Gnomon was another ARC received from the publishers via NetGalley after they sent me a blurb I couldn’t resist. What I didn’t spot was the page count. When I opened it on my kindle and watched the ‘estimated time left’ scroll through eight hours, to sixteen to twenty-three, I knew I was I in trouble. In fact once I got started, it rapidly reduced to eighteen hours… which took me ten days.
by Nick Harkaway
Gnomon, which took Harkaway more than three years to complete, is set in a world of ubiquitous surveillance. Pitched as “a mind-bending Borgesian puzzle box of identity, meaning and reality in which the solution steps sideways as you approach it”, it features: a detective who finds herself investigating the very society she believes in, urged on by a suspect who may be an assassin or an ally, hunting through the dreams of a torture victim in search of the key to something she does not yet understand; a banker who is pursued by a shark that swallows Fortune 500 companies; Saint Augustine’s jilted mistress who reshapes the world with miracles; a refugee grandfather turned games designer who must remember how to walk through walls or be burned alive by fascists; and a sociopath who falls backwards through time in order to commit a murder. [Goodreads]
Like those flash fiction prompts I get that suggest X meets Y, I think it fair to warn you that Gnomon is a little like War and Peace meets Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Inception. I read War and Peace on a beach holiday. Once I realised the trick was to skip the boring treatises on the nature of war, I found the story excellent. If you take Gnomon to a place where you will not be disturbed, skip the bits that are too dense for your particular interests in life, you’ll find a really good story in there. But the more interesting bits (as opposed to the story) depend on what your frames of reference are, and how much you enjoy literary discourse in your novels.
contemporary futuristic world
In fact, once you are half-way through, you will probably agree that the style of presentation of those early bits is entirely appropriate. Gnomon is set in a contemporary futuristic world where deliberative governance has developed so far that everybody is a democrat and the System watches to ensure that everyone does their civic duty. Everyone is civil to one another, the system will give you hints on the behaviour, interests, compatibility and most other things you want to know about someone before you meet them, and everyone lives in harmony, more or less.
Of course, there are always people who disagree with the System, yet decide not to leave and find a system of governance that suits their beliefs better. Like Diana Hunter. The name rang all sorts of bells with me, and I wondered all the way through the book whether…
The trouble is, Diana Hunter died during a routine investigation. The Interviewer, who has a somewhat Finnish name, is called in to ensure the case is fully reviewed and any wrong-doing sorted out. The means the Interviewer has at her disposal is to have a sort of mind-meld with the now deceased Diana Hunter’s brain.
phraseology, rhetoric, and looping
The first episode seems to be consistent with Diana Hunter. The second is not, and confused the hell out of me. The third likewise until I started to understand what was going on.That’s when I started to use the trick of reading in depth the bits I found interesting—like the methodology for bringing down the global stock exchange—and skimming the ones I didn’t. The author uses very long-winded ways to get through these scenes. It’s partly phraseology, rhetoric, and looping. It may also be trying to mimic absurdities in the dream state. I suppose I should have noticed the bit in the blurb saying the author took three years to complete it. That’s probably not the sort of three years I’ve taken on The Perihelix. I think it’s three years of ‘clever’ writing. It may also be why some sections seem different in voice from others. There is a disjointedness about it which might be deliberate. Then again, they may have been written at different times and the author has moved on. The range of subjects covered is huge, though.
Most of the other reviewers I’ve seen on Goodreads agree on a love-hate relationship with this book. There was a critical moment, at 20% in, when I thought of abandoning it. Fortunately the author finished that episode just in time, and after that, I did want to read to the end—selectively. Do you fancy War and Peace in a weird contemporary fantasy suspense? I recommend it when you have plenty of time to devote to it. If not, well, a gnomon is something sticking out of the plane it’s set in, so be warned.
PS I must admit I’m glad it’s over. A bit like a marathon, you’re glad when it stops.
2 thoughts on “Book Review | Gnomon by Nick Harkaway”
I think I’ll pass on that one! There seems to be such a trend these days to huge long novels, so much that I start to wonder if they have given up on editors entirely.
Yes. I can think of someone who might enjoy it, but it’s not someone I talk to online 🙂
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