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Footage Fetish

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (Penguin Putnam 2003) $26 hardcover.

William Gibson will always be remembered as the guy who coined the term "cyberspace." Like one of his own hardwired artificial intelligences epoxied into a hunk of designer plastic, Gibson’s neologism has, for better or for worse, launched itself into a kind of global sentience. But knocking off bumper stickers for Generation Wired—only to see them refashioned, with frightening efficiency, into various techno-euphoric corporate slogans— is not all he’s been up to these last 25 years. In addition to forging this now ineluctable unit of lexical currency, Gibson’s been compiling vivid word-footage of the late-capitalist near-future.

In his first short stories (spanning from 1977 to 1982, and now anthologized in the collection Burning Chrome), Gibson drew up the floor-plan that he would rethink and redeploy throughout his oeuvre: seedy hustlers creeping through tech/noir urban labyrinths aflash with the lurid blitz of an advertising industry gone nova, virtual celebrities plugged into customized prosthetic addictions, and international espionage plots hinging on encrypted chains of zeroes and ones. Gibson’s sentences around this time sound like William Burroughs circa Nova Express, but with Dashiell Hammet’s hyper-attention to quotidian physical detail.

In Neuromancer (1984), Gibson managed single-handedly to birth an avant-pop zeitgeist, alchemizing the fragments of a hundred stray bubble-gum dystopias. From a thinly veiled homage to something like Escape From New York (the biochemical detonator threaded into one character’s nervous system is a direct allusion to John Carpenter’s grade Z gem), to the morbid bohemianism of Lou Reed’s early VU lyrics (Gibson has gone on record as a Velvets freak), to the apprentice-like tip of the self-reflexive hat to the paranoiac allegories of Thomas Pynchon’s tweaker bible Gravity’s Rainbow, Neuromancer is a mirror-plated, rotating museum of that dense pop minute that encompasses both the early Madonna and The Road Warrior. While Carpenter’s Snake Pliskin is a soldier of fortune with a graphite hanglider and an infra-red life-span, Gibson’s street-trash daredevil mercenary Case is a wise-ass electro-bricoleur, equal parts gum-shoeing Sam Spade and bounty-hunting Boba Fett.

Neuromancer’s great (if somewhat cultish) success spawned the genre tag "cyberpunk," and countless bad imitations have surfaced bearing this label, up to and including an abysmal LP by Billy Idol (imaginatively titled Cyberpunk), and the truly dopey Keanu Reeves vehicle The Matrix. Two great Gibson novels, however, did emerge from the initial crackle of the Neuromancer buzz, together comprising what has come to be known as the "Sprawl Trilogy." Count Zero (1986) chronicled the exploits of a Horatio Alger-ish console jockey, who slips the Jersey tenements for a shot at the big leagues (think "Johnny B. Goode" + MIT), and in the process gets to know some voodoo gods who are living in his computer. Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) begins Gibson’s ongoing fascination with the increasingly complex corporate artifices of celebrity, and the talismanic magic of industrial junk collage. After the Sprawl Trilogy, Gibson spun the template with varying degrees of success, but with a steady drift toward richer characterization, and less flashy "what if"-isms. This tendency has come to fruition in Pattern Recognition, which is certainly Gibson’s most straight-ahead piece of story-telling to date, and has among the tightest of his plots.

What one first notices about Pattern Recognition is a domestication of the computer thematics that in Neuromancer through Idoru (1993) were offered in their more hard-core versions. Where we once had cranial jacks linking computer terminals directly to the human neuro-chemistry, hand-held holographic tour guides tucked away in slabs of Japanese silicon, thinking sunglasses holding entire urban topographies in their lenses, and virtual pop stars whose 4-TRAN-ed ontologies are ciphered into body-guarded airwaveable softwares, Pattern Recognition now offers intricate shapshots of the comfy, everyday rituals of web browsers, printer drivers, Google searches, URL bookmarks and eBay. The million habitual quirks of e-mail correspondence, for instance, are not just described throughout the novel, but featured in a series of striking little stylistic performances, in which Gibson expertly apes the truncated syntax of hastily composed digital conversations. The effect of these tonal shifts is heightened with gentle morphs of font, as if the pulpy "screen" of the page were registering the hop to e-mail text in its own stubbornly analogue "pixels." Accordingly, Gibson’s trademark up-to-the-second gadget fetishism—the innate flashiness of the "latest" and the "fastest"—has had its polarity reversed in Pattern Recognition toward something closer to the meshing of gears in the guts of a hand-made clock.

