Monday, September 08, 2008

I've Been Here Before, Part 1

It's a tricky business, following up a successful, critically lauded, and innovative novel. Tricky for the author, of course, but also for the reader who comes back for that author's next effort. Expectations have to be carefully managed. Going in hoping for a repeat of the author's previous novel is a recipe for disaster, even if--especially if--those expectations are met. Innovation, after all, is rarely as thrilling the second time around. On the other hand, expecting too much change can lead to a jaded attitude that dismisses the very things that made that previous novel worth reading. What we want, in the end, is to recapture the pleasure of reading a truly excellent book, right down to the sensation that here is something new and unexpected. When I approach a novel by an author whose previous work has wowed me, I usually find myself hoping for something just like X, but different. A natural progression of the author's skills, themes, and unique characteristics. Some authors manage to strike this balance: China Miéville's The Scar is similar to Perdido Street Station in its breadth of imagination and meaty plot, but moves the action of the book away from its predecessor's setting, and its focus away from Perdido's adventure plot. It's not a perfect novel, but it's clear that with it Miéville was trying to move forward as a writer. M. John Harrison's Nova Swing is a distillation of many of the themes of his previous novel, Light, but it is also quite different to it, its setting both an expansion of one of Light's three plot strands and something all its own. In the last few weeks, I've read two follow-ups to two of the best-received SF novels of the last half-decade, and found them both impressive but ultimately wanting. One is too much like its predecessor; the other not enough. My original plan was to write about both of them in a single post, but the word count for the first novel alone is already nearly prohibitive. I'm splitting the post in half, therefore, and should have the second part, about Ian McDonald's Brasyl, up in a few days.

William Gibson was an important and influential name in SF literature before publishing Pattern Recognition, but with it he took his writing in a new direction, and did something that's yet to be fully replicated. Though set in the real world and the present day, and featuring absolutely no SFnal elements, Pattern Recognition is undeniably science fiction. It's a novel that takes a look at the present and describes it in SFnal terms. If one of the core aims of the genre is to look at the ways that imaginary technology might affect the human experience, Pattern Recognition looked at existing technology and charted the ways in which it had already changed that experience. In doing so Gibson also created what is surely the most lucid and thoughtful treatment of the internet, and of the ways in which it has altered human communication, in written fiction. Four years on, he's returned with Spook Country, and done the whole thing over again.

Like Pattern Recognition, Spook Country revolves around a young woman with an unusual first name (Hollis Henry matching the earlier novel's Cayce Pollard) and history (the former frontwoman for a briefly-popular rock band, Hollis is now trying to break into freelance journalism). As in Pattern Recognition, the heroine is recruited by Hubertus Bigend, founder of the advertising firm Blue Ant and all-around boy with too many toys, to track down something that's caught his fancy--in Pattern Recognition, the creator of an anonymous online film series known as The Footage; in Spook Country, a mysterious cargo container which for several years has been freighted back and forth across the world's oceans, and more importantly, its contents. Once again, the story is rooted in a new, technology-driven form of art--at the beginning of Spook Country, Hollis is writing an article about 'locative art,' installations visible only in VR which correspond to certain locations, an endeavor requiring an intimate understanding of both computer graphics and GPS technology, which brings her in contact with a man who may be able to track down Bigend's container. (The most significant deviation from Pattern Recognition is that there are two additional plotlines in Spook Country, whose protagonists are also pursuing the container. One of these follows Tito, a young Cuban immigrant and member of a close-knit crime family who has been dispatched to aid his family's former benefactor, a retired CIA agent; the other is told through the eyes of Milgrim, a junky who has been forcibly recruited as the interpreter for a shady government agent tracking the CIA agent and, through him, the container.)

Most importantly, with Spook Country Gibson once again uses a disjointed and borderline absurd premise as a jumping-off point for a discussion of present-day politics. Pattern Recognition was novel written in the missing shadow of the Twin Towers, whose characters were still reeling from that horror and from others, and just beginning to work their way through their respective traumas, usually through the creative medium--as Gibson himself was presumably doing when he wrote the novel. Even if the title weren't a massive clue, it is surely not a huge surprise to discover that Spook Country is Gibson's way of grappling with the indirect aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the actions taken in response to them, with those actions' effect on the nature of American society, the tone of public discourse, and, most importantly, the relationship between American citizens and their government. Spook country, as revealed towards the middle of the book, is a place in which surveillance is taken for granted, in which the simple trust that our leaders will not act in an underhand, untrustworthy manner has evaporated, and everyone has to look over their shoulder.

