Gnomon by Nick Harkaway
Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon opens a future London – a surveillance state known as the System in which millions of cameras, microphones and other sensors gather information. Health issues are a thing of the past because the System monitors your vitals and attacks disease before it arises. Crime is not a problem since the System knows your thoughts as you do. All that is required is total transparency – that, and the occasional need to submit your thoughts to more invasive scrutiny by members of the System’s police force, the Witness.
Witness inspector Mielikki Neith is not having a good day. It seems that Diana Hunter, a luddite malcontent “writer of obscurantist magical realist novels,” has expired while undergoing just this sort of invasive scrutiny. This has never happened before, and Neith, a firm believer in the System and the total transparency upon which it is based, is assigned to investigate Hunter’s death.
The System provides Neith with what amounts to a download of Hunter’s brain which she is then able to plug into, traversing the woman’s thoughts and experiences in order to get a better understanding of what occurred in her final hours. But what Neith finds in Hunter’s consciousness are narratives belonging to four others: a Greek investment banker whose deep sea run-in with a supernatural shark bestows upon him godlike abilities in the stock market, a fourth-century alchemist who happens to be the former mistress of Saint Augustine (himself), an Ethiopian artist whose encounter with the universal mind imbues him with clairvoyant creative powers, and a post-human entity from the future bent on destroying… well, everything.
Gnomon feels at first like a William Gibson novel, outfitted as it is with a hard-boiled detective protagonist and lots of badass future-tech. The heft of the book is encouraging to a reader looking to get lost in just such a world, and you might even forgive Harkaway’s oft-contrived word choices. I’ve read Infinite Jest; I’m pretty good with a dictionary.
It’s in the narratives Neith plumbs in Hunter’s brain – these four extraneous personalities – that Harkaway loses us. Not right away, mind you. In fact, the story of Constantine Kyriakos and his encounter with the shark is one of my favorite parts of Gnomon. Kyriakos is an egomaniacal banking genius with a hyperactive sex drive and a predilection for bombastic declamations about the size of his testicles. So I love him (obviously), and despite little to no experience with Harkaway, I find Kyriakos’s character and narrative the one most energized by the author’s style and sense of humor. Plus, Kyriakos has a mystical encounter with a god-shark that imbues him with preternatural powers. What’s not to like?
What’s not to like is 661 pages of convoluted digressions. Gnomon’s side narratives succeed to a certain extent in developing the four ancillary characters who are distributed widely across time and space and/or living in Hunter’s (and now Neith’s) head. Their stories are, at first, engaging, but they devolve steadily over the course of hundreds of pages into individual rabbit holes that become darker and darker the deeper we descend, all the while with Harkaway leading us on – I promise, just a little further and all will become clear. Alas, that never happens. There is no light at the end of these tunnels. Pay as you might to continue the journey, the best bits of the ride turn out to be at its beginning.
I understand that Nick Harkaway is brilliant, that he has written novels that have succeeded where Gnomon fails; I saw glimmers of that brilliance in Gnomon’s pages. Unfortunately, the whole of this novel is far less than the sum of its parts, and perhaps I, and other readers, would be advised to look elsewhere for more representative products of the author’s talents.