Regarding Gnomon

12 January 2017

There’s a press release going out from my UK publisher, William Heinemann, about the new book, but I thought you might like to know a bit about it from my perspective. (That’s authors: we’re infamous for listening and squirreling stories away, but come publication we’re very excited and we assume you want to know what we think about everything. Don’t worry if you don’t, just nod and wander off. We’ll blather at someone else until they give us drinks.) Anyway: this is an attempt to get my head around what’s just happened and what’s about to happen in my writing life.

For the sake of the tender-hearted, I should observe that this discussion involves VERY MILD SPOILERS.

I don’t remember when I began, but I do remember how. Inspiration, for me, arrives as a collision of objects in my head, and the impact this time was hard enough to freeze me in place for ten minutes – a focus so intense it was like paralysis. There were so many trajectories and I couldn’t trace them all, but the gravity of the idea was inexorable. I didn’t intend to write this book. I had something much easier and lighter in mind. Gnomon, though, absolutely intended to be written.

That morning in the firework scatter in my mind, I saw a man sitting in a locksmith’s shop – one of those cubbyhole key-cutters where you can get shoes repaired and buy glue and leather protector. They’re always full of a weird fug of burning from the rotary drill and the acid-drop tang of fixatives. Above his head, on a shelf, were unbranded cans of something called “Universal Solvent.”

Then there was an angel in a prison made of light. A Lucifer-ish entity, quite obviously.

There was a man hanging in the water in front of a huge shark.

There was an alchemist in her study.

A woman in an MRi machine.

And watching them all – wading through them all – a detective, struggling to make it all make sense.

Well, yes. I could sympathise with that last part, at least.

Blame Bill Gibson for what happened next. I never do it this way. I do not, ever, under any circumstances, just dive into a story. Stories are like storms: if you want to derive energy and direction from them, you need to build a sound structure and channel the gale. You do not just strap on a pair of wings and jump off a cliff. Who does that? Who?

Well, some people do. Bill, apparently, does. I wanted to try it.

So I did.

Aaaaaand now it’s 2017.

You do a lot more rewriting. I mean, a lot. Because you have not already fought these battles in your head, so you take a bunch more wrong turns. Sometimes, as the Coen Brothers will tell you, those wrong turns take you down the best side roads. Sometimes they take you to a disused carpark full of telephone directories stacked in rows to make a miniature model of Milan.

No. Stop.

That’s exactly the point. When that happens, it’s fine. Sometimes – alas, much more often – those side roads don’t lead anywhere at all. They just leave you sitting in a puddle by the thoroughfare desperately hoping a bus will come soon and take you home.

This may have been the wrong book – or exactly the right one – to choose for this experiment. It was in any case impossible to plot in advance. I didn’t have just one thread to my new narrative – Tigerman had been wonderful that way, a linear story taking place over a fortnight in a single location – I had lots. I always have a few, but not like this. This was like weaving a tapestry thread by thread while holding the entire design in your head, and my head just wasn’t big enough. Meanings intersected with other meanings, with consequences. I had to go back, again and again, re-work, re-conceive, re-imagine. Sure, yeah, I know: writing is re-writing. I’m familiar with the re-write. This was more like starting a new book every four months or so. The number of plotlines and their interactions meant a kind of exponential multiplication of possibility. I’d made a maze in my own mind and I kept getting lost in it. The book was smarter than I was.

Much smarter. For a while I felt it wasn’t just going slowly, it was winning – and that was a problem because while you want the thing to be itself, there are limits. You cannot let the text be a one-to-one map. There’s not enough time in the world, in a human life. Maybe one day we’ll have AI-assisted narrative experiences which will generate whole worlds for us to wander through, each space filled with threads to explore – but not now. Not this, running on the limited platform of my brain and being transferred by an analogue physical interface (that’s my fingers and a keyboard) to the page for consumption by the venerable method of reading. I had to pick pathways on the fly, shut down entire possible worlds with a stroke of the pen. That’s always the case to some extent, but normally it’s a momentous decision, a fork in the road for your work; here it was happening every hour of every day. I didn’t know if I was waving or drowning, but I had to declare narrative bankruptcy – some possibilities I shut down without ever asking what they were for. They’re still there, dry-walled off. You can smash through and find them, fall down them, daydream yourself to another version of my book. The narrative expands laterally as well as vertically the moment you let it.