On the face of it, the fact that Spook Country and Pattern Recognition resemble each other so closely shouldn't be a deal-breaker. I liked Pattern Recognition very much, after all, finding it effortlessly engaging and nearly impossible to put down. So it was something of a surprise to discover just how little Spook Country managed to hold my interest. My complaints against the novel are, at least in part, technical ones. The thriller plot moves fitfully--Hollis doesn't even realize she's in a thriller until the novel is nearly over, and the other two plotlines are so deliberately opaque--neither point of view character truly understands what their handlers are after, and what little information they are given is usually parceled out off-page and only obliquely referred to--that it is frankly impressive that they don't devolve into unintentional comedy. I can't pretend, however, that Pattern Recognition was an impeccably plotted thriller, or that it didn't suffer, though perhaps to a lesser extent, from just these flaws (which anyway are clearly deliberate choices on Gibson's part). In fact, the similarities between the two novels have got me reconsidering my response to Pattern Recognition. Given Spook Country's overall dullness, it's a little difficult to recall why I found the earlier novel so compulsively readable in spite of its flaws.

What's missing, I think, is the weight of philosophy and social observation that made Pattern Recognition such a meaty novel. This is not to say that Gibson has deliberately served up a straight-up thriller, but rather that what underlies his thriller plot in Spook Country is rather poor fare. The fact that Americans now find themselves distrusting their government is, after all, a rather flimsy premise on which to hang a novel, an obvious statement which Gibson can shore up only with ambiance--the emotionally flattened, claustrophobic effect of his prose. There's nothing like the brilliant connection Pattern Recognition drew between art and atrocity, or the cycle it charted, in which that art is commodified and made into a product, which in turns feeds a system that creates other atrocities (a cycle which, we learn in Spook Country, persisted after the end of Pattern Recognition when Bigend used the technique used to create the Footage in order to create a massively successful ad campaign for shoes). Instead, Gibson's thoughts on the surveillance society are served straight up, the same fare one might find in a thousand magazine articles and a million blog posts (though, in the latter case, sans the righteous indignation, which frankly the novel would have been only the better for). What's left is a retread of Pattern Recognition without a fraction of the earlier novel's immediacy and appeal.

The one thing Spook Country does well, the one way in which it builds on ideas introduced in Pattern Recognition, is in its treatment of objects. What Pattern Recognition did for the internet, rejecting simplistic arguments for and against it and depicting it as a complex, sophisticated, and above all human system, Spook Country tries to do for materialism. Its characters have complicated relationships with objects, which they use as status symbols, tools, totems, and emotional crutches. Whether it's the state of the art computer system used to create locative art and track down the shipping container, or the Blue Ant figurine Hollis carries around as a reminder that, in accepting a job from that company, she hasn't lost her playfulness, or the vase Tito uses as a shrine to the Orishas, the Santería deities whom, he believes, guide his steps and sometimes take possession of him, or the accouterments that Milgrim's jailer, Brown, gathers around himself--specially made flashlights, guns, and briefcases--to signify to others, but mostly to himself, that he is a man to be taken seriously, Gibson's characters are defined by the things they hold dear.
Brown passed Milgrim the flashlight, which was made of knurled metal, professionally nonreflective. The pistol Brown wore beneath his parka, largely made of composite resin, was equally nonreflective. It was like shoes and accessories, Milgrim thought: someone does alligator, the next week they're all doing it. It was the season of this nonreflective noncolor, in Browntown.
We've been taught, by a culture that claims to reject materialism even as it urges us to buy, buy, buy, to take a sweepingly disdainful view of such people, but Gibson recognizes a fundamental truth: that to accrue possessions and imbue them with emotional significance is a quintessentially human act, perhaps one of the founding blocks of human civilization. Spook Country, therefore, is a novel about the relationships--positive, negative, and everything in between--that people have with possessions. It looks fondly on characters who value well-made, useful, or beautiful objects, and treat them well. The characters it views most negatively are the ones whose relationship to objects is the one described in the passage above--thoughtless flocking after the latest fashion, motivated by the belief that it's the possession that imbues the person with its qualities, not the other way around. (It's mostly Brown who is subjected to this treatment, but it is so unrelenting--Milgrim hardly misses an opportunity to quietly mock Brown's near-endless accessorizing and the obvious fact that he is engaging in it in the belief that looking like a real badass will make him into one--that one can't help but view it as a general statement on Brown-like people.)

