The Broken World
by Tim Etchells
Review by Marcus Gipps
William Heinemann Ltd Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780434018338
Date: 03 July 2008 List Price £14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Uncorrected Proof Copy: Due from William Heinemann this July, The Broken World is a new and extraordinary work of literary SF from Tim Etchells, a British writer and artist with considerable creative drive.
"...steers a dizzying path between science fiction and the existential thriller, with writing that is kinetic, street-smart and supremely fertile. I picked up echoes of J.G.Ballard, Thomas Pynchon, William Vollman, even Brett Easton Ellis, but in the end Tim Etchells sidesteps all comparisons with a sensibility that is quite unique. Contemporary fiction should watch out: it's about to be ambushed." -- Rupert Thompson
Another day, another book from Heinemann with an SF bent and the word "World" in the title. Following hard on the heels of last month's The Gone-Away World (enthusiastically reviewed by John Berlyne in last months issue) and possibly making rather less of a splash (I guess being the son of John Le Carre does help, even if you write under a pseudonym) comes this rather odd beast from Tim Etchells (as far as I know, not the son of a major writer, but I may be wrong!)entitled The Broken World.
I want to say this right away - I enjoyed this book. A lot. But in the next few paragraphs I'm going to a) maybe sound like I didn't and b) explain why I have the horrible feeling that it won't sell very well. I think the basic problem is this - to describe, even roughly, what the book is about would instantly alienate a large proportion of people. People who play computer games and are frequent users of the internet, probably fine, although still unlikely to jump for joy at the idea. People who don't do those things, and have absolutely no idea what a "walkthrough" is? Problem. This is a book which is, effectively, a badly written walkthrough of a game that doesn't exist (although to be fair, a novel that based itself on a real game would be even weirder!). I realise that this is the concept the author has chosen to use, and it's no more outlandish a narrative decision than any number of other novels that are published, but still - it doesn't really scream accessability, does it? Of course, the number of people who wouldn't be put off could still translate into a lovely sales figure, but as a literary novel I suspect this will be a hard sell. And make no mistake, this is a literary novel.
Etchells manages to capture the voice of his narrator perfectly, and plays some lovely tricks of perception and narrative. At heart, this is a very straight-forward tale - pizza-shop-working, computer-game-obsessive twenty-something has relationship and life issues, some of which get resolved - but the framework that Etchells has chosen to use is a very cleverly self-contained one, which lends itself to a high level of sophistication whilst simultaneously reading as if it were written by your average semi-literate blogger. A certain level of suspension of disbelief is needed, of course - quite apart from the fact that, at around 350 pages in the final book, this would be one of the longest walkthroughs ever, there is also the problem that The Broken World, while sounding fantastic for those who like that sort of thing, is simply impossible as a game (unless computer games have got seriously more impressive in the last few years than I know).
It took me a while to get used to the language and feel of the book, which is another reason why I think people might reject it unfairly. Deliberately written in a very low-key style, it can be quite easy to forget that Etchells' must have put a huge amount of work into creating his narrator's voice. Small things (like the broken CAPS LOCK WHIch comes anD GOes througHOUT the novel) may seem forced at first, but the sheer intensity of the writing and the integrity of the concept imbues them with greater meaning later on. It almost comes as a surprise when we realise that, despite his manifold shortcomings, the narrator has managed to draw us into his world and make us care about him, his friends and his life. Many of the allusions to "real life" events are elliptical and half-hidden - this is a novel which makes you fill in the gaps - but it all builds up into a remarkable portrait of a man and his life. A petty and seemingly failing life from some points of view, maybe, but one that is as important (and well-depicted) as you could hope for.
The book works on more than one level, naturally - it is obvious that the game world reflects and comments on "real life" and our narrator's personality - but one of the most impressive things is the way in which the game itself is depicted. It's easy to create an environment like this when you have no limits on money or time or computing reality, and when you can skip over sections of the game with an airy "I'll come back to this later", but there are some moments of great writing in here. The description of the empty level alone justifies the central conceit of the book, and there are some wonderful diversions into the philosophy of gaming, fiction and control. The fact that these passages don't jar with the rest of the book is central to Etchells' success. His narrator is a thoughtful man trapped in a dead-end job, escaping into a carefully crafted alternative reality, and thus rings true (although in many ways he's an idiot as well!).
So, overall it should be clear that I really enjoyed the book, especially once I got going. Terrible as a walkthrough for a computer game, perhaps, but fantastic as a novel, and one that repays close attention to the text in a way that may not be obvious at first. Any putative reader will need to be prepared to be infuriated by some of the book, and bored, and confused, but it all comes out for the best in the end. You can't really ask for more than that - I just hope it manages to find a niche for itself.