Thursday 22 August 2019

Baffling utopian epic ladled with elegant nonsense

Fiction: Gnomon, Nick Harkaway, William Heinemann, hardback, 684 pages, €17

Tendency to overwrite: Nick Harkaway
Tendency to overwrite: Nick Harkaway
Gnomon by Nick Harkaway
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Gnomon, the mammoth fourth novel from Englishman Nick Harkaway, is set in a near-future Britain. It's not dystopian, rather something close to utopian - so we think initially, anyway - as society is run on a fully democratic basis, via regular and well-informed public votes using the incredibly powerful computerised System.

Everyone watches everyone else, but importantly - presumably a nod to the mania for self-revelation on social media - they don't have a problem with that. In fact they like being watched. They want everyone to know everything about them. After all, if you've nothing to hide, why would you mind being under constant surveillance?

Diana Hunter did mind. A crotchety, elderly woman and former novelist, she lives "off the grid": her old house has no cameras, she chooses barter instead of electronic money transfer. Hunter even has a home-made Faraday cage to block electronic signals.

This isn't strictly illegal but may be a sign of something amiss, possibly even in Hunter's subconscious; the System takes pride in identifying unrecognised pathologies and heading off potential misdeeds. So she's brought in for a "direct investigation" of her brain: technicians peel back the layers and poke around inside her consciousness. This is all stored for future playback.

When Hunter dies under observation, enter Inspector Mielikki Neith of the Witness (blandly corporate new name for the police). Jacking into Hunter's thoughts and memories, she's perplexed to encounter not one, but five distinct minds.

There's Constantine Kyriakos, a Greek maths savant and stock trader who'd made billions guided by a shark-like ghost in the machine of international business. Athenais Karthagonensis is an alchemist in 3rd century Rome, former lover of Saint Augustine, mourning the death of their son.

Berihun Bekele is an Ethiopian artist of global renown, contemporaneous with Kyriakos, coming out of retirement to create an unfathomably vast computer simulation with granddaughter Annie. And then there's Gnomon.

Gnomon claims to be a consciousness from the distant future, when humanity has evolved beyond any limits we could fathom. He/she/it/they is/are a fusion of hundreds of individual minds, acting as one, using many different bodies (yes, much of the book is this bewildering). And Gnomon is travelling backwards in time to assassinate four people and thus - I think - destroy the universe.

You may have guessed that I found this book hugely confusing, to the point where - about two-thirds through - I more-or-less lost interest in the whole thing. It's not the length, though the novel is much too long. It's not that Harkaway has a tendency to overwrite: both in labouring a point or observation before labouring it some more, and using arcane (and possibly non-existent) words where a normal, widely-known one was available. "Inameliorable" is a particular beauty that, unfortunately, stays in the mind.

My main problem is that Gnomon doesn't make a lick of sense. Or maybe it does, in the author's mind, but I'm afraid I was baffled, to the point of paralysed stupidity. I genuinely couldn't tell you, by the end, who did what and when, whether anything reported here actually occurred, whether any or all of these characters even exist.

At this point I'm even a bit doubtful that the book itself is real. Or perhaps it is, and I'm just a fictional construct, in someone else's dream - meta-text made flesh. Not even the all-seeing, godlike System could make sense of it.

This sounds harsh. There are a lot of things to enjoy in Gnomon. The initial set-up is a good 'un, Kyriakos is an entertainingly obnoxious companion, some of the writing - aforementioned caveats notwithstanding - is poetic and moving, and Harkaway poses a number of enjoyably head-wrecking questions on philosophy, alternate realities, the nature of selfhood. He also writes women extremely well: Hunter, Neith and Athenais are the book's most vivid creations and strongest elements.

In the end, though, it's literally nonsensical. Elegant nonsense, fun nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless.

A gnomon, apparently, is the bit of a sundial which casts the shadow; in other words, the perpendicular. So that title works, metaphorically; Harkaway is coming at it from an angle, taking a sideways view, a backdoor route.

The novel is intentionally challenging, puzzling and oblique. And that's fine. But there's a significant difference between oblique and basically incomprehensible.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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