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November 22, 2017

I was so eager to read Nick Harkaway’s new novel Gnomon that I ordered it from the UK, where it was published in November, rather than waiting for US publication in January. And then it came during one of the busiest weeks of the semester, so I couldn’t read it as fast as I wanted to. But that turned out to be a good thing; it’s a complicated 684-page novel; I needed to slow down my reading so I could digest the ideas.

This is a novel about the urge to perform what I call often necromancy—let’s call it resurrection, in this case–as much as it is about anything. Here the urge is the real, tragic thing—a deep longing to bring back a picture of the universe that includes a particular person—a longing so intense that the person who has been left will try to break the rules of the universe itself. This turns out to be an essential element of the plot.

It takes the reader a while to understand the scope of the plot. At first we’re following the investigation into the death of a citizen from the near future, a “nation under digitally mediated governance.” The citizen is Diana Hunter, a woman who appears to have believed in digital resistance and the question is why she died during her “interview,” during which surgeons and an AI called the Witness physically invade her brain to see what she is thinking, allowed by the “Security Evidence Act.”

The investigator is Mielikki Neith, assisted by an AI called the Witness. As the action begins, Neith
“is an enthusiastic proponent of both the System and the Witness. The first 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 second 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, not one instant of it accessed initially by any human being. Instead, the impartial, self-teaching algorithms of the Witness review and classify it and do nothing unless public safety requires it.”
Her job is to be one of several “prosecutorial ombudsmen to the surveillance state, reviewing and considering any case that passes a given threshold of intervention,” like Diana Hunter’s. In order to “review,” the case, Neith plugs herself into the record of the dead woman’s brain, so she can see what she was thinking and what happened.

As Neith examines what Diana Hunter was thinking, we also get to see. First we see a few of her recent memories, like when she teaches children “how to read books which cannot speak to them, how to close the covers and lie down when they are tired because the pages will not detect their fatigue or tell the house to extinguish the lights so that they know they should sleep.” That might sound a bit luddite and moralistic, until I think about all the nights since August that I’ve gotten up and seen Walker lying in bed asleep with his laptop open beside him and the lights on.

Hunter’s brain, however, is full of other memories, stories of lives that can’t be her own. First there is the story of Constantine Kyriakos, a mathematical genius who has an encounter with a shark and makes a fortune in the stock markets.

Then we get the story of Athenais Karthogonensis, a 4th-century alchemist whose son has died. She often thinks about bringing things back from the dead, even lamenting the waste of a duck she had planned to cook when her plans were suddenly changed by wondering if she should “speak to the duck and make it fresh again, though always careful not to push too hard and bring it once again to life.”

Finally we hear the story of a 20th-century artist, Berihun Bekele, an Ethiopian immigrant to the UK, and his granddaughter Annabel and her British company, which is “a miniature version of the cultural and commercial stew that has been so successful in Silicon Valley.” Through the grandfather, we get the perspective of an older person who lives “imagining that the world wasn’t really changing all that much, imagining that now was a great deal like then, and that the future probably would be, too. But I have to tell you that it won’t be.” In Annabel’s company, he realizes,
“computers were the bones, but imagination, ambition and possibility were the blood. These kids, they simply did not accept that the world as it is has any special gravity, any hold upon us. If something was wrong, if it was bad, then that something was to be fixed, not endured. Where my generation reached for philosophy and the virtue of suffering, they reached instead for science and technology and they actually did something about the beggar in the street, the woman in the wheelchair. They got on with it. It wasn’t that they had no sense of spirit or depth. Rather they reserved it for the truly wondrous, and for everything else they made tools.”

Berihun expresses the daily fear and dismay that so many of the world’s people have been feeling during the past year:
“I had hoped that we were alone in all this. Let Britain be a laughing stock, and the world continue along its moral arc. Let us be left behind; sooner or later we must realise our error. Then, in November, America joined us in folly and ugliness. The same country that embraced Selassie, and inspired him and me by putting astronauts on the moon, echoed to the joyful celebration of a revitalized Ku Klux Klan. The vile and furious of every nation were made bold again.”

