Thursday, April 1, 2004

From the Archives: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

I'd like to look at Pattern Recognition in three ways: (1) as a William Gibson novel, (2) as a descendent of and a variation on The Crying of Lot 49, and (3) as an attempt to deal with a post-9/11 world.

1) Though promoted as Gibson's first novel set in the present, Pattern Recognition reads almost exactly like one of his sci-fi novels. Maybe this is because the present looks more like the future everyday or it may be that Gibson's cyberpunk prophecy has come to pass. My own belief is that Gibson has always understood that you can find the future in the world around you, as long as you know where to look. And almost all of his novels, including Pattern Recognition, are about characters trying to find those places where the future reveals itself in the present.

In this case, our hero is Cayce Pollard, a "cool hunter," paid big bucks by corporations to sniff out the next big thing and to figure out future trends. In all of his novels, there's a loaded MacGuffin (i.e., a plot device that not only motivates the action but also has a symbolic meaning) that drives the story. In Neuromancer, it's AI, in Virtual Light, it's a pair of virtual relaity glasses. Here, it's "The Footage"--fragments of a movie that begin to appear mysteriously on the fringes of the Internet.

No one knows who's made them or why or even how they've made them, whether or not the fragments have been released in any kind of order, or what the fragments--by themselves or all together--actually mean, but a small group of dedicated Footage-followers have set up message boards in order to debate these questions, as well as any other Footage-related issues. Cayce, a fan herself, is hired by a shadowy corporate bigwig to track down the filmmaker and find definitive answers to these questions. The bigwig--who runs a cutting edge advertising company--sees the way the Footage has been distributed across the web as a revolutionary guerilla marketing tool.

Essentially, this is the same plot as every other Gibson novel: our hero uses her special abilities to track down an artifact that will reveal what the future will look like. But Gibson handles this kind of thing really well: the story is well paced and full of neat twists and turns and conspiracies within conspiracies. However, the story is really just a platform for Gibson's observations and commentary on contemporary consumer culture--on the nature and meaning of new fads, careers, and lifestyles that have emerged from the digitized, globalized world.

Unfortunately, Pattern Recognition not only has the plot of Gibson's other books but also their major weakness--their complete lack of humor. The relentlessly depressed mood gets to be a bit of a drag: it seems at odds with the Hitchcock-like thriller plot. Moreover, it makes Gibson's observations of the quirks of contempo-pop culture seem overly dramatic and pretentious.

2) Though it follows the pattern of Gibson's sci-fi novels, Pattern Recognition is also his version of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. The parallels jump right out. Both Cayce and Oedipa Maas are driven by their curiosity to follow the trail of a secret conspiracy. Pierce Iverarity appears in Pattern Recognition as Hugh Bigend, an advertising mogul for the 21st Century. Both center around the question of how are we to make sense of the patterns in the world around us. Yet, where Lot 49 is playful, Pattern Recognition is dour.

Gibson shares his humorlessness with Don DeLillo, another Pynchon disciple. (DeLillo often tries to be funny, but the jokes in something like White Noise are more theoretical than real.) And Pattern Recognition shares Underworld's interest in post-Cold War Russia, urban legends, and the alienation of globalization. Though there are passages in Underworld, a Very Important Novel, where DeLillo's writing is on par with Pynchon's or Saul Bellow's, for the most part the book is not as satisfying as Pattern Recognition, which is merely a thriller that wishes it was a Very Important Novel.

After reading DeLillo and Gibson, not to mention those writers of lesser talent who have also appropriated Pynchon for their own purposes, I think it's time to call a moratorium on novels inspired by Lot 49. As much as I like that book, it seems that (1) it already said everything it needed to say and (2) it is simply too easy to rewrite it by dressing it up in contemporary drag, replacing Tristero with a mysterious Hotmail competitor.

3) Gibson's attempt to deal with the effects of 9/11 is only moderately successful. Part of his problem is that throughout the book he deals more the symbolic effect of 9/11 than with the terrorist attacks themselves. In fact, I don't think he uses the word "terrorist" at all during the entire novel. Gibson does get at the sense of what it was like to be in NYC in the days following the destruction of the WTC--the simultaneous pathos and nobility of the way no one covered up other people's "Missing" flyers while posting their own, the almost unbearable pain of not knowing whether or not a loved one had survived, the shell-shocked feeling shared by everyone in the city. But he really isn't interested in how the world really did, and not just symbolically, change after 9/11: how globalization looked radically different, much more dangerous, than it had before.

Pattern Recognition succeeds where it is least ambitious, in its slick technothriller plot and its commentary on digital culture, but it's take on 9/11--and the bigger picture in general--is too shallow. Nonetheless, it is an honest attempt to deal with a post-9/11 world, even if it falls short.