Spook Country, by William Gibson
Dedicated Gibson readers might recognise the pattern in his new novel
Sunday 26 August 2007
There's something about the prose of William Gibson's recent, non-sci fi novels – a combination of po-faced seriousness and self-parody – that is deeply amusing. Early on in Spook Country, his latest novel, Hollis Henry, an ex-indie musician turned technology journalist (Gibson's novels seem now to be populated exclusively by people who work for disguised versions of Wired) phones her friend Reg, whose Argentinian wife knows everything there is to know about magazine publishing in London. Hollis asks Reg to find out who put the money up for Node, the magazine she writes for. Herbertus Bigend, comes the reply. Oh, asks Hollis, is he the one who married Nigella?
Bigend previously appeared in Gibson's last novel, 2003's Pattern Recognition, to which this is an obvious companion piece. In Pattern Recognition, Gibson's heroine had an allergic reaction to brand logos and had to remove all trace of them from her clothing; here he introduces a "mimetic literalist" named Bobby Chombo who refuses to spend more than one night in the same square of the GPS grid. These contemporary anxieties are interesting ideas, but peculiarly unworkable; entertaining as one-line character descriptions but something Gibson struggles to bring to dramatic life.
In what must be the millionth rip-off of J G Ballard's Crash by a contemporary author, Hollis is investigating a "locative" art group who recreate famous deaths, starting with River Phoenix's OD outside the Viper Rooms. In order to see these events, the observer needs technology both common (laptops) and unusual (virtual reality helmets).
The problem with a thriller which begins with a technology journalist talking to an experimental artist is that, no matter how exciting the events later become, it's hard to care. Also, whereas in the Neuromancer era computers were new enough for an out-of-work hacker to seem an interesting character, now computers are such a central part of everyone's lives that they retain little glamour.
This doesn't prevent Spook Country from being a very entertaining read. Gibson's insistence on describing the exact brand of every chair and light irritates at first, but soon becomes like reading a lifestyle magazine (fittingly, considering his heroine's profession) and there's a hypnotic quality to the relentless cataloguing. And it's a more substantial book than Pattern Recognition. While the main narrative (Bigend persuading Hollis to find out what information Chombo is hiding in iPods because he believes that "secrets are the very root of cool") feels lightweight, it is part of the book's deliberate design that this story plays out against a backdrop of hidden machinations that have a much darker, wider resonance.
The "spook country" of the title is a world where old school John le Carré spies in club ties meet the kind of modern operators who rely on the secrecy of their own "darknets" (a private internet where business can be conducted unseen by the government). The two groups are united by a shared interest in profiteering from Iraq, and the illicit movements of billions of dollars from North America to other economies and back again.
If Gibson's novel doesn't quite satisfy, it's because he hides the full complications of the plot so successfully that it feels as if everything important is happening offstage, and when it finally comes into focus, the conclusion (which involves irradiating pallets of dollars) lacks a traditional thriller's excitement.
As Bigend et al disappear from the scene, it seems that Gibson has become so fond of his characters that they're likely to reappear in his next novel. I hope their next adventure will require them to do something more compelling than hang about in the Mondrian criticising LA hotel design.
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