Taking notes while reading, the deeper I get I start to gain a picture of what a novel is about, and subsequently how I will shape the review. I stood no chance with Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon (2017). Constantly evolving in unpredictable directions, it wasn’t until the closing sections for each character that I started to gain a fuzzy picture. Cyberpunk dystopia? Humanist plea? Expression regarding the power of semantics and story? Lexical playground? Pulp apologetics? Reservations about technology? Political rant? My fuzzy picture is that it is likely all of them.
In its birthday suit, Gnomon is about Diana Hunter, a politically deviant woman who is brought to a government facility to have her mind read as part of a Witness investigation. Dying on the operating table, Investigator Neith comes in to determine the cause. Naturally looking into the thoughts and memories the Witness machine picked up before Hunter’s death, the investigator is surprised to find a collection of personages inside Hunter’s mind. One a Greek finance magnate caught in the country’s early 21st century economic woes, another an Ethiopian painter who now finds himself helping his daughter with the graphic design of her video game, the third an ancient Greek alchemist having herself to investigate a seemingly impossible death, and the fourth a demon (or djinn) who pops in and out in devilish fashion. And above all of these characters floats a future entity, a hive mind calling itself Gnomon. Seemingly able to travel through time and the data sphere, its presence is shadowy as much as the sharks haunting the lives of the other people in Hunter’s head. Neith’s investigation takes her places the all-knowing government Witness system would have it, and more interestingly, places it wouldn’t, the result is a surprising cause to Hunter's death.
Summing up Gnomon in a scant line is practically impossible. As the questions in the intro indicate, Harkaway has created a true milieu. Paralleling the contemporary Western sense of existence, with its onslaught of media, data tracking, integration with technology, and the potential for exploitation of any of the facets, it’s possible the muddle is part of the program. Regardless, it’s certainly an angry novel. Like Huxley’s Brave New World, Harkaway deeply questions the direction of society, seeming to portray technology as a shark just waiting to bite, and as such seems to prefer the touch of unpredictability a less technologically integrated existence—for all its virtues and vices—brings to the table. Taking that idea one step further, Harkaway would even seem to use story and literature as elements rebelling against the march of technology and the areas of privacy it would seek to infiltrate; the existences inside Hunter’s head are never fully qualified as imagined or remnants of older consciousnesses. The fact she was a writer of ghost books—books with empty pages—implies that there is a certain freedom for one to write or tell their own story in the face of the script the tech/data inundated government provides. But that none of this is made explicitly clear (purely my own speculation) feeds back into the milieu.
And I ramble—something easy to do after consuming Gnomon. At times laugh out loud funny, at times passionate, at times wildly discursive, at times unable to contain itself, at times wildly speculative, and all the time driving, driving, driving itself onward, at 700 pages it can sometimes feel like the novel was dropped on the table in front of you. So much so, it makes the experience of reading the next couple of novels thereafter vapid and soulless. I read Claire North’s 84k just after Gnomon and was left feeling empty, like I was reading a shell of a novel. Perhaps at any other given time North’s novel would have grabbed me a little rougher and harder, but in the context of Gnomon it seemed void of creativity, language, passion, etc. Both novels are cyberpunk-ish dystopias angry at the conservative establishment, but Harkaway’s novel is just deeper, more unique, and more complex at every level. Naturally, if every novel were as winsome, invigorating, and cavernous as Gnomon we wouldn’t consider it something special, but certainly it gets in the reader’s face and demands to be read—a rare feat among books these days.
The closest peer I can think of to Gnomon is David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. The scope of time, the dabbling in the supernatural, the sheer panache, the blending of pulp tropes, the cast of multiple characters, and the undying belief in the dynamics and full-blooded usage of the English language are all present. Mitchell, with a couple more novels under his belt than Harkaway, has figured out how to contain his exuberance within distinguishable character voices, but Harkaway’s novel seems a little more erudite in its desire to include historical knowledge in its backdrop. Despite that each deals with entirely different subject matter, I believe the two exist as peers somewhere in the top reaches of fiction on the market these days.
And the prose is worth digging a little deeper into. Using Harkaway’s first novel The Gone-Away World as reference point, Gnomon’s lexical mindset is positively reserved. Still miles more vibrant than the majority of writers today, it has nevertheless become more mature with each novel—like the class clown who has learned how to turn the volume up to eleven without killing the effect. The novel still possesses moments where Harkaway can’t contain himself—a puppy drooling on shoes, but overall the prose is the force undeniably driving the whole in a way so incredibly few writers are able these days.
In this age of doorstopping tomes (Tolstoy no longer has a monopoly), it can be a difficult thing to choose which block of paper to invest our limited time in. Gnomon is not only worth it, but is a novel that spoils other novels through its sheer bloody-minded ability to be something more, something better, something as singular as can be on today's market. Indeed it is a dystopian novel, but certainly not one to be grouped with the contemporary, mass market rush of such material. And indeed it has flaws, perhaps even some egregious ones. But Gnomon stands apart—at a right angle (har har, for those who’ve read the novel)—from from the crowd, and for as messy as it sometimes may be, still commands respect and deserves readership.