Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway

(originally published in The Very Slow Book Reviewer, August 8th, 2018)

One of the hardest things to a reviewer these days is how to pen a good review without giving any spoilers. I won’t delve properly into this now (filing under Food for Thought to a later date, though), but let’s agree that you can’t properly write a review without describing (or disclosing) part of the plot. Sometimes, however, you find a novel so intricate, with so many relevant information, that the reviewer may find it hard to let scenes and situations unmentioned lest the story is revealed too easily to the potential readers.

That said, TL;DR: Gnomon is the best novel I read so far in 2018. Hands down.

Why is that?

First, few books have made me feel as happy as Gnomon – and smart too. In fact, I can only think right now of The Name of The Rose and 2666, two huge novels, both in number of pages and in scope. I stopped everything I was doing just to read them, savoring every page, marveling with the intricate plots, the beautiful use of language (or languages, particularly in Eco’s medieval detective novel) and the variety of alternating POVs and narratives. (Dune almost made the list, but I suspect one of the reasons it didn’t was the fact I read it originally in a translation with a number of serious problems.)

Harkaway is different, though, because Gnomon has a very particular flavor. He’s neither as high-brow as Eco, nor as convolute as Bolaño; in fact, we could say that Gnomon is comparatively much simpler in structure; but the plot compensates this handsomely, filling the reader with expectation. Which it delivers.

To read this novel, you’re not required to know anything more than the English language (it’s not the case with The Name of The Rose, where you should have some knowledge of Latin to appreciate it better). Maybe it’s better if you don’t master any of the subjects explored in this novel (which includes, but is not restricted to, sharks, stock market, art, game design, and ancient history); you might be in for a surprise.

The main plot is rather simple: London, sometime in the near-ish future, where each and every one of its citizens is watched 24/7 by The Witness, the state AI. It’s an Orwellian nightmare, but normalized, so the citizens find this total surveillance state a normal, even desired, thing (not as different as what happens in our world, I’m afraid). Its inspectors are authorized to take whatever measures necessary in order to arrest and interrogate anyone who might subvert established order.

The opening narrative is of such a person, during a very uncommon interrogatory: her brain is being scanned with state-of-the-art medical technology that’s probing her very thoughts, and the monologue of the person (a woman called Diana Hunter) is something of a Joycean riverrun, not as dense in rhetoric, but with the same love for language. This first scene gets you by the throat like an angry, rabid pitbull and won’t let go – but you find yourself loving it. And that, obviously, is just the beginning.

But the proceeding doesn’t go quite as expected. And it’s up to Mielliki Neith, Inspector of the Witness, to find out what exactly happened and why; also, who might be responsible for it.

Now, I have a theory that every text is an origami in reverse: you can unfold it and find hidden meanings, or a hidden structure. In Gnomon’s case, the main plot unfolds in at least three others: the story of a young Greek mathematician-turned-stock broker and his obsession with sharks, after having almost being eaten by one, an alchemist in 4th Century Rome, and an Ethiopian Pop Art painter-turned-revolutionary-turned-game designer. Three narratives without an apparent link to each other and to Diana Hunter’s story.

Neith will have to solve the puzzle, and she will do it by taking a deep dive into these three narratives, which she can easily do via an implant which allows her to see everything the characters/narrators saw and lived. Echoes of many stories here (I was particularly reminded of Strange Days), but this is not bad when the author knows her or his craft; and Harkaway certainly does. There is no Dickian plot device where the person using the implants starts confusing fantasy and real world – or at least not in the beginning, and certainly (and fortunately) not as a smartass wink to the readers.

What does happen is that Inspector Neith finds less and less objective facts as the investigation goes on, to the point of not knowing even if Diana Hunter really existed, and why, if that’s true, should anyone make the effort to create such an elaborate prank. The plot also involves a house built like a Faraday cage, a genderless, corpselike-white person who looks extremely like an androgynous Adolf Hitler – and might prove very deadly indeed.

Gnomon also reminded me a little of Thomas Pynchon. But the difference between Pynchon and Harkaway is that Pynchon usually write tales of deep irony and apparent random acts. Harkaway creates – no, he weaves a text, in the crudest sense of the word. Keep in mind that the word text comes from the Latin word textus, or weave; hence textiles, for instance. In Portuguese this is made clearer to the reader because of other words related to the act of writing. Take trama, for instance; trama is the equivalent of the English word plot. But, while the latter can be also linked to land (a plot of land, for example), the former can also be translated as “warp and weft”. A story has it; so does a fabric.

And Harkaway does a fine job of weaving it: Gnomon is the book where he honed his skills to a precision level as big as the information retrieval method used by the Witness. The ending is not particularly surprising (to be honest, I could see it coming the minute I entered the second half of the novel), but it still makes you want to read it all in one sitting. Gnomon is a exquisite pleasure to read. It’s one of those novels that need to be revisited from time to time, and I intend to do that.

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