After a bit of a slow start to the year, my reading took off. I finished seven books in three weeks and started to entertain the possibility of an elusive Double Cannonball. Then two things happened: I found a renewed sense of dedication and spent more of my time actually writing — FINALLY — and I also decided it was time to tackle Nick Harkaway’s monster of a book, Gnomon. Farewell, Double Cannonball. Maybe someday . . .
In the not-too-distant future the UK has become a total surveillance state by having everyone voluntarily give up their privacy, the idea being that if no one has privacy, then no one will care as much about what everyone else is doing. People are constantly monitored, not only with CCTV cameras but also through electronic devices and even brain implants when interrogation is necessary. Lying is no longer possible, nor is keeping secrets, and since the authorities are going to find out the truth anyway, there’s little reason to try to hide. To balance out all of this surveillance, people are also nearly constantly voting and being polled, participating in virtual debates and even jury duty tailored to their particular expertise and interests. It’s meant to be a perfect society, and public opinion is firmly in favor.
Yet, of course, there are pockets of resistance, which is where the book starts. Diana Hunter, a long-ago cult-favorite novelist and recent neighborhood librarian of contraband printed books, has turned herself in and then mysteriously dies during interrogation when she tries to conceal her true thoughts from the interviewers given free reign to rummage around in her brain. Inspector Mielikki Neith is tasked with figuring out what Hunter was hiding and whether she died as a result of interrogation or if, perhaps, she was murdered. Neith must immerse herself in Hunter’s memories, digging for the truth, but she is herself in danger of being consumed by Hunter’s stories and experience of the interrogation.
The less said about this book, the better, not that I’d really be able to explain it anyway. About a fifth of the way in, one of the characters says, “I wouldn’t be the back half of a chicken,” and that’s how I felt about how well I knew where it was going most of the way through. It’s a huge book — 700 pages of little tiny print. And it’s dense. And labyrinthine. And completely bonkers. But it’s also undoubtedly one of the best I’ve read in many years. It had me guessing right to the very end, and even then — hell, even now, a week later — I still can’t get my head around the whole thing. From detailed references to ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, to playful exploitation of word origins and use of repetition to both reinforce and break apart meaning, not to mention journeys through genre after genre — hard sci-fi, crime procedural, mystery/suspense, historical fiction, post-modern metafiction — Harkaway dances right up to the cliff’s edge time after time but never crashes over.
It’s a brilliant achievement from one of my already-favorite authors, and I may need to read it again, knowing what I know now, to see how the experience changes. I suspect it will be radically different but no less enjoyable, as was true with my second viewing of Arrival. I’m confident this book will end the year at the top of my favorites, and if anything comes along to knock it off that perch, then I’ll be a very lucky reader, indeed.