Review of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition

February 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

People have been recommending William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition to me at least since I started talking about my dissertation project, and I’m so glad I finally took them up on it. The first hundred pages or so, I couldn’t stop happily underlining — not just because I was so entertained and full of identification, but because I thought, this is what will make sense to people when I talk about fictional fans. These moves, these descriptions, are distilled to just the right point to speak both to people who are themselves fans in the age of online fandom, but also to people who are only mildly aware that such fans exist. There are equally handy descriptions of the anti-brand philosophy, circa 2003, which I happily underlined as well. But my focus here is on the representation of fan life, and, more broadly, the representation of social harmony as it exists online, and the way in which its counterpart IRL serves to provide only money and social anxiety, the first being necessary for long-arc social reproduction, the second being an unhappy but inevitable side effect of the actual/virtual division.

The fandom that provides the primary social setting of the novel is populated by “footageheads,” that is, people who avidly follow new installments in an elusive work of film art, whose meaning might just as easily lie with the detective work of cataloging the installments, as it might with some final interpretation of the completed project. CayceP, the avatar of protagonist Cayce Pollard, is one of the most fleshed-out fan protagonists I have met in literature. The forum is her way “of being at home. The forum has become one of the most consistent places in her life, like a familiar café that exists somehow outside of geography and beyond time zones.” (4) Time zones, jet lag, and British Airways slippers are the unpleasant real-life anchors of identification in this novel — much nicer are the pings that feel like home, even if they contain no more definitive content than the caffeine “bullet against serotonin-lack and big weird feelings” that is to be found in the real world. (18) Two fellow footageheads on the messageboard provide CayceP with a reminder of her social role: Parkaboy, a “Progressive,” as well as her closest friend and ally, and his nemesis, Mama Anarchia, the poststructuralism-wielding “Completist,” who believes that the creator of the footage is intentionally releasing installments of his work out of order and on a serial schedule. CayceP’s role is that of peacemaker, who reminds everyone that, regardless of the actual status of the source material they all love (the footage), they should not allow conversation to devolve into absolute antagonism.

It’s ironic that her role in the virtual world is so conciliatory, because, while she is the only one who can seem to remember that the forum host, Ivy, must “expend time and energy to keep it here,”(48) when it comes to the real world, she can only stand to wear garments that “seem to have come into this world without human intervention.” (8) This ethical disjunction, wherein CayceP possesses an empathy that provides only consternation for Cayce, will of course be revealed in time to provide a key to understanding the footage for what it is, but the exact mechanism by which this unraveling occurs is best left to the novel itself. Instead of providing a crude summary here, I will turn to my general assessments of the novel’s place in fan literature.

Gibson shares much in common with Douglas Coupland, with whom, it is revealed in the final thanks, coffee was drunk during the writing of this novel. Both write ambitious globally-virtual novels that subtly and humorously take on serious questions about 21st-Century labor solidarity, the usefulness of media obsessions, and the increasingly-manipulable (well, increasingly-manipulated at least) human subjects who must navigate this complex world. Both seem to prefer a sweeping map to a transformative emotional analysis, although both write so fluently as to provide many glimpses at what the latter might look like, given its due. It’s strange, from the perspective of 21st-Century literary studies to read these novels, because they are so aggressively general, and thus sometimes, their protagonists’ encounters with the various global Others they meet along the way are, frankly, cringe-inducing. Cringe constitutes the bulk of 21st-Century comedy, to be sure, but this particular cringe factor feels retrograde, and it’s possible that it’s intentionally so. Sophistication does not mean a mastery of utopian global engagement, and, as with the CayceP/Cayce empathy gap, there is much revealed in the space between the two about how we might proceed on that front. As creative status and intellectual sophistication become more and more recognizable across vast differences, the task for literature remains to offer readers versions of a world they can recognize, while raising serious critical questions about what pleasures they find in that recognition.

With more and more publicity surrounding life at Apple factories and the changing face of file-sharing, novels like Gibson’s anchor us in a shared reality worth grappling with. And further, in a world in which major news outlets still treat fanworks with condescension and contempt (although some are closer than ever to getting it right), it’s a rare treat to read a novel that captures so much of the good that happens in online fan communities. Perhaps Pattern Recognition‘s conventional form, particularly its insistence on a certain kind of happy ending, one which so explicitly disavows the pleasurable ambiguities that defined the original mystery, can serve as a reminder that stories set in the contemporary media landscape, including the labor side, are increasingly difficult to tell in old forms. Perhaps New Media experimentation and New Media forms are best suited to one another — hence my eternal return to The Guild as the ultimate example of How to Get It Right (Fiction Edition). But the bar to subcultural entry in that series is still somewhere above Gibson (going on this particular novel — I understand that subcultures age and change and flow, and that his work and position have changed dramatically over time), and I’d hate to say that I look forward to the day that it seems old hat. So it is to inhabit the excitement of the rapidly-changing world of tech-aware storytelling.

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