Thursday, July 17, 2008

William Gibson, Pattern recognition

This is another book which uses 9/11 as a backdrop, in this instance in a mostly gratuitous way. It is meant to symbolise, I understand, the 'twenty-first century' and a violent split from our history. Oh yes?

I could accept that if it were intrinsic to the plot, but it feels to me completely unnecessary, as though the book had been written before 9/11 and those elements dropped in for some extra pathos. The book goes through the gamut of 9/11 cliches:

Counterpointing the global with the personal
[As the first plane was crashing] She had watched a single petal fall, from a dead rose, in the tiny display window of an eccentric Spring Street dealer in antiques. p. 135

Comparison with the movies (thank you Mr Zizek...)
...She had just heard a plane, incredibly loud and, she’d assumed, low. She thought she’d glimpsed something, over West Broadway, but then it had gone. They must be making a film. p. 135

Watching it on CNN
The television is on, CNN, volume up, and as she steps past him, uninivited but feeling the need to do something, she sees, on the screen beneath the unused leatherette ice bucket, the impact of the second plane. p. 137

And watching it from the windows (here, as often, at the same time as on TV)
And looks up, to the window that frames the towers. And what she will retain is that the exploding fuel burns with a tinge of green that she will never hear or see described.
Cayce and the German designer will watch the towers burn, and eventually fall, and though she will know she must have seen people jumping, falling, there will be no memory of it. p. 137

Like a dream
It will be like watching one of her own dreams on television. p. 137

The noble sadness of the posters of the missing
She had, while producing her own posters [of her missing father], watched the faces of other people’s dead, emerging from adjacent copiers at Kinko’s, to be mounted in the yearbok of the city’s loss. She had never, while putting hers up, seen one face pasted over another, and that fact, finally, had allowed her to cry, hunched on a bench in Union Square, candles burning at the base of a stature of George Washington. p. 186

Ground Zero
Instead she remembers her first view of Ground Zero, in late February: The viewing platforms. The unnaturalness of so much sunlight, in that place. They had been pulling out a PATH train, buried there.
She closed her eyes. p. 232

There is simply nothing fresh here, no insight, no particular emotion, to be honest. All of the above could more or less be culled from a Sunday supplement, chronicling some real-life experiences. It has that feeling about it of cut'n'paste, as though Gibson feels he ought to make these points. But they say nothing. They don't begin to get at the ache of 9/11, because they just don't sound genuine. The feeling of the 9/11 interludes is one of triteness.

When, once, he does try to give it some context beyond the personal tragedy, it falls flat. He says:
Some vast and deeply personal insult to any ordinary notion of interiority.
An experience outside of culture. p. 137

Well, no, it wasn't an experience outside of culture. Terrorism isn't new, even if it was new to the American homeland. Attacks on the WTC weren't even new. If Gibson had attempted to take that somewhere it would have been okay, but the cod-philosophy is left to lie.

Infuriatingly, at one point he does latch on to something potentially interesting, with the following exchange:
“...I’ve got something else, too.”
“What’s that?”
“Oil.” [end p. 280]
“I’m not sure. But I ran this guy past my friend from Harvard, State Department. he says the outfit our boy is with has links to some of the players who’re looking central to Russian oil.”
“Russian oil?”
“Saudi oil has not been looking so good to the really big guys, globally, since nine-eleven. They’re tired of worrying about the region. They want a stable source. The Russian Federation’s got it. Means huge changes in the flow of global capital. Means we’re going to be running on Russian oil.” pp. 280-281

That actually could have been an interesting tack to take, and I expect we shall see quite a few novels exploring this sort of territory in the coming years, but having come up with this idea, it disappears, and we end up with a ludicrous denouement which involves the Russian Mafia, but not oil. As Chekhov says, if you introduce a pistol in Act 1, in Act 2 it has to be fired.

My comments have focused on the 9/11 element of the novel, but overall, I have to say it is pretty lame. The plot is dull and preposterous and the ending completely uneventful. As a thriller it fails to thrill. And take this dialogue:
“...Hobbs is his mother’s maiden name. Hobbs-Baranov, hyphenated at birth. His father, a Soviet diplomat, defected in the fifties to America, marrying an Englishwoman of considerable wealth. Hobbs managed to lose the hyphen, but when drunk he still rails against it. He once told me that he’d lived his whole life within that hyphen, in spite of having buried it.”
“He worked for American intelligence, as a mathematician?”
“Recruited from Harvard, I believe…” p. 242

Honestly, does that not make you cringe with embarrassment for the poor beginner who has produced such drivel? But this is William Gibson, author of Neuromancer... Extraordinary. This is supposed to be the cutting of technology in 21st century America. If Widmerpool had wandered in from stage left I wouldn't have been surprised.

A deeply disappointing book. One to avoid.

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