, a novel with mini plots within a larger plot embraces structure by displaying time as a layered narration. This creates a concise and overarching form to the book. The past slowly becomes clear, shedding light on the present and allowing both the reader and Joe to gain the truth. In The English Novel and Prose narrative, David Amigoni reinforces Poe’s notion of unity of effect: ‘This has been achieved when the sensitive reader experiences a ‘unity of effect or impression’’.[6] This is similar to the way Joe, when first encountering the Apprehension device, tries to pick his way through the instrument to understand its function: ‘If a normal piece of clockwork is a person, this thing is a great city. It is folded on itself, each section fulfilling several roles, turning in one axis, then another.’[7] Big cogs lead to smaller and smaller ones until even his skill can no longer distinguish what lies underneath the mechanism.

Everything comes to rotate into its rightful place as a well thought out plan made by many characters. James Scott Bell goes on to state that ‘What makes a plot truly memorable is not all of the action, but what the action does to the character.’[8] Every role has a particular expertise, whether mending clocks or escaping the clutches of the government, displaying the identities behind the characters as they are seen to react to certain events and actions in relation to their strengths and weaknesses. Third Person, free indirect style allows the reader to catch glimpses into every character, from seeing the mind behind the main protagonist, to the thoughts of even minor antagonists. This allows the reader to be able to slowly piece together the plot, by observing the roles the characters come to play in the novel. David Amigoni reinforces the idea of the characters’ subject positions by making allusions to their discourses: ‘Discourses ‘make’ characters in novels and in life: they do this by making out particular positions – so called subject positions – from which individual subjects and collective interests can fashion identities.’[9] Joe can be seen as a character in two parts, his identity deeply rooted in the position he holds at key intervals in the novel. His role within the plot is crucial, yet he is part of everyone else’s plans rather than his own. He comes to know as little as the reader, almost placing him outside the plot, allowing him to slowly piece together the truths from the lies and finally seeing his importance within the story. His subject position undergoes three clear stages of transformation which aid in the deepening of the plot and the expressing of a theme. As a child, he sees himself as the talented son of an infamous gangster who wishes to follow in the footsteps of criminality. As he grows up, he comes to place himself in the role of an honest man, one who must hide and never get involved. This life is one of his Grandfather Daniel, a clockmaker. Finally, his character goes through a final transition as he comes to realise that the life of an honest man was not for him. Joe finally finds himself, not through peace of mind, but through the vulgar mechanics of a tommy gun:

Because a man carrying a tommy gun plants his feet and lets loose and no one knows – literally no one – what will happen next. This is a gambler’s weapon. A gangster’s fun. It’s not about perfection or skill or even surviving. It’s about brass and swagger.[10]


[1] Marianne Bonwit, ‘Babel in Modern Fiction’ Comparative Literature, 2 (1950), 236-247 (p. 236)

[2] Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker (London: Windmill books, 2012), p.567.

[3] Robert Detweiler ‘The Moment of Death in Modern Fiction’ Contemporary Literature, 13 (1972), 269-294 (p.269)

[4] Nick Harkaway, p. 61.

[5] James Scott Bell, Plot & Structure (Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2004), p. 22.

[6] David Amigoni, The English Novel and Prose Narrative (Edinburg: Edinburgh University and Press Ltd), p. 90.

[7] Nick Harkaway, p. 77.

[8] James Scott Bell, p. 141.

[9] David Amigoni, p. 12.

[10] Nick Harkaway, p. 521.

Excerpt out of 4 pages


"Angelmaker" by Nick Harkaway. A Critical Essay
Falmouth University
Novel Writing
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ISBN (eBook)
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Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker, death, modern mind
Quote paper
English and Creative Writing Michael Amos (Author), 2016, "Angelmaker" by Nick Harkaway. A Critical Essay, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/345276


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