Where most books attempt to draw you in at the start, Gnomon instead tries to alienate you with its big big brain. In the first couple of chapters, it throws huge words at you, forcing you to spend so much time in the dictionary that you wonder if it’d be best to stay there and never look at Gnomon again. Then, after it gets over itself a little, it lets go, and tells its story.
I can’t remember the last time I was so frustrated by the beginning of a book. It really lays on the professorial vibe thick, and I was ready to climb into the pages to find Harkaway and give him a wedgie. After around 50 or so pages though, he settled in, stops showing off with words, and just digs into this weirdo Inception style story told from the point of view of a Radiohead album.
Conceptually, Gnomon is about a utopian society where a detective can read minds to figure out why bad things happen. There’s much more to it then that, but that’s the corner the book turns around the most. From there, it moves into Philip K. Dick paranoia with a touch of magical realism as it jumps from character to character who each live inside the memory of one. At one point its a book about a banker who is almost eaten by a shark, and at another point we’re following an alchemist around. It feels a lot like Cloud Atlas, but isn’t quite as well-written or conceived. Where Cloud Atlas felt like each section was written by an entirely different author, Gnomon’s many characters always feel like they’re written by Nick Harkaway. Which isn’t to say the book fails, I just didn’t find as razzle dazzle as something like Cloud Atlas, but few things are.
Gnomon is still a very smart book, and despite its complexity, length, and thesaurus, it’s approachable, almost despite itself. It’s equal parts summer movie popcorn fun as it is an intellectual mystery. For that, I really enjoyed it–much like I enjoy something like Inception, which, while seemingly a bit too full of itself, it still manages to deliver a fun experience in the end.