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Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Nick Harkaway's new novel, Gnomon, begins in a near-future Britain where every action is seen, every word is recorded. Read on for sneak preview of the book

‘I’m Saul Shand,’ he says, earnest, but with just a little bit of flash. ‘Welcome, and don’t let me disturb you. Browse and be silent or ask what you will in the certainty of discretion and scholarship. This is no lair of chattering bouquinistes; be assured there will be no tote bags and no branded pencils. We are – that is to say that I am – entirely at your service. Good morning.’

The Inspector retrieves her fingers – Shand’s grip is pleasantly warm but a little succulent – and wonders aloud whether he might help her find his copy of The Mad Cartographer’s Garden.

Shand’s expression flickers with what might be a kind of sympathy, as for one stricken with an incurable affliction, but he nods. ‘We can but try,’ he agrees.   


The Inspector contemplates an outcome of her investigation in which she is compelled to place under arrest for sedition a pile of limited edition magical realist novels allegedly containing a human mind

And try he does, first in the main shelves and then in among the more expensive first editions and the locked cases which house his treasures. Then he goes back behind the counter and consults first a predictably antiquated terminal keyboard, and then finally an actual ledger bound in cloth.

‘It should be here,’ he says finally, ‘but it isn’t.’

The Inspector frowns. ‘It’s misplaced?’

Shand glances up at her, and then seems to change gear. ‘Normally, I suppose. Or stolen, though these days we get very little of that. I take it you haven’t been trying to get hold of a copy for long?’

‘No. I’m investigating her death.’

Shand starts. ‘Hunter? Dead?’

She sees him consult the terminal again, the cool light playing up on to his wide cheeks.

‘Oh my. She was that Hunter. How extraordinary. I had no idea. Well, yes, but I mean: no. I’m afraid you’re going to have a hard time finding her books, Inspector.’ He glances at her for confirmation; she nods back. Yes: Inspector. He must not be running recognition in real time, part of the olde worlde experience. It occurs to her that he’ll still have the mandated customer and enquiries list, and she opens the tile menu in her terminal for local options, requests the record going back a year. By itself, it won’t mean much, but it will serve as a reminder to run a search across all specialist vendors for anyone looking for Hunter’s work. From there she can build a profile of Hunter aficionados, those who are drawn to her thinking, and with a bit of latent attribute inference she’ll have a broad list of those who share her underlying mindset. It might or might not be important, but anyone she deals with in the context of the inquiry who is also on that list might bear closer examination.

Shand is politely waiting for her to come back to the physical discussion. ‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘Witness business. Rude of me.’

‘Not at all,’ Shand replies. ‘But Inspector, I wonder if you are aware that The Mad Cartographer’s Garden – all of her writings, I think – they are not merely “hard to find” in the commercial sense. They are impossible to find. They are ghost books.’

That seeming is an illusion, a false pattern emerging from the spinning of a wheel. The Scroll is a ghost book, a summoner of phantasms and dreams.

Is that coincidence, cul-de-sac, or clue? Assume nothing is random, she tells herself. But also assume any connection is illusory until you can substantiate it. ‘Ghost books?’

‘In the trade, something between an irritation and a great curiosity. There are not many – perhaps a hundred in all. They are books that are only catalogued, never actually sold. They seem to appear in auction lots and collections, but if you should buy that lot, the book will be missing, and when you complain you will find no mention of it in the detail. A photograph for illustration purposes only will include Mr Murder Investigates third in the pile, but it is from an old sale. Do you see? Like today. I should have a copy of The Mad Cartographer’s Garden. By every measure I know it is in this shop, and yet I also know that it is not. It is not in this shop, if we were to turn it upside down into the street and check every title on the pavement. In a month from now, someone will offer me a lot containing Five Cardinals of Z, but I won’t be able to secure the collection. Later, I will get in touch with the lucky purchaser to see if they will sell, and find that they have already done so. They will gladly tell me that they enjoyed the story while they possessed it: a brash adventure in which the holy Afric Saint, Augustine’ – Neith closes her eyes for a moment. A random example or one drawn from life? Shand doesn’t notice – ‘takes on a sort of Tarzan role, fighting with his sorceress lover against a magical invasion from the Visigothic west. When I track the next purchaser down with my offer, they will tell me the book is about something quite different. They may be quite irate. In any case, they will have sold it on.

