Some things try their best to defy explanation. Realistically it is quite hard to define why you fall in love with one person and not another; I can’t tell you why I have an irrational fear of buttons (that’s why it’s irrational, obviously); you can’t quite describe why you choose the 18th property you see when house-hunting (barring the phrase ‘it felt like home’…). Which can be a problem when part of your job is recommending books to customers. There are times when saying nothing more coherent than ‘it gave me the warm fuzzies’ is enough but it isn’t the best way to review dystopian fiction. So, obviously, I try to explain what it is that I’ve enjoyed about a book – how it made me feel, what I made of the characters, if the plot or language reminded me of another book, film or even a song. If I go quiet for a long time after finishing a novel it is probably because I’m trying to work out what those connections are. With Gnomon, the new book from Nick Harkaway, I think I’m going to have to start describing before I know what hit me…
Gnomon is set, it seems, in an alternate reality where Britain operates under a benign but all-encompassing system of surveillance. Instead of politicians, fallible and corruptible human beings, the country is controlled by the System, watched (at all times and in every way) by the Witness and, if things do go wrong, there are Inspectors (like Mielikki Neith, one of the book’s central characters) to work out what happened. When Diana Hunter dies while being interrogated (by having her brain thoroughly and electronically read) Neith has to, effectively, inhabit her thoughts to find out what happened. But instead of one woman’s thoughts, feelings and life she finds at least four other stories unfolding in there – and what stories they are! A greek banker, doing well enough but nothing spectacular, encounters a shark while swimming, escapes and becomes some kind of financial guru. Saint Augustine’s discarded lover becomes some kind of miracle-worker, utilising the power of a temple of Isis which somehow exists even though it should only be a figment of her imagination. The owner of a security firm returns to his former life as a famous artist when his grand-daughter needs him to visualise the computer game she is developing (where Britain is governed by an all-seeing surveillance system…). A mad, godlike figure plans to build a new reality by swallowing the current one – just like it happened before. And through it all is the image of the shark – terrifying and destructive and sometimes more than just an image.
The first time Harkaway thoroughly confused (but also delighted) me was when I read his first novel, The Gone-Away World, about nine years ago. I’ve reread it a couple of times since, I still love it (especially Ronnie Cheung – I bloomin’ love Ronnie Cheung), but I find new angles each time. Harkaway is the son of John Le Carré and, although he writes in a completely different genre, he seems to share his father’s love of a convoluted (but totally joined-up) plot. I’m fairly certain I’m going to have to read Gnomon a few times before I even begin to realise what was going on. If you like a book which is very big, very dense and very clever then this could be for you – the fact it is also very funny is a bonus – just don’t blame me if you have major problems trying to describe what just happened to you when you’ve finished.