Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Shadow and Act"

“I’ve just checked the number of your Google hits, and read your Wikipedia entry,”[296] runs a frank greeting in William Gibson’s “Spook Country.” This is what translates as fame today: a foothold in the ether, an identity composed by a faceless committee of unknown size. Gibson famously coined the term “cyberspace” in his reality-crashing, paradigm-shifting 1984 debut, “Neuromancer,” and his conception of its “consensual hallucination” rings more true than ever, over two decades later, as we pursue terminally framed existences teeming with hyperlinks and blogs, worlds of warcraft and second lives.

The Googlee in question is Hollis Henry, singer for a defunct ’90s cult band (perfectly named The Curfew) and now a journalist working on a story for a shadowy magazine, Node, that hasn’t put out an issue yet. (It’s variously and hilariously described as a would-be “Wired,” generating sub rosa buzz by its very anti-buzz.) Cults, shadows, secrets: in other words, Gibson country. Hollis is in the mold of Cayce Pollard, the logo-allergic “coolhunter” of Gibson’s previous novel, 2003’s “Pattern Recognition.” Both of these appealing heroines—curious, charismatic, and essentially chaste—share DNA with Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas, all of them women on the verge of nerve-wracking conspiracies in which “possession of information amounts to involvement.”

The ostensible topic of Hollis’s article is a holographic artist who painstakingly constructs virtual-reality celebrity death scenes at their actual locations. Things quickly escalate, and she finds herself ploughing the dark in search of a nebulous shipping container. The artist explains to Hollis how his project suggests that “the world we walk around in would be channels” if everyone had her own VR helmet, tuning in only to what she wanted to see. (“We’re all doing VR, every time we look at a screen,” he says—Gibson has axioms to burn.) “Spook Country” overlays two other frequencies, two other protagonists, the connections between the three channels initially unclear. Milgrim is a code cracker and addict dependent on Brown, a violent man who might be CIA; their quarry, Tito, is a Cuban-Chinese (“indeterminately ethnic”), a preternaturally limber young man whose family has roots in counterfeiting and intelligence and whose actions are guided by the spirits of Santería. Needless to say, everyone’s questing for the enigmatic container, wherever it might be.

“Spook Country” is an oblique sequel to “Pattern Recognition,” or better yet its antic anagram, expanding themes and re-upping a few characters. Here again Gibson gives us a present (more precisely, early 2006—Tower Records lives!) in which the skies are the color of steel, no matter the city, and the outlines of a chaotic future can be discerned. Sentence for sentence, few authors can equal Gibson’s gift for the terse yet poetic description, the quotable simile—people and products are nailed down and blissfully lit as in some platonic ideal of the catalogue. An ex-bandmate now rocks a “Bladerunner soccer-mom look," a “Bluetoothed bouncer” patrols a bar, and when Gibson registers a “delirious surge of graffiti, a sort of street-fractal Hokusai wave,” the phrasing is itself a delirious surge of pleasure-center prose.[100]

Still, mystery abounds, myriad paranoias pulsating underneath the immaculate surfaces. (Hollis sometimes visualizes a “Mongolian Death Worm”—the “mascot” of her anxiety—burrowing beneath the dunes of her consciousness, not to mention nodding to the amplified annelids of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”) Gibson continues to unofficially tout all things Apple, but in “Spook Country” this product placement has a twist: iPods are used to ferry deceptive data, and at one point Tito imagines what would happen if you could “crack its virginal white case like a nut, and then draw forth something utterly peculiar, utterly dire, and somehow terrible in its contemporaneity.” Even the sleekest products can host demons, crackling with as much potential malice as the anonymous-looking container at the heart of this story.

Hollis learns that “Node” magazine is a project of Hubertus Bigend, the zeitgeist-infiltrating force behind Blue Ant, a Belgian-based advertising enterprise that calls itself the “first viral agency,” except when it doesn’t. “He doesn’t want you to have heard of him,” one of his minions tells Hollis, and he operates on the principle that secrets “are the very root of cool.” The irony is that readers of “Pattern Recognition” have already heard of him, and there’s something deliciously sinister in the fact that it’s the antihero who forms the most obvious link between Gibson’s two most recent books. In the earlier novel, Bigend funded Cayce’s search for the source of haunting film fragments appearing on the Web; here we learn (spoiler alert) that he successfully harnessed that sublime (whose online scholars represented “the first true freemasonry of the 21st century”) to sell shoes.

Googling “Hubertus Bigend” in real life leads you to a discussion board where Gibsonites muse, a bit futilely, on the significance of his somewhat scatological name. This reviewer wonders if his odd moniker is an allusion, or at least a fortuitous parallel, to a minor character in another labyrinthine book concerned with (among other things) art and imitation and money, by another William G.: William Gaddis’s “The Recognitions” (1955). When Bigend explains his philosophy to Hollis by saying “Everything is potential,” she responds, “Everything is potential bullshit.” In Gaddis’s book, the odious Recktall Brown collaborates with an art critic to deal in expensive forgeries, including paintings by one of the book’s few true artist, Wyatt Gwyon (who only, alas, paints in the manner of the Old Masters). For all of Gibson’s lavish products, he’s given his main moneyman a name that resonates with the toilet. Anything that can be sold instantly loses its cachet, a point brought home again when Bigend suggests to Hollis’s ex-bandmate Inchmale—another adult-toy name—that they sell a Curfew song for a Chinese car commercial.

To follow the flow of “Neuromancer,” with its vigorous, carpet-pulling tempos, you have to read the landscape for clues. As the titular character (or cipher) says, “In the patterns sometimes you imagined you could detect in the dance of the street. Those patterns are real.” Was “Pattern Recognition” itself a titular homage to “The Recognitions”? The title—the concept—drives the reader to enter into a state of apophenia, defined by Cayce’s father, Win, as “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things,” a gift Cayce also has. Should we pay special attention, then, to the fact that a late-arriving adventurer in “Spook Country” is described as resembling William S. Burroughs—as is Win (who’d gone missing after 9/11) in “Pattern Recognition”?

More apophenia: Inchmale has retired to Buenos Aires; this year, New Directions published a 45th-anniversary edition of Borges’s “Labyrinths” with an introduction by Gibson, in which he calls the Buenos Aires native’s book a “singular” milestone in his reading life. It’s a collection in which books are the seeds for nightmares and vice versa, and every passage is lined with mirrors. (Perhaps the most potent Web prophecy before “Neuromancer” is Borges’s 1949 story “The Aleph.”) Despite its thriller trappings, “Spook Country” is a puzzle palace of bewitching proportions and stubborn echoes. Hollis’s band was the Curfew, which means it’s time for you to come inside.

—originally published, in slightly different form, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 5, 2007

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