Every novel by Nick Harkaway is different, and Gnomon (review copy from William Heinemann) is probably his most ambitious book yet. This is a complex, multi-layered book that braids together a series of narratives to tell a story about society and our trust in its underlying structures. Mielikki Neith is the key to piecing all this together.
Neith is the foremost Investigator for The System, the all-seeing and all-knowing system that governs society. Part panopticon, part the ultimate in participatory direct democracy, it promises government by the people and in their best interests. It’s the natural evolution of our current world, where we set out the details of our private lives in social media, and monitor our health and bodies with devices like Fitbits. People today are choosing to self-monitor and share that data with large corporations, without ever questioning whether the offered benefits are worth the potential erosion of privacy. Harkaway’s System is a society founded on the idea that if one has nothing to hide then one has nothing to fear. And this is a system that works, for the most part.
Neith is tasked with investigating Diana Hunter. Hunter is one of the few who has lived a life seeking to opt out of the all-pervasive surveillance of the System. She has lived quietly on the margins of society, until one day her behaviour is flagged as worthy of concern. She is brought in for questioning, which in the case of the Sytem means a full brain scan under laboratory conditions. But Diana Hunter dies under interrogation. Her brain print is given to Neith as part of the investigation, to find out what she was up to and why she died.
The scan reveals a series of hyper-real narratives that Hunter has used to block the interrogation by masking her own thoughts and memories. Constantine Kyriakos, the wunderkind banker who escapes a shark attack. Berihun Bekele, a once-feted pop artist who survived Haile Selassie’s fall in Ethiopia and is retained by his grand-daughter to design a computer game which bears a startling resemblance to elements of the System. Athenaïs Karthagonensis, a medieval scholar and wise woman mourning her dead son. Although each story is distinct, they are linked both thematically and in points of detail. These are arechetypal stories of gods and monsters, drawing on the oldest myths and stories from human civilisation.
Catabasis and apocatastasis are the two recurring themes in Gnomon, featuring in all of the narratives Harkaway sets before us. They are the primal roots of so many of our stories. Catabasis: the journey into darkness on a quest for an object, a loved one, or meaning. Apocatastasis: the ending of a cycle that acts as a reconstitution of the world, often enabling its rebirth in a new direction.
This is not a perfect book. It’s choppy in parts, and slow to get going. Like one of Bekele’s painting series you need to stand back and view the whole by layering its component parts. Harkaway is clearly conscious of the complex task he is putting before the reader, and at times is, if anything, a little too eager to lead the reader by the hand, laying out the trail of breadcrumbs to help understand what he is trying to say. And there could have been a much easier story to tell. Harkaway could have used his setting for a lazy polemic about the surveillance society. But Gnomon reaches for much deeper truths about ourselves, about society, and about the impact of technology upon us all.
Goodreads rating: 5*