Nick Harkaway's brilliance gets in the way of an epic story
To call Gnomon a work of genius is not entirely a compliment. Nick Harkaway’s epic, unwieldy, unpredictable new novel is outwardly brainy and pridefully digressive, and the distance it projects from its reader feels excruciatingly deliberate. Harkaway (Tigerman) wears his deep, fabulous vocabulary on his sleeve, and he’s unafraid to ruminate on the seemingly irrelevant in great detail. The sheer intelligence of the book feels almost beside the point; it’s to be taken as something of a given.
If Gnomon is not exactly a departure from Harkaway’s previous work, it’s at least his rawest effort, a window into his writerly impulses and motivations — into what separates him from the pack. It’s why, at first glance, Gnomon nicely stands out as a dystopian novel that manages to approach the genre uniquely and push it forward. The book arrives stateside after a year in which 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale skyrocketed on best-seller lists and found popular adaptations in theater and television, respectively. More broadly, the genre has felt appropriately ubiquitous in a tumultuous and unsettling political era.
Gnomon, to be released Jan. 9, takes place in a post-Brexit Britain. Society has evolved into complete transparency: An ostensibly fully functioning democracy is placed alongside a system of total government surveillance. In a characteristic passage from the book, Harkaway’s narrator explains how they operate. “[The System] is a government of the people, by the people, without intervention or representation beyond what is absolutely necessary: a democracy in the most literal sense, an ongoing plebiscite-society,” the narrator says. “[The Witness] is the institution for which Britain perhaps above all other nations has always searched, the perfect police force. Over five hundred million cameras, microphones and other sensors taking information from everywhere … the impartial, self-teaching algorithms of the Witness review and classify it and do nothing unless public safety requires it.”
Harkaway’s style in this particular section is formal and resigned — familiar for stories of similar settings. Yet it’s anything but indicative of what Harkaway does here. The book centers on Mielikki Neith, a by-the-book Inspector who’s investigating ex-author Diana Hunter’s death in police custody. Neith is able to literally insert herself into the memories and imagination of the late Hunter, right to what Hunter experienced at the hands of the State before her death. As she moves forward in the process, navigating Hunter’s home and the ghosts of her past, Neith goes on detours that defy expectation. The narrative goes where you least expect.
Neith immerses herself more deeply into Hunter’s mind, and what she discovers is not the woman herself, but character studies — worlds constructed by Hunter that take up huge, disorienting chunks of the novel (in a sans serif font that distracts more than clarifies). The first is about Constantine Kyriakos, a hard-partier whose encounter with a shark transforms him spiritually; from tone to theme to prose, it feels completely different from what came before, as if it were a short story transported from a literary magazine. By the third or fourth sans serif transition, you get used to this zigzagging rhythm. (Neith also encounters a sarcastic demon from time to time, which makes for some of the book’s most effectively surrealist content.) These mini-stories range from poignant to dull, which again, seems almost beside the point in the grander scheme of the novel.
It’s difficult to whittle Gnomon down to a single guiding idea. Most fulfillingly, it works as a meditation on storytelling, a testament to the power of humanity’s creative spirit in the face of systems designed to maximize well-being and eliminate flaws. When Neith enters Hunter’s mind for the first time, we hear the dead woman describe why she was willing to unplug, so to speak, and get on the Witness’ radar. “I had all those tools once: the car that drove itself, the office chair that warned me when I was sitting badly,” she says. “And then bit by bit I got rid of them … I got tired of voices in my head and eyes peering over my shoulder.”
Hunter then extols the virtue of books, almost like she’s speaking directly to those reading her mind (including us). It’s something Gnomon itself does again and again, in its own way, across its nearly 700 pages. That there’s so much to recommend here, so much to grapple with and admire, is at its root a product of that very pure mission: to both be literary and endear readers to the literary.
So it’s all the more disappointing that Harkaway can’t quite execute that mission — can’t quite match his herculean ambitions. He’s left to rely on his thematic underpinnings, the intelligence that radiates from stunningly existential passages and dialogue, as the shaky foundation of his conceit reveals itself. The plotting takes on a strangely amateurish structure, propelled by dramatic incident and yet granted a high importance. The periodic philosophizing, whether from the narrator or a particular character, quickly loses its luster.
The reading experience sours as Harkaway’s writing stays maddeningly expository. He dumps stacks of information on readers instead of leaving things to the imagination, unpacking questions he himself poses in the form of long-winded, stream-of-consciousness, admittedly stylish blather. In effect, his brilliance becomes a barrier to success. For all that Harkaway comments on the vitality of books and storytelling, he too often strays from their most basic pleasures. B-