This reverse-tech aesthetic is something Gibson begun to explore in his historical "steampunk" novel The Difference Engine (1990), which posited the arrival of the information age a hundred years early, with Charles Babbage’s warehouse-sized calculators driving the economy of Victorian London. But here, it is as if the "cyberpunk" toolbox, now outmoded as a thematic Wow! engine, has been put to work in drawing up photorealist portraits of office interiors, commercial aircraft compartments, restaurant décor and chic loft spaces. It is the inhuman precision of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s camera, placed in the hands of status-obsessed Brett Easton Ellis.

Narratively, Pattern Recognition feels more Phillip Marlowe than Phillip K. Dick. The clandestinism of uber-wealth is still a preoccupation, but the world-spanning espionage plots of fiber-optic hacker pirates that Gibson’s shown himself so capable of lyricizing in all his books, are here the everyday intrigues of high-power marketing execs, and the ubiquitous virtualities of the advertising world. The protagoniste of Pattern Recognition (Cayce Pollard; first name pronounced like a pun on the cyberhood protag in Neuromancer "Case") has an eerie gift: she can intuitively sense buzz. Brand logos etched upon soda cans, blue jeans, luggage, and athletic shoes, she feels as a kind of cognitive allergic reaction—and she knows which will take off and which will tank. Accordingly, she is indispensable to certain marketers of aggressively ephemeral cultural goods. But she is also the daughter of an FBI agent gone missing on the morning of September 11, 2001 (who, as it turns out, had no business in NYC that day). On top of all this, she is obsessed with a series of apparently authorless avant-garde film clips that are surfacing in enigmatic fragments on the Internet; she is obsessed to the point of making impulsive jaunts from London to Tokyo at the slightest clue as to who "the Maker" might be.

A Nancy Drew with French shoes and an iBook, Cayce’s sleuth work takes on the dimensions of a full-blown mytheme in Pattern Recognition, which derives its shape from the great pop cultural melodrama of the last 50 years: the increasingly merciless cycles of innovation and commodification, and the shelves of clearly logo-ed counter-cultural scripts that must emerge from the stacks of turnover. Cayce stands at the intersection of an unthinkably powerful ad agency and the mesmerizing image fragments that have drawn her, and a legion of devoted exegetes, around them like stray rocks around some still-untelevised star. At the same time that Gibson toys with some of the juicer hooks of network and chaos theory, he bumps up, as he has before, against the great sphinx-like paradoxes of the culture industry—artworks and their packaging, the singular particularity of invention and the repeatable generality of the "-ism," the authenticity of the original and the consumptive banality of the copy. The further twist here is that "the Footage" is being assembled in a catacomb-like tenement in the former Soviet Union (perhaps, for the hardcore Gibson-head, a nod to the "Villa Straylight" satellite, or those Fordist Cornell boxes from Count Zero?). The funding comes from a Russian mafia kingpin, whose fortunes are in part the result of his entrepreneurial re-thinking of the disease-ridden Russian prison system. And American ad execs loot through the socio-economic wreckage of post-Soviet Moscow for potential products to market. This is, of course, one way to talk about globalization.

One can’t help but wonder if Gibson is not at the same time exploring, through a tricky piece of mirror-writing, the tendrils of the dream factory that have grown up around the "cyberpunk" auteur himself. For Gibson’s novels have always given off a hypnotic shimmer for those pre-attuned to seek them out, and the radius of that gravitational pull has only widened since the first flare up of Neuromancer in 1984. The passage of "cyberspace" into the everyday lexicon of the world (like Andre Breton’s "surreal" before it) is only a compact emblem for, say, the larger quasi-religious embrace of some Gaia-like digitally enhanced marketplace that one finds in the proselytizing rhetoric of certain corporate management theories of the late 1990s, or CNN headline stories that casually refer to internet "slammer worms" (a term that certainly sounds like it might have been plucked from one of Gibson’s adventures) as if such things were as common as Apple or IBM. The other side of this coin, of course, is that Gibson’s own literary products have themselves become more and more market friendly, but that is by no means to suggest that their quality has waned. On the contrary, Pattern Recognition is a wonderful novel, packed to the gills with ideas and energy and style and invention. Alas, one can only wonder whether the user-friendly content of this latest literary "footage" will be the final word Gibson has to offer on the vexed—and deeply American—question of art and commodification.


Paul Grimstad

Paul Grimstad's songs and original scores are featured most recently in the films, Happy Christmas (2014), The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014), and Stinking Heaven


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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