William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
Don De Lillo, Cosmopolis
Bruce Sterling, The Zenith Angle
I've been contemplating a lengthy analytical response to these books for weeks now. (Months, in some cases.) But the pieces I contemplate too long tend not to get written so you'll have to settle for this scattershot one in its place.
The desire to write what's now destined to be unwritten began with my disappointment at The Zenith Angle. It's a toughening-the-geek novel and as such it's reminiscent, to its detriment, of the Randy Waterhouse sections of Neal Stephenson's vastly superior Cryptonomicon. But this toughening-the-geek novel is set in the atmosphere of threatened, affronted masculinity following September 11, and so the geek's toughening is dangerously compliant with the strutting performances of our own once-prodigal commander-in-chief.
The book opens as IT genius Derek Vandeveer smugly surveys the spoils of a middle-class suburban dream he's achieved more by default than desire; he hasn't bothered furnishing his expensive new home, but he does love watching his highly degreed, recently fecund wife make him toast. The September 11 attacks appear to jolt him out of this complacency but they only shake him loose from his dot-com job and into a Homeland Security gig. At heart he still wants desperately to fulfill the most conservative definitions of husband, father, and man, even if it means abandoning his family; he can only conceive these roles by their clichés and he'll follow any script he's given to get them.
This might constitute a timely and acerbic satire if Sterling didn't appear to believe it. Vandeveer might come in for some muted criticism on the domestic front, but politically nothing ever shakes the novel's investment in this narrative or implies its values aren't normative. Other characters and events bend themselves to conform with Vandeveer's impoverished conception of himself: after he returns from his toughening for a day of sex in a millionaire's sleazy hot-tub pad, his wife actually says, "Well, hero, now you know what you were fighting for!"
That's just one of many moments that will briefly convince you you're reading one of those soft-core spy novels written by Newt Gingrich or Bill O'Reilly, but it's not the worst. Even though Sterling is skeptical about any government's ability to enforce global computer security he's extremely quiescent, occasionally outright boosterish, about the government's conduct post-9/11. Donald Rumsfeld comes in for high praise, a not unrealistic stance for geeks to strike any time before, let's say, May of 2003; Rumsfeld's desire to modernize the armed forces would be well in keeping with their technocratic proclivities. That still doesn't explain the rather cuddly portrayal of the Secretary of Defense's notoriously monomaniacal (and, as events continue to show us, tactically inept) managerial style. We are told Rummy "had been ruthless" with Van's boss - by making him go on a regimen of doctor's checkups and "heart-safe exercises." It's nice to know he cares so much about his subordinates' health, assuming they're stationed in the District of Columbia and not the Sunni triangle.
If references to Iraq seem out of place in this review, that's by Sterling's design - to his detriment, since the war in Iraq is the event that nullifies every glowing thing he has to say about the Bush government's security efforts. And, to be fair, it proves many of his critiques, albeit at a terrible cost - but Sterling cheats by avoiding the subject entirely, a ridiculous omission for a novel about national security and government policy that ends in fall 2002. (He does write one scene featuring a spacey antiwar protester, but it's set too early for the Iraq protests and it conveniently avoids mentioning exactly what she's protesting.) It's not a surprising avoidance: Iraq is where the insecure, overcompensating pseudomasculinity craved by Derek Vandeveer and exemplified by George W. Bush both leads and falters, leaving others to pick up the tab.
But Sterling still exalts the architects of that war, even when it or they are too repugnant for him to name. I'm just not going to be able to enjoy a novel that casts "the President's political adviser" as a deus ex machina who descends from the rafters of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to punish the bad, non-forward-thinking faction and reward our hero and his bosses. Declining to name Karl Rove only compounds the sin; it means Sterling knows he's exalting a creep, is ashamed of it, and does it anyway.
The novel isn't all to the bad. The Zenith Angle blends contemporary cultural commentary with genre trappings far more successfully than Sterling managed in his last outing, Zeitgeist. The more outlandish elements of the plot are assembled so carefully and so gradually that you almost don't notice he's got a villain with a plot worthy of Ernst Stavro Blofeld - or Chairface Chippendale, for that matter - until he's wheeled out the superweapon. But even after the last curtain is dropped and you realize you've been reading a cheap spy novel that merely postures as a timely cultural critique - well, it's still more entertaining than the metafictional characters leaving Wile E. Coyote holes in walls in Zeitgeist.
Don DeLillo also turns to caricature in Cosmopolis, but more transparently and with more evident satire. It's unquestionably the better book, although not because of the caricature; overdone satire can be just as bad as the invisible, spineless kind. But the novel, in which billionaire Eric Packer tries to cross midtown Manhattan during a day-long traffic jam, is structured as a series of distinct episodes, each one as isolated from the scenes before and after it as the footfalls of Odysseus. Some of these scenes flatly do not work but others are brilliant little biopsies of their cultural moment at the end of the nineties bubble.
I'm partial to the Times Square section, for its portrait of "stunted humans in the shadow of the underwear gods" and for the anticapitalist protest that occasions the novel's best and most exigent observations. As in Underworld, DeLillo's radical street theater group is more organized, more effective, and more sinister than radical street theater has ever been, but the scene works because of the contrast between the violence on the streets and the smug running commentary provided by Packer's pet academic from the provisional safety of his stretch limo. The scene culminates in a passage that John Pistelli argues evokes September 11, even though the novel is set (in bold, sans-serif capitals fit for a Kubrick intertitle) IN THE YEAR 2000.
