Spooked country

I dunno, man, maybe it was the buildup: the last time I cracked a brand-spankin’-new William Gibson hardcover I was still living in Ebisu, and that feels like a long way back down the road now. (Come to think of it, I read that one in a single first-day sitting too.) But I’ll confess to feeling a little let down by Spook Country.

It’s not just the melancholy of knowing that most likely another five years (and a similarly dramatic interval of life circumstances?) will elapse before I do it again, which is a tristesse little short of post-coital. It likely has more to do with the fact that Spook Country‘s Hollis Henry and Bobby Chombo never really resolve as characters for me – utterly unlike Pattern Recognition‘s Cayce Pollard, a brilliant creation who leapt into highest definition in just a few deft strokes. (I continue to maintain that, with J.G. Ballard, Gibson is the finest crafter of sentences working in the English language.)

And in this, they’re of a mesh with the rest of the book. Four-and-some years it may have taken, but this is the first Gibson I’ve ever read that feels rushed. Not worked out in all its details. Strewn with great ideas that never really turn into anything. The trademark multi-threaded caper plot actually does resolve satisfactorily, even pleasingly, but it feels a little ex machina all the same.

Still worse, the book feels just as rushed on the physical level, sporting entirely too many missteps that should have been caught in the production process; it’s rife with copy-edit blunders, including at least one instance in which “Alejandro” slips past where the author clearly meant “Alberto,” and you do a clumsy little double-take that pulls you up out of the narrative. Too, the paper is insubstantial, the type sits faintly on the page.

None of this is to say that Gibson’s lost his eye for just the right shock-of-recognition detail that brings a passage slamming home – no, those are here in spades, so much so that it occasionally feels like he’s been shoulder-surfing the last few years of my life. The specific material objects – GSG9 boots! – and locations – The Standard, and still more so The New Yorker (!?!) – he chooses to limn his characters are almost uncannily resonant with my own experience, and the same can be said for his ear for subculture-specific and -definitive language.

And this is the real rub. The larger part of my beef with Spook Country is simply that the world he’s writing about has become too close to home for me. If a character in Pattern Recognition seemed modeled, in part, on Chris Cunningham, that’s OK, because I don’t know Chris Cunningham. But when you’re introduced to a character who bears a marked resemblance to Régine Debatty? That’s different. And when you consider it in the context of the flotsam of 100% dead-accurate cultural references that drift through the text, it’s nothing short of unsettling.

But here, of course, we depart from the realm of literary critique entirely. None of this counts against Spook Country as a work of art. If I confine myself to weighing the book solely on its merits: three and a half stars out of five, it’s nice to see Hubertus Bigend again, and too bad about all the oddly discordant VW product-placement.

4 responses to “Spooked country”

  1. Alex Watson says :

    Interesting thoughts – I’ve just started it, and while slightly disconcerted that the Guardian’s Digest Read (http://books.guardian.co.uk/digestedread/story/0,,2148338,00.html) nails the opening pages, so far, so good…

    That said, I’m curious that you think Cayce was such a good character – for me, she was something of a let down in Pattern Recognition, and really, I’ve always thought that Gibson (who I like as an author very much, don’t get me wrong) is literature’s equivalent of Tim Burton: someone who is an excellent stylist, with a terrific ability to conjur up a world that wraps right around you, and who can colour it some fantastic washes of feeling, but who has never really been able to grab hold of specific people and the whys behind their actions in quite the same way he can do sub cultures and memes….

  2. sevensixfive says :

    Just finished it on the train this morning, and it’s still settling, but I agree with you about the sentences … the paragraphs are pretty nice too.

    If anything, I’d say it felt a little too BoingBoing. It’s not just the WMMNA references, a lot of the pieces were just a little too unobscure to me.

    A friend of mine calls artifacts like this too ‘secular’: explaining, or even commodifying the strangeness (which an initiate might find familiar) to an audience of laypeople … but then, are there really any laypeople out there who don’t read about the Mongolian Death Worm in BoingBoing?

    I’m looking forward to rereading Pattern Recognition now.

  3. Ben Kraal says :

    I haven’t read Spook Country yet. I don’t think it’s even out in Oz yet.

    “but it feels a little ex machina all the same.”

    I always thought that Gibsonia was *all about* the ex machina. The plot, and therefore everyone in the story, is driven along by the relentless will of the machine. The fun is in exactly what is meant in each novel/trilogy by “will” and “machine”.

    (I know what you mean by saying it was all a little ex machina. And I know that what I said, above, is slightly tangential to what you meant.)

  4. (0v0) says :

    Re-found speedbird (happened on you a few months ago for some other reason) ISO readers who feel similarly about the characters in Spook Country. Agreed too in the melancholy of knowing we have years to wait for a third. WG’s surfaces to leave me a little cold, but I think my subconscious is in love with his subconscious. Id to id, or something.

    About references uncannily in synch with your own experiences and BoingBoing references, yes. E.g., in my case, he opens a block away from my first LA apartment, and as I read, he took M and B to Gray’s Papaya in midtown just as I passed by the place on a bus from JFK into the city. When he chooses a detail to put under that clear but sort of uncanny light of his, I always feel like he’s given me a clue by christening that particular object into his cool universe. So Gray’s Papaya yes, The Standard yes, highways in Montana yes… Mongolian Death Worm, well… if he insists. I didn’t like it either, but the Dune reference was funny.

    Anyway, cheers. Nice blog.

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