Tagborges

Review of Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON

Last year, I was given and read Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON, and I’ve wanted to take a little time to describe to you why you should read it, if you haven’t already.

GNOMON starts with an investigator in London looking into the death of someone in the course of what should have been a routine investigation. A woman was strapped into a chair and her mind was probed with drugs and machines to learn the truth of who she was and whether she posed a threat to the city. Mielikki Neith works for The Witness—an automated algorithmic learning and surveillance system tied into a systema dn series of networked devices across London’s populace, creating and enabling the ultimate democracy. Citizens are engaged and connected to the laws, status, and operations of their country, in real time, and it is through this system that Neith is assigned to the task of investigating Diana Hunter’s death.

From there, things get very strange, very fast. As the real-time recording of Hunter’s mind under interrogation unfolds in Neith’s consciousness—a tool used by Witness service to maximize transparency and understanding—Neith finds more than just Hunter’s mind: she also the life story of another. As the story unfolds, it actually doesn’t. It refolds, mountain folds, and valley folds through time and space and placeness, and that gets, ultimately, to what I want to say to you about what Nick Harkaway has done here.


[Cover of Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON]

Here are some things that are true about GNOMON:

This book is and is about magic, machine consciousness, and communities of resistance, in the weirdest ways possible.

It is exactly 666 pages long.

This book has four or five or six main threads, and it weaves all of them around and through all of them, each enveloping and enfolding each, wrapping around the outside only to then traverse it and find that you are inside of and beneath the next layer in the line.

The entire book resonates with Borges, Hofstadter, Danielewski, Butler, and LeGuin, without imitation.

Each one of these personages appears or seems to appear, but just when you think you’re sure how they’ll be seen, they are not there, like a shark fin in the ocean that becomes and always was the wave of the sea you’re swimming in and then, again, or maybe never, churns and is the shark: No less deeply and immediately important for the reminder of what is in there with you, and quietly unsettling for upending what you think you know…

GNOMON is the kind of thing that you know is behaving as intended when one of the metaphors/similes/analogies you’ve decided to use to describe it shows up in it the day after you think of it.

It is almost impossible to spoil this book without telling you literally all of the events of this book, but I also don’t want to colour your intake, too much, other than to say that this book is important. There is mystery in it, and there’s art. It is a masterful thing, and if all you see is the surface plot of it, then you’ve missed the central conceit of the thing.

If you have not already done so, definitely get it, when you get a chance.


Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON is available from Penguin Books.

The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges

Ostensibly a review of Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, this essay is a great overview of how Jorge Borges’ politics affected his work:

Throughout his life, Jorge Luis Borges was engaged in a dialogue with violence. Speaking to an interviewer about his childhood in what was then the outlying barrio of Palermo, in Buenos Aires, he said, “To call a man, or to think of him, as a coward—that was the last thing…the kind of thing he couldn’t stand.” According to his biographer, Edwin Williamson,1 Borges’s father handed him a dagger when he was a boy, with instructions to overcome his poor eyesight and “generally defeated” demeanor and let the boys who were bullying him know that he was a man.

Swords, daggers—weapons with a blade—retained a mysterious, talismanic significance for Borges, imbued with predetermined codes of conduct and honor. The short dagger had particular power, because it required the fighters to draw death close, in a final embrace. As a young man, in the 1920s, Borges prowled the obscure barrios of Buenos Aires, seeking the company of cuchilleros, knife fighters, who represented to him a form of authentic criollo nativism that he wished to know and absorb.

The criollos were the early Spanish settlers of the pampa, and their gaucho descendants. For at least a century now, the word has signified an ideal cultural purity that, according to its champions, was corrupted by the privatization of the pampa and, later, by the flood of immigrants from Italy and elsewhere in Europe that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Borges spent much of his twenties attempting to write a full-length epic poem that would mythologize this “innumerable Buenos Aires of mine,” as he called it—a work that would, in Borges’s words again, “converse with the world and with the self, with God and with death.” He saw it as a way to reflect the city’s essence, as Joyce had done with Dublin, a way to establish a lasting cultural identity that Argentina did not yet possess in the world. His aim, in part, was to enshrine the urban descendent of the criollo, with his ubiquitous dagger and supposedly honorable outlaw ways. Eventually he would abandon the project—Borges was never able to conquer the long form; and though his cultural vision, as it later developed, would be much broader, the romance of the criollo would continue to animate his imagination. Some of his finest fiction—including the stories “The South,” “The Dead Man,” and “The Intruder,” to name just a few—was kindled by the dagger.

Full Story: The New York Review of Books: The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges

DSM-5 As Borgesian Novel

Mental Disorders

DSM-5 as a dystopian novel:

If the novel has an overbearing literary influence, it’s undoubtedly Jorge Luis Borges. The American Psychiatric Association takes his technique of lifting quotes from or writing faux-serious reviews for entirely imagined books and pushes it to the limit: Here, we have an entire book, something that purports to be a kind of encyclopedia of madness, a Library of Babel for the mind, containing everything that can possibly be wrong with a human being. Perhaps as an attempt to ward off the uncommitted reader, the novel begins with a lengthy account of the system of classifications used – one with an obvious debt to the Borgesian Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which animals are exhaustively classified according to such sets as “those belonging to the Emperor,” “those that, at a distance, resemble flies,” and “those that are included in this classification.”

Just as Borges’s system groups animals by seemingly aleatory characteristics entirely divorced from their actual biological attributes, DSM-5 arranges its various strains of madness solely in terms of the behaviors exhibited. This is a recurring theme in the novel, while any consideration of the mind itself is entirely absent. In its place we’re given diagnoses such as “frotteurism,” “oppositional defiant disorder,” and “caffeine intoxication disorder.” That said, these classifications aren’t arranged at random; rather, they follow a stately progression comparable to that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, rising from the infernal pit of the body and its weaknesses (intellectual disabilities, motor tics) through our purgatorial interactions with the outside world (tobacco use, erectile dysfunction, kleptomania) and finally arriving in the limpid-blue heavens of our libidinal selves (delirium, personality disorders, sexual fetishism). It’s unusual, and at times frustrating in its postmodern knowingness, but what is being told is first and foremost a story.

Full Story: New Inquiry: Book of Lamantations

Jorge Luis Borges Self-Portrait

Jorge Luis Borges self-portrait

Jorge Luis Borges Self-Portrait, self-portrait. From the collection of Burt Britton. Borges was nearly blind when he drew this for Britton.

(via CC Huang)

Borges on Google Maps

Borges’s story about a map as big as the territory it represented compared to Google Maps:

It is in these days that we are witnessing the collective creation of a map even more exact that Borges could imagine; one that describes the limits, the roads, and the shores of every territory on the planet. At the same time it uncovers another ambition more perfect and occult: that every shepherd or “emperor” can edit their own map as they wish, they can forge their own version of the world. In that map we will have a blueprint of human life: Things moving, crimes, thefts, migrating animals, childhood memories, imaginary battles between good and evil, hookers and ogres, real-time weather. In all, anything that can be pointed down to the soil and be named.

Full Story: Mira: Google Maps according to Jorge Luis Borges

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