‘Perhaps there are multiple forgeries in circulation, but I cannot obtain any of those, either. If I suggest to the publisher that they might wish to reprint, they will agree that it would be a very good idea, what with demand being so high, but nothing will come of it. These books exist, one sometimes thinks, only in the rumour and desire they excite. And in some cases, that does indeed turn out to be the case. There is a book by a South American author that is endlessly listed on rare edition inventories, but I know for a fact that it was never made available in the first place. The publisher commissioned it, the author wrote it, but there was an irretrievable breakdown in their relationship and he refused to deliver and burned the manuscript. It is in all the catalogues for that year – they were printed in advance, of course – but it cannot be had. Warehouses listed it knowing they would receive it, and do not list it as sold out because they’ve never actually despatched a single copy. Where there should be text on paper, there is none, only the whisper of it in our accounting, the spectre of a story that was never actually shown to anyone. Thus: a ghost book.’

‘But these ones, Hunter’s books . . .’

‘Are not the same. No.’

‘So what are they?’

Shand looks cautious. ‘I can speculate, if you wish. Some ghost books, I have always assumed, are created or adopted by criminal organisations for their traffic. In a global context, what travels in the boxes marked to that title is something quite different, something illegal and perhaps even terrible. That would be much more difficult with transactions in this country, of course.

‘Others fall prey to human cupidity. There are literary properties fancied by film stars and directors for production. Such people will buy entire print runs to prevent any competitor from reading them, and then when the film is made and the value of an early edition is high, they will release copies slowly at a great markup, profiting once again by their wealth and power. Sometimes, in those situations, production of the envisaged project is held up or even completely blocked, and the book vanishes into the open mouth of Hollywood.

‘Then there are books which are so despised by, for example, the Loving Covenant of Baptist Libraries that they will seek to acquire copies and destroy them. In some few cases they are quite successful. There was a children’s story rumoured to contain an actual magic spell that they have entirely obliterated in its English language edition. Very sad: the illustrations were full plate by Jackie Morris.’ Shand shakes his head. This, evidently, is cultural vandalism.

‘Which leaves a very small group of books, including Diana Hunter’s, that are reputed to exist in fact, but which are never seen. At least, not by me. There are wonderful rumours about them, the occult ramblings of the foolish and the mad: Hunter’s books contain an encrypted message that reveals the underlying nature of God’s creation. Or perhaps they are the physical body of an angel expressed as text, something so strange and splendid that it cannot exist here except as a collection of beautiful words, and that is why no two accounts of the books are ever the same. Perhaps the books contain Hunter herself, written down and endlessly replicated in some form of literal literary immortality. Now that she is dead, perhaps that is the best thing to believe. Although of course if that were the case, one would imagine they would be everywhere, so that the words would be read, and she would live in firework flashes of minds across the world. Stasis, after all, is a poor form of longevity. One would look for iteration, yes? For engagement and enlivening.

‘Maybe that’s the point. The publication plan required her death. Maybe now they will all become available again. Who knows? Perhaps that’s even why she’s dead. Maybe it’s what she intended.

‘If the books do all surface, of course, you may be sure I will stock them. Would you like me to call you, if that should happen? Or if I should suddenly come across one, quite ordinary but very valuable, and prove myself a foolish old man?’

The Inspector contemplates an outcome of her investigation in which she is compelled to place under arrest for sedition a pile of limited edition magical realist novels allegedly containing a human mind, and devoutly hopes Mr Shand’s construction of the situation is not the right one. She feels confident in believing that it is not, on the basis that such an idea is plainly poppycock – Shand’s gallant version of English must be rubbing off on her – but does not entirely dismiss the possibility of some secret hidden in Hunter’s books. That is always the position one occupies in the Witness: that something is taking place that needs to be observed and understood. This of course makes for a vulnerability to recursive investigations: the acknowledged danger of assuming that an absence of evidence is itself evidence of obfuscation.