We find out that Diana Hunter contains these stories, these multitudes, deliberately, as part of a resistance movement formed in response to the workings of the System and the Witness:
“The architect of this barrier did not attempt to harden the mind against inquiry, did not build some brittle wall to keep the Witness out, but accepted the stricture of intrusion and created a defence in depth—not a shield, but a drowning….It was done, either to the woman or by her, with this end in view: that when—not if, when–the Witness touched her mind, Diana Hunter would confound it.”

As Neith continues to experience Hunter’s implanted memories, she begins to wonder if she has been changed by her immersion in the recordings, but then thinks “we are all changed, all the time, by each passing instant of our days. The woman who wakes tomorrow is not the woman who woke yesterday, for all that there is a line of consequence between them.”

There’s are a number of brief but wonderful digressions about books and bookshops, and this one is my favorite, about why one of the characters loves reading pulp fiction:
“I love it for its cheap trashiness, its wicked women and its unrepentantly vivid sex. I love the violence, the moral turpitude, and the absoluteness of right and wrong in a universe that pretends to be shaded with grey. I love its clear signing and rich cast of archetypes and markers. Pulp is the vector for Eco, the cloak of Chandler, the soft pillow of Virginia Woolf, the birth caul of Cold Comfort Farm, the fairy godmother of Doris Lessing and William Gibson. Pulp is the key to open the doors not only of Freud and Jung, but even of Barthes, who stole everything from Calvino….”

About halfway through, we begin to see the correspondence between the stories that Neith is experiencing and the “real” world of the fiction. A character who will ultimately turn out to have been one of the inventors of the surveillance society in the novel says that some of what seems like symbolism in the 4th-century tale—the “chamber of Isis,” the “Alkahest,” which can dissolve anything (including any container that might hold it), even a mother’s longing to bring back her dead child—can be made literal. “Athenais can raise her son from the dead. The vase can be unbroken, the world made whole. The Alkahest is the solution…. there’s a very real chance the basic unit of our universe is information. Meaning is as fundamental as matter.”

As we begin to see the correspondences between the stories and the world of the fiction, the figure of Gnomon–who has been mostly a theoretical way of knowing or a symbolically perpendicular perspective on something up to this point in the novel–comes to life. Like Voldemort, Gnomon has a larger perspective on mortality:
“Living across multiple bodies is, obviously, safer than sole-substrate existence—that’s living in one body, as you do—because it’s wildly unlikely that all your brains should be in an accident at once, especially if you make sure one or two of them are somewhere nice and secure. But this same precautionary approach of putting your eggs in a large number of baskets and distributing those baskets all over the place makes us vulnerable to the peculiar sin known as wetjacking, in which one such body is severed from its overarching mind and held incommunicado, an incapable semi-person with enough awareness to be afraid and alone. The wetjacker then takes advantage of this suggestible state to force a new, alternative connection, integrating the experience and memories of the kidnapped body into his or her own mind, stealing a fragment of personality and selfhood, and swallowing, in primitive terms, a little of the target’s soul.”

To save the world, Neith eventually realizes that she is going to have to perform a task Diana Hunter has set for her. Others have tried, including one man who shares his results with the investigator:
“I took an aggressive regimen of antibiotic, antiviral and anti-fungal drugs for one week in a clean room, and then cultivated the biome of a senior academic researcher in security at one of your universities on and in my body. I ate what he ate, drank what he drank. I stole water from his bath. It was fascinating, actually. I noticed a tangible alteration in my perceptions. We really are a composite organism inhabiting our entire bodies, not just a single homunculus seated in the skull…. But that is the point. The connectome requirement—that is not surmountable. I think it may be the perfect lock. It is not merely behavioural. That was my mistake. I had simulated my target from thousands of hours of recordings. By the time I attempted my operation, the simulation was word-perfect. The effect was uncanny. But the connectome analysis revealed me immediately. The quality of my thought was not the same. I was no more persuasive to your machine than I would have been seeking to evade facial recognition in a carnival mask. It sees the thought and the affect, and it knew me for a completely other individual. To beat the connectome lock, you must become the target—and if you do that, you will no longer want to beat the lock. It is circular. Brilliant.”

