A work of obvious effort, William Gibson's latest novel, the non-science fiction
(or "straight") Pattern Recognition ($24.95; 358 pages; G.P. Putnam's
Sons/Penguin), was ultimately very disappointing. Disenchanted with Gibson for
a while, I've avoided his last few books, but I was actually looking forward
to this one. I was hoping that a leap out of the SF genre would reinvigorate
him, like it has with some of his contemporaries, that Gibson would use this
opportunity to shed the hyper-intellectualized "to cool for school" straightjacket
he'd created for himself. Unfortunately, he provides a book that is cloddishly
convoluted and an utter chore to read. I really got the feeling that this was
a poor attempt to mimic Neal Stephenson's non-SF success.
Using the events of September 11, 2001, as a distant backdrop, Pattern Recognition
follows lead character Cayce as she tries to figure out who has been uploading
bizarre video footage onto the Internet which has become a cult phenomenon.
Cayce is, if I may borrow a term from Jim Munroe's much better novel Everyone
in Silico, a "coolhunter." She seeks out variations in subcultures that
might be used in future lucrative marketing and merchandising -- like the first
person that managed to identify and sell super-baggy pants to white suburbia.
Cayce's shady boss has sent her on a global quest to find the origin of the
footage, in order to exploit and
profit from it.
But plagued with inertia, by page 150 the book became tiresome, a drag to read.
A main problem is Pattern Recognition's resolute humorlessness and lack
of passion. It's so serious and self-important that it practically gets crushed
by its own pretensions -- pretensions so heavy that I couldn't help but wonder
if we were on the verge of some weird satire -- like an Andy Warhol-esque spoof
of media and cybertech. But if that's the case, the satire is too oblique. Nor
does the book feel like it's evolved naturally; but rather like it's been programmed
to grow to certain precise specifications, with character movement occurring
by the numbers. There's a mystery, but no surprises.
And I'm really not too sure about Gibson's use of the WTC attacks as background
detail. No one watching that horror would record it as calmly as Cayce, and
since she's describing it after the fact, knowing that her father is missing
in that area, it's twice as shocking that she seems so blasÈ about it. Cayce's
cool-as-a-cucumber reaction to the buildings going down is downright bizarre.
If the author is trying to indicate that she's traumatized by the event, he
fails, instead making the attacks seem like nothing more than a "bother" to
the woman. Of course, Gibson, in his attempt to make everything seem so "cool,"
has made Cayce's father an ex-CIA man as well. He's a man with a mysterious
past, rather than just one of the thousands of working stiffs who perished that
This is emblematic of Gibson's poorly drawn characterizations -- none of his
characters feel real; with their areas of interest and knowledge so specialized,
and many with such precious quirks, that they might as well be characters out
of a mediocre pulp sci-fi novel, where personalities are delineated by their
The book would have been so much better if Gibson had just written a series
of essays observing the world. When he's playing social commentator, as he does
occasionally in Pattern Recognition, Gibson is aces. But as a non-SF
fiction novelist, Gibson falls short.
Meanwhile, another stalwart of the SF scene, Iain Banks, has also contributed
a piece of "straight" fiction touching on 9/11. As "Iain M. Banks," this prolific
writer is known in SF circles as the creator of the "Culture" series. But it
was as "Iain Banks" that he first debuted as an author, with the violent, morally
confusing and highly recommended The Wasp Factory (1984), a bizarre tale
about a murderous teenage boy. Banks' non-SF novels are not as well known in
the US, but can definitely be compared with such practitioners of "Contemporary
Modern Literature" as Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh and Jonathan Lethem.
Entitled Dead Air (£16.99 in the U.K.; 408 pages; Little, Brown), Banks'
new book starts off with a frivolous party in London being interrupted. In a
creepy and effective scene, the drunk partygoers are wastefully throwing food
and furniture from an apartment's balcony, when one by one, all their cell phones
begin to ring, all bearing the bad news of the disaster taking place in New
York City. The narrator is Scotsman Ken Nott (although obvious, I enjoy Banks'
infrequent doses of heavy symbolism), a left-leaning London-based shock jock,
a Howard McStern who occasionally plays some very hip music. (Although a bit
of a show-off, Banks has great musical taste.)
Banks uses Nott to deliver a multitude of delicious screeds about the state
of the modern world, from the controversy surrounding George W. Bush's election
to the Israel/Palestine situation to why liberalism is nothing to be ashamed
of. If your politics are conservative, or very old school, you'll probably hate
what Banks (through Ken) is saying, but lefties (and the cantankerous) certainly
can use Nott's diatribes as leaping off points of their own. Right-wing critics
may certainly call Banks anti-American, and I would not be surprised if Dead
Air never gets published in the U.S. due to its scandalous content. The
following is probably the only one of Nott's screeds that I can quote without
deeply offending some segment of RevolutionSF.com's readership:
[I]magine if paintings were produced the way Hollywood films are. . . .The
Mona Lisa as we know it would be just the first draft; in the second she'd
be blonde, in the third smiling happily and showing some cleavage, by the
fourth there'd be her and her equally attractive and feisty sisters and the
landscape behind would be a jolly seaside scene; the fifth draft would get
rid of her and keep the sisters, lose the seaside for a misty mountain and
make the girls both redheaded and a bit more, like, ethnic looking, and by
the sixth or seventh the mountain would be replaced by a dark and mysterious
jungle and there'd be just the one girl again, but she'd be a dusky maiden
wearing a low-cut wrap and with a smoldering, alluring look and an exotic
bloom in her long black tresses. . . .Bingo -- La Giaconda would look like
something you were embarrassed your elderly uncle bought in Woolworth's in
the early seventies and never had the wit to get rid of in subsequent redecorations.
Like Pattern Recognition, I felt that the early references to 9/11 in
Dead Air had no real bearing on the plot, and were tacked on. Of course
Nott should comment on the attacks during his radio show -- he comments about
every other political topic -- but 9/11 is such a huge signifier these days
that to start a book with the attacks, then never bring that incident into play
in any serious way smacks of callous exploitation. I would not be surprised
to find out that Banks had written most of this novel before the attacks, and
then rewrote to fit them in.
If I'm wrong, I would guess that Banks feels that in the post-9/11 world, polite
discourse is either no longer necessary or even useful; that now is the time
for serious rants. Thus, he makes his protagonist a professional ranter. But
the frame of the story is Nott's misguided secret affair with the beautiful
wife of a ruthless gangster. The stuff of airport paperbacks, it has some distracting
soft-core smut, but the rest of the novel doesn't really seem to jibe with it.
Banks would've been better off creating a more experimental book by removing
everything except Nott's rants on his radio show, sort of like Eric Bogosian's
play Talk Radio. But I feel about Iain Banks the same way I do about
Martin Scorsese: Even his mediocre stuff is better than some people's best.
I never feel like the experience hasn't been somewhat worthwhile. But as such,
I have to say that Dead Air is really for Banks completists only. If
you want to experience some of his better more recent works, check out Whit
or The Business, both intriguing and subtler Banks books.