Except that this is not, precisely, an absence of evidence. If there’s anything happening at all, the evidence is bounteous.

Perhaps Hunter’s books really do not exist, and she somehow hornswoggled the world into believing that they did in some weird art prank. It might just about have been doable, a couple of decades ago. The Inspector would prefer this not be the case. The idea that the books might be themselves mythical alarms her: the intrusion of Hunter’s unreal histories into a world that should be more tangible. The notion that they might all be blank and contain no information, or maybe exist only as description, while Hunter’s mind apparently contains far more information than it should, raises the hairs on her neck.

Something. Something. ‘Did she ever write about fire, specifically? A fire motif? Firespine? Fire Judges?’

‘Oh. Dear me, no, I don’t think I’ve heard of that one. Is it juvenilia? Or a special edition? If the former, perhaps it can be found; after all, very often it’s the first efforts that escape their creator’s hands, you know, and make their way in the world. Although sometimes it’s the last instead . . .’ Shand shrugs: the mysteries of art.

Neith explains that it’s not a title, just a phrase, and Shand regrets that no, in that case he does not know what it may mean. He looks at her nervously, and the Inspector realises he is waiting for her reaction to the business of the ghost books and his personal theory. She smiles, the informal smile of release from an official discussion. She is not small-minded enough to chide a romantic for a tall tale. She tells him instead that Shand & Co. is as charming and elegant as its proprietor, and thanks him for his time.

More about the author

Gnomon

Nick Harkaway

A GUARDIAN BOOK OF THE YEAR

'Gnomon is an extraordinary novel, and one I can’t stop thinking about some weeks after I read it. It is deeply troubling, magnificently strange, and an exhilarating read.' Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven

‘The best thing he’s ever written … It is an astonishing piece of construction, complex and witty … It is a magnificent achievement … He’s never written a bad book, but this is the one that’ll see him mentioned in the same breath as William Gibson and David Mitchell … This book seriously just destroyed me with joy.’ Warren Ellis

‘Nick Harkaway: bonkers, brilliant and hilarious … Effervescent, clever and entirely fantastic.’ Sunday Times

‘[Harkaway] is the missing, but somehow logical, link between David Mitchell and Terry Pratchett.’ Independent

Near-future Britain is not just a nation under surveillance but one built on it: a radical experiment in personal transparency and ambient direct democracy. Every action is seen, every word is recorded.

Diana Hunter is a refusenik, a has-been cult novelist who lives in a house with its own Faraday cage: no electronic signals can enter or leave. She runs a lending library and conducts business by barter. She is off the grid in a society where the grid is everything. Denounced, arrested and interrogated by a machine that reads your life history from your brain, she dies in custody.

Mielikki Neith is the investigator charged with discovering how this tragedy occurred. Neith is Hunter’s opposite. She is a woman in her prime, a stalwart advocate of the System. It is the most democratic of governments, and Neith will protect it with her life.

When Neith opens the record of the interrogation, she finds not Hunter’s mind but four others, none of which can possibly be there: the banker Constantine Kyriakos, pursued by a ghostly shark that eats corporations; the alchemist Athenais Karthagonensis, jilted lover of St Augustine of Hippo and mother to his dead son, kidnapped and required to perform a miracle; Berihun Bekele, artist and grandfather, who must escape an arson fire by walking through walls – if only he can remember how; and Gnomon, a sociopathic human intelligence from a distant future, falling backwards in time to conduct four assassinations.

Aided – or perhaps opposed – by the pale and paradoxical Regno Lönnrot, Neith must work her way through the puzzles of her case and find the meaning of these impossible lives. Hunter has left her a message, but is it one she should heed, or a lie to lead her into catastrophe? And as the stories combine and the secrets and encryptions of Gnomon are revealed, the question becomes the most fundamental of all: who will live, and who will die?

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