The three men lit up in my mind's eye, with footnotes. They were converging on me — and on the object I was carrying — in a way that had woken some sort of angry territorial lizard in my head. Something about the pattern of their approach, the vectors and the way they would all reach me at exactly the same time, was predatory on the most primal level.
I am fundamentally a gentle sort of person, so I was a bit surprised to find that a part of my brain was working out which of them needed to die first and how to make that happen. Lists of "dangerous parts" I learned long ago were highlighted up and down their bodies as they drew closer, each target point carrying a sense of difficulty versus efficacy. Everyone thinks a blow to the groin is the fastest way to end a fight, but it's unreliable. The target is small, mobile, and well-guarded, and you have to be close in to hit the mark. Worse yet, a minority of men respond to that particular agony with a great surge of adrenalin and anger. Collarbones, on the other hand, scored very well on my chart because they are easily broken and the resulting pain is absolutely incapacitating. Ears, noses, and knees were represented as well. With only one hand free, I wasn't likely to be able to do much with the neck, which was a shame, because the brachial plexus is a goldmine of nasty opportunities and the carotid arteries are a slam dunk if you can get inside someone's guard. Shins are surprisingly good — scrape down, and do your best to crush the small bones in the foot while you're at it. I'd take any target that was offered, of course: you can't prejudge an engagement; you have to go with the logic of the moment. That said, the logic of the moment didn't look good.
The truth was that I was encumbered, out of shape, and out of practice, and in all honesty I'd never been a very good martial artist in the first place. It was your usual college kid fantasy for me, pursued for a decade and then gratefully abandoned when work got in the way. On the other hand, the lion's share of my problem was a distinct reticence about experiencing pain coupled with an overabundance of caution about inflicting injury on someone else. Neither of those was an issue today. Unfettered savagery would compensate somewhat for a lack of skill — though even then, the numbers would tell against me if my adversaries worked together in even a half-competent way. If I could put down my package, I'd be in better shape, but that wasn't an option. The package was five months old and precious beyond words, and she was the nonnegotiable survivor of this encounter. I settled my weight, and looked again at the bad guys.
They'd gone into a florist's. Actually, no: two of them had gone into a florist's and were arguing in loud voices about the relative merits of different kinds of tulips. The third one was helping an old woman load her shopping bags into a taxi.
It was just possible, I realized, that they were not in fact a human hunting pack after all. They might not want to eat my daughter. It was conceivable I would not have to kill them in the middle of the high street, just outside the photographic store into which a noted pop singer later crashed his car. (I tell you, though: it's a tough corner. It looks all leafy and cozy and, sure, there's a kindergarten two doors down, but to the discerning eye it's basically an urban warzone. I got a parking ticket there the other day and a nun laughed at me, which should tell you everything you need to know.)
I wrote the first draft of Tigerman while my wife was pregnant — needless to say, I was relaxed and casual about her well-being during this tender time — and the novel clearly has its center in that panicked parental desperation that accompanies a first child, and in the admittedly comedic extremes to which it drives us. The need to do right by our kids is hardwired, and it's such an overwhelming thing — in my life, at least, it's so uncommonly biological as to feel completely redefining — that it had to be the heart of the book. There's plenty of other stuff going on — nefarious criminality, geopolitical malfeasance, environmental degradation, and masked vigilantism — but what binds it all together is the relationship between Lester Ferris, sergeant in the British army, and the island boy who becomes his friend and de facto adopted son. Lester has no family, the boy seems to need one, and that's it: they fit themselves into a pattern so exigent that it shapes everything for both of them from then on.
As I look at my writing so far, I realize that I seem to be on a track through the different relationships we have in our lives. I started with the bond between male friends in The Gone-Away World, then went on to a son's relationship with his father in Angelmaker, and here I am reversing the angle and doing an almost-father and his almost-son in Tigerman. The book I'm working on now breaks the mold, at least superficially, but I suspect by the time I've finished, it will be about one's relationship with oneself and with society as a whole: What responsibilities should we acknowledge to ourselves and the greater mass of mankind? And I know one of the ideas I'm contemplating for the book after next is about a woman who finds herself suddenly a mother — though in a rather indirect and curious way. It's a strange realization, given how far out some of what I've written is — though I hope it's magically real rather than absurdly distancing — to find that in the end I'm building these stories on the most basic of emotional foundations.
And yet, on the other hand, I've always known. As I work, I see my writing — each scene, each chapter, each section, each book — in three-act structures and classic myths, and I analyze them through the handy filter of the detective story. It's Crime-Investigation-Solution, though of course the "crime" need not be an illegal act so much as one that puts the narrative universe out of balance. Then the investigation can be as much internal as external and the solution a personal epiphany as much as the moment where a sleuth says triumphantly, "I expect you're wondering why I've called you all here this evening..." Those simple shapes allow me to stay on track through some very wild and complex storytelling, and keep you — if I get it right — from getting lost, or worse: bored.
Parenthood, I have discovered since the incident with the florist-assassins, takes us all in different ways. Evidently I am the sort of father who is host to a deranged inner castle warden: an armored medieval maniac who is prepared to go to war with catapults and boiling oil as soon as someone so much as knocks on the portcullis. I've calmed down with the realization that not everything in the world is inimical, and I have not, to date, tried to bite anyone to death for sneezing on or near my kids. Nor has it been necessary for me to deploy that list of dangerous parts. The castle warder informs me that this is the beneficial outcome of his constant red-eyed vigilance. I think it could be that, or it could be that we live in a nice suburb where — as long as you're not working in a photographic store — your chances of major injury are nominal. But most people don't have such a benign environment, and in a theatre of real threats, that need to protect earns its sergeant's stripes.
This isn't a "what if" book. I didn't sit down and ask myself what it would be like to be someone else. The Sergeant and the Boy arrived in my head, and in a way all this is so much second-guessing — educated, but inferential — about how they came to be what they are. They're me, inevitably, as characters must be. I wrote a book, which is less mysterious than having a child but still imponderable, and here it is, out in the world. It's about heroism and love — albeit the British sort that is often opaquely expressed — and who we all are in our daydreams and our real lives. I hope you like it.
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Nick Harkaway is the author of Tigerman and two previous novels, The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, and a nonfiction work about digital culture, The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World. He is also a regular blogger for The Bookseller’s FutureBook website. He lives in London with his wife, a human rights lawyer, and their two children.
Books mentioned in this post
Nick Harkaway is the author of Tigerman