Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Book Review: Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson 

Pattern Recognition is Gibson's first novel to take place in the present. Cayce Pollard is a ‘cool hunter’, a marketing consultant with an intuitive skill for trends. In her spare time, she’s also a ‘footagehead’, a participant in an online forum where the topic is a series of enigmatic video clips. The video maker’s identity and purpose are the subject of considerable debate among the footageheads and as their discussion begins to spill over into the ‘real’ world, Cayce is drawn into a search for the video’s creator.

Cayce’s father went missing on September 11th and repeated references to that tragic date firmly grounds the novel circa 2002/2003. Unfortunately, as Gibson moves the chronology of his novels ever closer to the present, the characters and their interaction with technology become less interesting. After all, we're familiar with spam and google and online forums.

The basic premise of this novel was difficult for me to swallow. Cayce's surprisingly (for Gibson) psychic-like ability is due to her lifelong 'allergy' to certain logos and brands. It’s never clear how she makes her distinctive choices, or why the Michelin Man should be worse than Tony the Tiger but somehow, despite an affliction which makes her cut the tags and logos from her clothing, she manages to spend a considerable amount of time out in public, surrounded by the inevitable chorus of signs and branding, without collapsing. That the symptoms of this reaction bear a closer similarity to psychosis than allergy or psychic ability apparently occurred to Gibson, as Cayce has been in therapy. The whole thing struck me as inherently implausible, and kept distracting me throughout. Cayce is continuously submerged in this discussion of media and marketing, globalization and the evolution of culture to the point where it feels more like her ‘allergy’ is simply the manifestation of Gibson’s taste. She just doesn’t feel like she belongs there. How does someone who has a nervous breakdown whenever she sees a Prada handbag manage to make a living evaluating the 'coolness' of consumer goods?

Apparently unrelated storylines are introduced for the mechanics of plot, then dropped, never to really be expanded or explained. The nebulous connections made throughout the book are hardly justified and nearly as much space was devoted to the fruitless relationship with the mother listening for voices in the white noise at the end of tapes as was to the far more interesting glimpses of culture and the real relationships that are beginning to appear in Gibson’s work almost for the first time. The peripheral characters are the most interesting aspect of this novel. Gibson’s people are beginning to have real friends as opposed to lovers or relatives.

Gibson can still write those fantastically poetic sentences that have defined his lyrical style, as in this drug-induced hallucination Cayce has of the Michelin Man: “But there are skulls atop the sideboard, and as she’s opening her mouth to tell Dorotea about them, she sees Bibendum himself behind the bar, the rolls of his pallid, rubbery flesh like the folds of a partially deflated blimp, greasy and vile.” But just as I was warming to the aesthetics of the thing, it was crushed by a neat Hollywood-type ending.

Gibson conveniently avoids the need to explain artistic genius by crediting it to an artistic idiot savant, much as in Count Zero, where credit is given to an idiot savant artificial intelligence. It works in Count Zero as a suggestion for the genesis of intelligent and aesthetic machines from a decaying technology. It falls flat in Pattern Recognition, not just because we've seen a more elaborate version before, but because the idiot savant is just an idiot savant and an accidental one at that. The ending is insufficient, it reveals the book for what it really is: a thin retread of Marly's search for the boxmaker in Count Zero that lacks the vision of Gibson's earlier works.

Wait for the paperback.

Pattern Recognition
William Gibson
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York 2003

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