Of course, you can't talk about people's relationship to their possessions without dealing with that which enables them to accrue possessions, money. Hollis, who lost most of her rock star fortune in a series of bad investments, is constantly aware of its absence. The novel's opening finds her nagging her editor for an expense account and, once this is supplied, making use of it--and of the facilities provided by her lavish hotel--with a decisiveness that makes it clear that she is an experienced consumer of high-end goods and services. Hollis understands how money can smooth the rough edges off life and the pleasure of expensive, well-made things, but she is neither shallow nor greedy. She spends the latter half of the novel carrying around an envelope containing $5,000 dollars, a much-delayed return on a debt from one of her former bandmates, delivered several years after his death from a drug overdose. Though she needs the money, Hollis can't bring herself to claim it, but neither can she give it away--the same stain that makes the money unusable ties her to it. The concept of money stained with guilt or blood ties into the novel's conclusion, in which millions of stolen dollars about to be laundered into obscurity are tagged with a radioactive isotope. The fluidity of money is curtailed by this act, and it is tied irrevocably to the circumstances under which it was spirited away--to the world of objects. Materialism, so often held up as the evil in whose name many of the Western world's crimes are carried out, is, in Spook Country, a possible balm against that evil. If the anonymity of money is stripped away, so too is the anonymity that makes spook country possible.

Unlike Pattern Recognition, it doesn't seem at all obvious to me that Spook Country is an SFnal novel. In fact, in some ways--most particularly its yearning for a world of tangibles, in which relationships between objects, individuals, corporations, and governments are easily quantified, observed, and regulated--it seems almost old-fashioned. This in itself might be called a commentary on the present day, though to my mind it is also the reason that Spook Country's treatment of materialism is less successful than Pattern Recognition's meditation on the internet. It seems less like a searching examination of what the world is presently like and more like a lament for the world we no longer, and perhaps never did, live in. Perhaps that's a clue to the false expectations I was nursing when I turned the first page--I was hoping that Spook Country would deliver the same disorienting sense of viewing the mundane world through a fantastic lens that Pattern Recognition did, that it would look at the present as though it were the future. Instead, Spook Country is a novel tied to the present, and rooted in the past. This may very well be a natural progression of the themes and ideas Gibson introduced in Pattern Recognition, and thus exactly what I try to hope for when I come back to an author whose previous novel has greatly impressed me, but in that case I'm afraid Gibson and I are going our seperate ways. Or it could be that Spook Country simply isn't as good a novel as Pattern Recognition. Now there's an expectation that can't, and probably shouldn't, be managed away.

1 comment:

Foxessa said...

Spook Country failed to hold my interest on any level. It was abandoned after about 30 pp.

If it is the case as you suggest that Bill wrote this as a response to the missing Towers, then here's part of the solution for the lack of engagement. Bill hasn't lived in the U.S. since he was very, very young. Most of his defining moments of life -- raising a family, for instance -- have happened in Vancouver.

I have noticed how different 9/11 is viewed by people like me, who literally lived with the WTC, worked in it, spent time in it, had its shadow cut off the light at ridiculously early hours of the day, from how those who didn't live here see it. So if you're not even living in the country, there's a whole other distance.

The WTC was my night light, my weather indicator and my directional compass for all the years I've lived in downtown Manhattan, and by now these are a lot of years.

Someone who lives very far away has no idea what all that is about, how the first thing I looked at every time I walked out of my building was the WTC.

I didn't love the WTC, btw. It was ugly, conceptually. It destroyed fundamental parts of downtown Manhattan, and it was a pita as well. But it was a fact of my life that loomed large, for better and for very worse, every day and night.

Love, C.

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