Review of Tigerman by Nick Harkaway
by Nick Harkaway
I had no idea what to expect from Tigerman. All I knew is that Nick Harkaway has a new book out, and so I wanted to read it. At first it seemed like this was a pleasant, slightly uneven postcolonial story of an old soldier bonding with a boy on a doomed island. Gradually, I came to understand that there is much more happening beneath the surface. Tigerman lacks a lot of the flamboyant absurdity of Angelmaker, and it hews more closely to the recognizable tropes of literary realism. But the result is just as surreal and evocative as anything else Harkaway has written.
With a name like Tigerman, I kind of wondered if Lester would turn out to be some kind of superhero. And the boy’s obsession with comic books pointed in that direction. But this part of the narrative is slow to develop. The boy’s comic book and pop-culture-infused language serves merely to highlight and lampshade the absurdity of what’s happening on Mancreu.
If you’re looking for a book that exemplifies how pop culture and memes have become a part of colloquial English, then Tigerman is a good starting point. Lester, being of a different generation from the boy or myself, comes to Mancreu without much knowledge of memes or comic books. (He recognizes Star Wars references, of course, because he is the right age to have seen the original movies in theatres, and Star Wars is the juggernaut of all pop culture references.) The boy educates him, though, and about half of everything they say to each other is shaded with these allusions to a wider world. But remember that this is a world the boy has no direct experience with, and it’s a world that Lester has spent the better part of his life away from, ostensibly defending through his deployments to Afghanistan or Iraq.
So the first half of the book is mostly about Lester’s relationship with the boy, as well as his relationship with various other characters of interest on Mancreu. Similarly, language here plays an important role in signifying how to interpret these characters. The foul-mouthed, melodramatic ranting from Lester’s politican superiors like Africa gives me flashbacks to the politicians in the Johnny Worricker movies. It’s entirely believable, these interactions between Lester and others, regardless of whether they could actually happen.
This holds true for the setting too. The island itself is—and these are Harkaway’s words, not mine—a kind of Casablanca, condemned but execution stayed because further study is required. The situation is a mixture of contemporary political thriller and near-future science fiction: black sites and illegal organ transplant ships circling an island of strange, anomalous behaviour-altering clouds. Specifics behind Mancreu’s state aside, it’s easy to believe that such a political grey zone could exist in today’s world. Tigerman is realistic, but in a way that explores reality as it is presented by media. Whether or not black site interrogation facilities exist in the way Harkaway depicts here, thanks to media, they are certainly a part of our current cultural consciousness.
So, in one sense, Tigerman is Harkaway’s most realistic, most serious book yet. A great deal of it is grounded in the here and now. Yet on another level, there are great big incredible parts of this book that require leaps of faith. My own faith is rewarded when Tigerman eventually becomes reality, and as Lester grapples with the disorder and chaos that threatens to swallow the island’s beleaguered civilization, I finally came to grips with what this book is.
See, it dawned on me that Tigerman is a kind of adolescent comic book superhero fantasy from an adult’s perspective. Lester wants to adopt the boy and takes on the Tigerman identity as a way to impress him and bond with him. I don’t think Lester takes the idea of Tigerman very seriously at first. It isn’t until much later in the book that Lester demonstrates he has internalized the Tigerman identity. As he prepares to invade the Elaine and rescue Sandrine, he ponders how to accomplish this without killing anyone:
He was treating this as something for Tigerman, because he could only perform it as Tigerman, in Tigerman’s mask.… And Tigerman did not kill, or had not, and did not make his plans with killing in mind.
Lester the Sergeant is an army man, a soldier. A killer, if needs must. Tigerman is a hero in the comic book sense, and he does not kill. For him to kill would be to cross a line:
… that would end it all. Even in this pass, the boy would see the shift in him, in the fiction they had created together, from knight to dragon. He would shy away from a red-handed killer even in his gratitude….
Tigerman, then. It had to be Tigerman, doing things Tigerman’s way. A famous victory, the Sergeant sighed to himself, not an infamous one.
It bothered me, in the new Superman movie, when Superman killed Zod. Superman doesn’t kill. This is a core part of his character. It doesn’t matter how big and bad the Big Bad is. He. Does not. Kill. Not all superheroes are like this, but Tigerman—at least, the Tigerman created as a shared vision of Lester and this boy—follows that creed. He is a non-lethal but unstoppable force of myth and mystery.
Lester takes on the Tigerman identity reluctantly, but he soon grows into it. He has too long sat idle on Mancreu. He has orders not to act, not to interfere. Lester is an ideal soldier; he follows orders to the letter. Yet he has to act, because at his core he’s also a good person. Tigerman allows him to act without holding himself-as-Lester accountable for those actions. It is the type of deniability that dovetails perfectly with the realistic world of cloak-and-dagger diplomacy Harkaway portrays here.
Unfortunately, there has to be a twist that pulls the rug of justice out from beneath Tigerman/Lester’s feet. He eventually runs into a villain who is dangerously genre savvy (TVTropes) in a way that reveals the hollowness and futility (TVTropes) of attempting to be a comic book superhero in the “real world”. Thus Harkaway provides a potent reminder that not only is it difficult to vanquish the villain, but sometimes it’s difficult even to understand who the villain is. This theme recurs throughout the novel, as Lester grapples with the shadowy identities of those involved in the Fleet and their erstwhile nemesis/sometime-ally, Bad Jack.
In some respects, with Tigerman and to a lesser extent even his earlier novels, Harkaway reminds me of a softcore China Miéville. Mancreu is a mosaic of misfits, myth, and magic much in the way New Crobuzon is. The identities of Harkaway’s characters are fluid, always changing as the facts on the ground change, making for an interesting and dynamic story in which the protagonist is never sure he’s on solid ground.
Tigerman is not as overtly funny as Harkaway’s previous two novels. There are still the occasional sparks of laugh-out-loud dialogue, but by and large this novel maintains a more sombre tone. The ending, with Kaiko Inoue’s brief note and the airline ticket, is pitch-perfect in that respect and seems almost inevitable. Lester’s reaction is simultaneously an acknowledgement that nothing has changed (he is still “the Sergeant”) but that everything has changed (and he has to move on). Rather than seeing this shift in tone as unfortunate, however, I choose to see it as assurance of Harkaway’s versatility. I loved Angelmaker for the zany pastiche thrill ride that it was, but I also enjoyed Tigerman, just for slightly different reasons.