Hark­away poses a num­ber of en­joy­ably head-wreck­ing ques­tions

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - DAR­RAGH McMANUS

nomon, 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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