There’s a scene of descent into Hades at one point, which coincided with my first hearing of the soundtrack for the new musical Hadestown, which is as absolutely marvelous to hear as this book is to read. The culmination of the journey to Hades comes when Athenais’ demon guide “know-all” tells her that what she desires is nothing less than eternal life:
“Your son is dead. His soul is flown, his body should give itself up to the soil and the air. From his corpse should spring flowers and bees. You reject this. You rebel against death—and God. You seek his resurrection: a remaking of the universe to a style that suits you. You don’t wish to undo the time since his death. You wish to bring him alive, here, now: to be his savior and to be able to save him forever more…. With Adeodatus newly returned, would you place him once again in the hands of fate, and see him die the next day from falling in a lake? Would you then consider his time fairly ended? Of course not. We are one, you and I. We desire continuity and security of self.”

This traditional viewpoint on the yearning for resurrection of a person’s loved ones and immortality for oneself is not the last word on the subject in this novel, however. Repeatedly we are told—and shown—how the process of re-creating a person could work, so that a new version, “identical in shape and form, in structure and function” would be “divided only by time, itself a mysterious quantity.” There is a powerful temptation scene (amplified for me by listening to the song “Epic III” from Hadestown while reading it):
“tell me that if the person you most miss in the world were offered to you back again, in however strange or impossible a fashion and at whatever price, you would be able to walk away unhesitating: anti-Orpheus, leaving the ghost in Hades without a second look.”

Because the temptation is so powerful, it’s brave and wonderful how this novel ends, with a few people managing to resist. This is the story of people who persisted in their resistance–not in spite of, but “because people are not always good. Not always rational at heart, or kind. Sometimes we amplify the best in one another, sometimes the worst.”

The wish to bring back humanist ideas that seem to be no longer viable in the world after Brexit and the 2016 American presidential election is at the heart of this novel. We are feeling like “a collection of cattle mooing and dismayed. There are no grown-ups behind the secret door. There’s just this lot.”

And yet we have to do something. “Inaction is not neutrality, but choice.” If we want to “make America great again” or restore a distinctively British sense of pride, this novel shows us that the only way to do it is not by harkening back to some kind of national golden age, but by facing forward, into the future, and seeing what we can do with imagination and some of the terrible, wonderful digital tools we have already begun to create in the world.

And how wonderful is it that my favorite living writer ended up wrestling, in this latest novel, with both my current preoccupations–necromancy and democracy?


7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2017 12:13 pm

    This really does seem like it’s tailor-made for you! What a complex novel, so timely too, yet about timeless subjects.

    • November 25, 2017 2:43 pm

      Yes. We were (all four of us!) at our weekly demonstration on the public square today and I was holding a sign for net neutrality. I said I thought it was unfortunate that I’d made the sign last winter, but then Ron pointed out that you never “win” some battles but have to continually keep fighting them, and that’s true of many things.

  2. Jenny permalink
    November 26, 2017 11:53 pm

    I have been waiting and WAITING for this book. It got such a crummy review in the Guardian, and I felt nervous about it — they said it was rambling and much too long (though interesting) and I wasn’t sure if he’d lost his grip on such complex material. It sounds as if you thought it was wonderful. Is it too grim? I love his other books so much that I am afraid not to love this one quite as much. I know that sounds ridiculous.

    • November 27, 2017 8:03 am

      I read that review in the Guardian after I’d read the book and wondered how many other people would try to read this book but fail, and then blame it on the book.
      i do think it’s wonderful, and it’s not at all grim.
      I understand what you mean about being afraid you won’t love this one quite as much, but I loved it even more.

      • Jenny permalink
        November 27, 2017 1:06 pm

        You introduced me to Harkaway (for which I am forever grateful) and I trust you completely. I’m asking for it for Christmas! I’d get it earlier but we have a no-buying-anything-for-yourself-after-November-1 rule in our household. I can’t wait to read it. Oh frabjous day!

        • November 27, 2017 1:31 pm

          I am a tiny bit anxious about living up to your complete trust, but overjoyed that you are as big a fan of this writer as I am!


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