Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Reviewed by David Harris

This has been a hard book to review. I find this is surprisingly often of true the very best books, say the ones you’d give six out of five stars to if you could.

In the case of Gnomon I think there are three reasons for this. First, it’s simply got glorious writing, plotting and superb characters. Nothing there to niggle about. Secondly, it’s a very dense book – I don’t mean it’s heavy reading, I mean that the form and content of the book is perfect, the very least it needs to be to do its job, to reshape the reader’s mind and make something new. It’s therefore hard to distil it any further and a review just risks giving a very weak impression of the real thing. Any selection will do Gnomon a disservice. Finally it is a long book. At 684 pages (in the ARC I had) this is not a book to be taken casually. You need to set aside the time to read it carefully and you should be ready for variations in pace, tone and philosophical complexity that will slow you down or even make you stop, crosscheck and even reread before you’ve finished. So it’s hard to be sure that a review has covered everything it needs to.

Nevertheless, I will do my best because want to persuade you to go and get this book and to read it next, before the heap of other books you doubtless have waiting. It’s a timely book, as well as being very entertaining. It is a great experience. While serious in intent and crammed with ideas, it’s a wonderful read.

So where to begin? Perhaps by recalling that when I was an undergraduate, decades ago, Douglas Hofstadter’s book Godel, Escher, Bach was very popular, almost required, reading. It explores the recursive nature of Godel’s mathematics, Bach’s music and Escher’s pictures as an aid to a discussion of artificial intelligence. There are puzzles, stories that fold backwards on themselves, recursive dialogues and sub dialogues and plenty of real maths.

Gnomon echoes GEB is a number of ways – its structure encapsulates the subject, being recursive and ramified; it explicitly invokes Bach; it is preoccupied, I think, by what is real – which is explored by setting up alternate viewpoints that the reader can only accept if some of them aren’t, at some level, real. And as I have said, it it long.

Starting with the death of a suspect in custody in a near future UK (after 2040, but it’s not clear exactly when) the story follows the investigation of Diana Hunter’s life and final interrogation (her name is significant. In Gnomon, everything is significant). Inspector Mielikki Neith is the best investigator that The Witness has, a celebrated officer with an enviable clearup record, and putting her on the case is as good as a promise to the public that the matter will be taken seriously.

The Witness. This is the policing of the future – an AI supported system with access to deep and varied datasets (what your washing machine reports back, what the ubiquitous face and gait recognition has to say, you name it, they have it). The Inspectors provide the human touch necessary in dealing with people, but make no mistake, this is all about massive deep profiling of the population who, within The System, have adopted a creepy, surveilled way of life – all for their own good, you understand. Not Nineteen Eighty Four, nothing so naked and honest, rather the State has creepingly (and creepily) assumed terrifying powers, each with justification and with the consent of the governed

Hunter was, it seems, a dissident, living off-grid, her home Faraday-caged, her past mysteriously firewalled. (If you’ve read Harkaway’s Angelmaker you may wonder about a connection with the wonderful Edie…). As Neith is drawn deeper into trying to understand her, one question dominates: what did Hunter think she could achieve, resisting interrogation, retreating further and further into her own mind? What was she running from? What was she running towards?

The book makes use of several loosely related sub-narratives, revealed as characters in Hunter’s interrogation. Living, experiencing the records of that interrogation, Neith discovers layers of stories: an alchemist in the late Roman empire who is the former lover of Saint Augustine (‘Give me chastity, Lord, but not yet’), a banker guided though life and finance by a numerical shark, an artist from Ethiopia who painted Haillie Selassie and whose daughter seems, in the past, to be building The System, and Gnomon itself, an all-powerful being from the future. Are these stories true, within the structure of the book? Do they encode deeper information? Are the subjects real (and at what level?)