And then there’s politics.

I spent much of the first two years of this book charting the slow, subtle slide of my version of Britain through a kind of doorway of liberal good intentions into a bleak totalitarianism. I thought I was going to be issuing a timely warning, glossing the bleak midwinter potential of laws like the Snooper’s Charter, which at that time was dead in a Whitehall folder somewhere under Theresa May’s desk. I wanted to talk about the Twitterstorms of those days, but I imagined that they’d have been headed off by now, and laid to rest by a social media company eager to avoid becoming a platform for rage and hate.

Instead, I found on 24th June 2016 that my country had chosen a kind of radical economic organ transplant without any guarantee that a donor would be forthcoming, in the name of a monocultural nationhood I do not recognise, and to the benefit not of those who voted for it but of a vanishingly tiny oligarch nobility owing allegiance mostly to the chequebook. The Brexit road was paved by teasing the lurking monster of Britain’s ugly prejudice, and an MP was murdered in the street. Then in November, apparently inspired by Britain’s choice, America elected Donald Trump, with consequences I cannot begin to anticipate. Suddenly, my decision to give Gnomon a decently if not comprehensively diverse cast of characters was more significant than I’d ever imagined. I had been taxing myself when I made that choice, trying to school myself to do the writer’s job and escape my middle class white male identity, at least a little; now it looks as if I’m throwing my cap into the ring of a much bigger fight, a good one that could be very ugly over these next years.

I had to learn and forget so many things for this book – so many things that I’ve forgotten not only the detail but the index. I briefly knew about the history of cryptography, the life Haile Selassie, the language of flowers, the habits of late Roman syncretism. I read Augustine’s Confessions at speed, ripped out fragments and misappropriated personal notes. I learned how different cultures count the colours of the spectrum. I swallowed Koestler and Hofstadter, listened to Bach and Astatke and Hildegard von Bingen. I fell in love with Ibrahim El-Salahi’s art. I wasn’t just writing a book, I was remaking myself in order to do so. The text is readable at multiple levels and differently by different people: many or most of the sequences contain something that will be invisible to all but a very few, but to those few it will be full of meaning – and in order to do that, I had briefly to join each clade and caucus, and then move on, forgetting everything to make room for the next. As I finished the book, I felt a vast heap of half-melted informational slag crumble away. Then I had to turn back and polish the surfaces of what was there on the page, often without knowing the subtext or intent of what I had written, only that it was necessary that it be just so. Not automatic writing, this, by any means, but more like a sequence of strange conversations with other versions of myself visiting from other worlds. There will be scars across the story where I have mis-edited. There will be places where I have compounded the pattern unintentionally, resulting in something better than I deserve.

It has been a huge journey. I can only hope it was worth it, because for the first time in my life, I do not entirely understand what I have done. I know its mechanisms and its concerns, but I am not sure what lives inside the machine. Ultimately, I am perhaps the only person for whom the book is closed. When I read it now, I read a thousand iterations at once. I no longer remember which of them is actually on the page unless I am looking at it, but at the same time, I cannot forget any of them entirely. Editing GNOMON has been about a frantic local focus, the teasing out of single threads for sense and reference, because I can only work on the corpus through the specific: any attempt to touch the whole leaves me snowblind, spinning in a sea of minutely varied reflections and unable to understand or even phrase the questions I must answer. But I believe – I trust – that the whole is there, and does what it should. I know the architecture is sound, that it flows and follows the contours of the narrative I intend. It’s only in the attempt to change it that the possibilities become explosively malleable.

From those vague but bright beginnings came this book: Neith and Lönnrot; Kyriakos; Athenaïs; Bekele; and – inevitably – Gnomon. Riddles, illusions and games. Hints of transcendence and unreality. A book bigger than the mind it came out of. I’m not sure if I personally have won or lost, or how I would recognise the difference in this process, but here we are, at the end of it, and now the only thing to do is set it loose.

Over to you.

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Cheers, NH





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