Translit: New Genre Collapses Time and Space

March 28, 2012


At the recent Public Library Association conference in Philadelphia, my friend and Booklist columnist David Wright, who was giving a presentation on literary fiction, used a term I had never heard, translit, to describe that boundary-breaking kind of novel that shatters all the too-often pigeonholing categories we use to compartmentalize modern fiction.

The term, David explained, comes from Douglas Coupland, who defined it in the March 8 New York Times as being a new literary genre that “collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind.” I thought immediately of one of my favorite writers, Haruki Murakami, whose books—especially his latest, 1Q84—roll roughshod over the reader like tidal waves of story, far beyond mere genre-bending but using the formulas of genre fiction in an oddly reverent way. Translit—in the dual sense of transcending and transformative—seemed like a perfect term to describe Murakami.

As David was talking, I also thought of Nick Harkaway, whose new novel, Angelmaker, happened to be, at that moment, on the bedside table in my hotel room. Because David and I have shockingly similar tastes, I was not surprised when, seconds later, he began extolling Angelmaker as a quintessential example of translit.

Harkaway’s debut, The Gone-Away World, offered a gonzo take on postapocalyptic fiction, but it was really just a warm-up act for Angelmaker, a tour de force of Dickensian bravura and epic splendor. At the center of the tale is Joe Spork, a retro clockmaker in contemporary London who is doing his best to live down the legacy of his crime-boss father. Then an elderly lady, who happens to be a superspy from decades past, deposits a curious artifact on Joe’s doorstep, and before you can say “doomsday machine,” Joe appears to be the only person with even an outside chance of saving humanity from a truly bizarre form of extinction.

We learn gradually that the doomsday machine was designed to bring world peace by forcing us to speak only the truth; but in the wrong hands, truth-telling can be the deadliest of weapons. Yes, there’s espionage here, along with fantasy and more than a little steampunk, but there’s also an overlay of gangster adventure, a couple of tender romance plots, and some fascinating reflections on fathers and sons and the tricky matter of forging a self in the shadow of the past.

The latter is particularly interesting, as Harkaway is the son of John le Carré, and while he writes in an utterly different style and on a much grander scale than his father, the fact remains that—stripped of its mad monks and artificial bees and Pre-Raphaelite craftsmen turned thugs—Harkaway’s novel is at its core a powerful meditation on the anxiety of influence, similar in that way to his father’s A Perfect Spy. But influences aside, this is a sublimely intricate yet compulsively readable novel. If you happen to be at a cocktail party when somebody mentions translit, just nod sagely and say, “Nick Harkaway.”


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