The stories begin as fairly self-contained, with their own themes and concerns. There are thoughts on Brexit and on racism in 21st century London (Bekele, the artist, remembers that ‘The wealthy immigrant population in Addis Ababa was still very white and very proud’ while the white nationalists he encounters in London might reflect that Addis was ‘a power in the world when London was a herd of pigs defecating in a muddy stream’. There is churning Greek nationalism in the wake of a financial crisis which makes our banker, Kyriakos, very rich, but also makes him enemies. There is the story of Athenaïs, that late Roman alchemist, who seems enmeshed in an occult conspiracy that rivals something out of Foucault’s Pendulum – complete with faked magical scrolls and a whole confabulated Chamber of Isis, a crucible where everything comes together and deep magic may be wrought.

Then resonances and connections appear. The separate tales begin to outgrow their framing. While there is an explanation within the context of the continuing narrative, rooted in Hunter’s mysterious aims, the stories evolve and their protagonists become something more, acquiring deeper purposes and doing things that echo in the (that is, Neith’s) ‘real’ world. But they don’t, didn’t, exist in that world, as her enquiries show. Just how powerful was Hunter’s ability to fox The System? is she foxing us, too? (Almost certainly).

In the gaps between the separate tales Harkaway’s novel takes wing, as he hints at and trails ideas, encodes secrets and dwells on classical mythology, art, music, history and such diverse topics as alchemy, late Roman syncretism and the Hermetic society of the super-rich. The separate strands are all absorbing in themselves (Harkaway could probably have got four novels out of them) although as he makes plain the story is only complete when they are taken together. The idea of a 5-fold structure is endlessly repeated, played with, disassembled, rebuilt and reworked (most obviously in the work of Bekele (‘I have seen life as fantasy, and painted it in my fivefold way’) but also in the way that Hunter is ‘stenographically hidden in my own thoughts… If they want to know what I know, they’ll have to put me back together first’). Then there is the five-fold security, something you have, something you know, something you are and the last two proved twice. There are the five rivers of Hades that must be crossed. There are the “Five concentric branes or skeins” that are said to make up true reality. And so on.

If four of the viewpoints are alchemist, artist, banker and demon, whose is the fifth? Hunter being elusive, empty, chimerical, I think the fifth element is Neith itself. She’s more than just the investigator, she has, as hinted at the start by the enigmatic Regno Lönnrot, her own part. She is the Winston Smith, the Grail Knight who will – or won’t – quest for the occulted truth and save the land.

From what will she save it? At the centre of the book is a concern with all that data. The System is benign, we are told. It is there for us. Democratic checks and balances are included so that the technology serves us, not the other way round. Yet the result is sinister, Harkaway brilliantly hinting at the doubts that even a loyal and successful member of society like Neith might hold, at the shadows behind the reality. If there is a centre to Gnomon it’s a desperate warning that we may be, step by well intentioned step, walking into a captivity so pervasive and relentless that we can’t even see it for what it is. ‘All this technology flowed in its earliest days from America. With it came the political and social assumptions of a small number of engineers and entrepreneurs, predominantly male and white…’

That may be the centre, but there is so much more here. There’s beautiful writing (‘a lonely detective pursuing or fleeing a killer along a film noir alleyway whose shadows were cast not by dressed net-gothic stone but by the steel and glass of tomorrow’s Skid Row’). There’s humour (‘Here I am, a Greek in a sack, in the back of a truck… It does slightly seem as if it might be a very violent Dr Suess book…’)

And there are secrets. What does the repeated text “FA LA JI RO” mean? Perhaps the key is a throwaway comment that something is ‘like reading a book where all the stories are jumbled up and there’s just a line of numbers at the beginning to tell you where to start’.

The stories in this book are jumbled up.

There is a line of numbers at the start.

I’m going to finish the review now and go and break some codes.

Perhaps I, too, can be Gnomon.

David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.

Nick Harkaway, Gnomon (William Heinemann, 2017). 978-1785151279, 704pp., hardback.

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