The contrast with The Zenith Angle and is immediate and telling. Sterling has avoided a topic (Iraq) that undermines his subject; DeLillo writes around one (September 11) that actually complements his, providing as it did the bitter punctuation to the period whose ending began, he would have us believe, on the day his novel is set. Writing at the beginning of the end of the bubble, DeLillo proleptically gives us a glimpse of the end of the end, and it ends in fire.
My favorite passage, however, is probably this more humble observation of the diamond district:
Hasidim walked along the street, younger men in dark suits and important fedoras, faces pale and blank, men who only saw each other, he thought, as they disappeared into storefronts or down the subway steps. He knew the traders and gem cutters were in the back rooms and wondered whether deals were still made in doorways with a handshake and a Yiddish blessing. In the grain of the street he sensed the Lower East Side of the 1920s and the diamond centers of Europe before the second war, Amsterdam and Antwerp. He knew some history. [...] Black men wore signboards and spoke in African murmurs. Cash for gold and diamonds. Rings, coins, pearls, wholesale jewelry, antique jewelry. This was the souk, the shtetl. Here were the hagglers and talebearers, the scrapmongers, the dealers in stray talk. The street was an offense to the truth of the future. But he responded to it.
While the rest of the novel rushes headlong into an uncertain future that purports (falsely, as it will turn out) to have transcended all physical laws, while Eric Packer's cameras show him images of himself before they happen, he's entranced by the diamond district's brazen, retrograde materialism, and I'm entranced along with him. These diagnostic passages are not only intellectually but emotionally engaging in a way the novel's derisive caricatures are not - and if Cosmopolis does not always attain these heights or linger at them for long, it at least allows for this kind of compartmentalized reaction.
Where DeLillo turns all too frequently to caricature to represent the present, and Sterling to Tom Clancy-style techno-thrillers, William Gibson achieves a surprisingly comfortable naturalism without changing his cyberpunk style in the slightest. Of the three attempts to write about the present as science fiction, his is the least arch and, not coincidentally, the most successful.
DeLillo and Gibson have been tending towards one another for some time now, a gradual process that became clear to me during a weekend at Rock Island when I read the decade-old Virtual Light. (Entertaining science fiction, and well-sourced, with more than a nod to Mike Davis.) The first chapter contained this positively DeLilloesque line:
The architects wanted the cinder block walls stripped just this one certain way, mostly gray showing through but some old pink Safeway paint left in the little dips and crannies. [...] He'd overheard one of them explaining to the foreman that what they were doing was exposing the integrity of the material's passage through time. He thought that was probably bullshit, but he sort of liked the sound of it anyway; like what happened to old people on television.
It's not the passage or even the sentence, just the bit of remembered phrase: exposing the integrity of the material's passage through time, with that fine DeLilloan ear for the mundane bullshit of our own conversations, sanded down until it almost regains some sort of dignity.
Cosmopolis has lines like that too, and Pattern Recognition probably has fewer of them, but Gibson holds true to this patient observation of the increasing surreality of modern life while DeLillo runs off to write novels about billionaires with shark tanks and wristwatch cameras. Pattern Recognition doesn't need caricature and generally doesn't force it: Gibson lets the strangeness express itself.
The novel follows Cayce Pollard, a corporate consultant who's hired to track down the auteur of a mysterious sequence of Web-distributed film footage. Her assignment takes her through a world of corporate espionage, deep niche marketing, retro-computing technology fetishists (an old Gibson favorite), washed-up cryptography experts, and vanished ex-spies. The fruits of the new century grow in the ashes of the old, acknowledging the importance (if also the transience) of the past in a way that Eric Packer never could.
The early chapters are discomforting and claustrophobic, focalized all too well through Cayce's jet lag and her strange, double-edged gift, a violent allergic reaction to brands and a knack for apophenia - the ability to perceive, rather than invent, connections between apparently unrelated phenomena. (The novel's apophenic preoccupations suggest that, rather than tending towards one another, Gibson and DeLillo are each from their own obliques approaching Pynchon. This prospect makes me happy.) If the branding allergy is a bit too precious at least it follows its own inscrutable logic and not, say, the authorial fiats of a magical realism that would be at odds with the book's tone.
That tone is the traditional Gibson tone (which has gotten less overtly Chandlerian over the years, but still noirish and elegiac), its plot the traditional Gibson plot, and Cayce Pollard the traditional Gibson protagonist: when a new acquaintance calls her "Case," we know it's not just an in-joke. (I need to reread Count Zero but, working from very faded memories, it seems like there are more than superficial similarities between Cayce's assignment and the Marly Krushkova plotline; similarities, for that matter, between the tragic artists who lie behind each of those plots. That such a comparison could even be possible, given the artists, is itself part of the tragedy.) The suitability of these old formulas to Gibson's newly realistic fiction does not simply confirm that the present has indeed come to resemble one of his novels. It tells us that those novels were built not around the trappings of console cowboys and virtual idols but a sturdy core of hard-boiled fiction; and that both the cyberpunk and the noir elements are exceptionally adaptable to novels about our own era, providing what might be the perfect fusion of plot, mood, and social commentary.
At a conference a few months ago I was struck by how many academics were referencing Neuromancer in their work - often superficially, as sometimes happens when one of us decides to stoop down to deal with the demotic, but just as often with real passion and thought. Gibson is one of those novelists whose work will continue to grow in stature and importance, and Pattern Recognition is a good bid to sustain the process - not because it sheds the cyberpunk elements but because it uses the important ones in new ways to tell an entertaining, perceptive, often moving story. Moreso than the acknowledged literary giant or his old writing partner, Gibson has produced a novel for our times.