There are a number of things which one can know about William Gibson's latest novel before one ever cracks the spine, or even reads a summary of the plot.
It will be spare. It will be elegant. It will, from the first few words, bring the reader to inhabit a dreamlike reality, subtly tinted, where branded objects, especially gadgets and clothing, stud the landscape like anchors. It's even true for Pattern Recognition, set as it is in the very recent past, yet retaining some futuristic quality. It's almost as if Gibson can't write about anything else. His style, which pours off this novel in waves, won't let him.
It's ironic, then, that his protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is allergic to branding.
The more one thinks about this, the more reasonable it seems. Spending a few hours around a marketing department is enough to give anyone hives, but as it turns out, Cayce's allergy is mirrored by a peculiar talent: the ability to look at a brand-spankin'-new corporate logo and tell, instantly, whether it will be a success in the marketplace. (Think of all the horrid designs we'd never have had to see if even one such person existed!)
As the book opens, Cayce's mirror-talent has taken her to what she refers to as a mirror-world; namely, London, which is different from her home in New York in so many everyday ways (Cayce is very cosmopolitan; before the book is over, she'll travel to three other instantly recognizable cities). She's there to evaluate a logo for the appealingly named Blue Ant, a company described in the opening chapter as "more post-geographic than multinational." In fact, geography becomes a major concern in Pattern Recognition, for Cayce isn't just a 'cool hunter' -- a person who researches what kids on the street are wearing and then purveys the information to marketers -- she also seeks out the source of these trends. Cayce tracks down the first person to, say, wear pants so loose they're in danger of falling off his hips, and pushes to franchise him. She's like the sociologist in Connie Willis' Bellwether, only not so benign.
But Cayce has another interest; a hobby that becomes a fetish. Somewhere out on the World Wide Web -- increasingly synonymous with the Internet -- someone has been releasing bits of film footage. And, as with everything else, a community of like-minded fetishists has formed around this footage, devoting websites, advancing theories, and engaging in flame wars over its origin, meaning, and even sequence. There really is a website for everything these days; a website devoted to a wholly online phenomenon might conceivably form a sort of closed loop. Cayce is as eager as anyone else to discover the secrets behind the fragments of footage, but lacks the means, until the head of Blue Ant hires her to do just that. It is, he says, the most brilliant marketing strategy ever conceived: such interest in something about which so little is known is a PR executive's dream come true. Now with the means to go wherever she likes, Cayce sets off in search of the origin of the footage, despite some reservations about her employer's -- the amusingly named Hubertus Bigend -- intentions. "I saw attention focused daily on a product that may not even exist," he says. "The most brilliant marketing plot of this very young century. And new. Something entirely new."
At this point, about 60 pages into the narrative, Pattern Recognition adopts a time-honored fictional structure: it becomes a quest. At the same time, Cayce's online associates, ranging from a fellow fetishist by the name of Parkaboy to a Polish artist randomly encountered on the streets of London (the novel is full of deliberate coincidence) emerge from behind the monitor into the real world. At about the same time, we learn one more important fact about Cayce: her father, a former U.S. intelligence operative, vanished in New York when the World Trade Center towers fell on September 11, 2001, and has not been seen since. He is presumed dead by everyone except his insurance company.
Thus the quest-trappings of the story are completed. Cayce is sent on a mission, but undertakes it for reasons of her own, and a missing parent is thrown into the mix -- though not, as one learns upon reading further, at random. Gibson sets out on this particular journey with the utmost confidence, towing us along as Cayce jets from London to Tokyo to Paris and beyond. Despite the easy, almost lazy unspooling of his narrative, the action feels breathless, as though the reader risks being left behind. It's rather like Cayce's explanation of jet lag, acquired from her friend Damien: "Her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage."
This elegant, elegiac tone infuses Pattern Recognition so that when the plot engages and Cayce is sent on her quest, the vocabulary supports it. Of course, Gibson has always been fond of a clever turn of phrase, and there are plenty of them here, even though most of his characters speak in a clipped, efficient manner that suggests that they're being charged by the word. In some cases, this is because English is not the first language of the speaker, but not always.
Clever language, confident plotting, and a protagonist who is hyperaware of her surroundings -- all of these make for an engaging and highly readable novel. Cayce, who by necessity removes any hint of branding from every object she owns, but who wears a "fanatical museum-grade replica" of a U.S. MA-1 flying jacket, has a filmmaker's eye for detail. She is the kind of person who would notice the difference between a $50 pair of jeans, and one with an additional zero on its price tag; who, at one point in the novel, with all her other means of obtaining information exhausted, successfully plays on another person's equal desire to possess a specific object, with a collector's fanatical attention to detail.
One might accuse Gibson of exploitation of recent events; but, if that were so, it would be the best kind of exploitation. The theme of grief is a silver thread that runs through the novel, influencing Cayce's actions and perceptions in surprising ways. She remembers her father, the intelligence operative, talking about securing the perimeter. Cayce's personal perimeters are so thoroughly secured that whenever she admits anything to anyone, it's a major event. Despite all the communication here -- e-mails, phone conversations, the messages from the aether that Cayce's mother is convinced she hears -- actual information is only revealed a little at a time. In keeping with the quest structure, there's an oracle, inhabiting a broken-down trailer near a former British military installation. The obligatory heavies tend to vary according to how near Cayce is to her goal, but this being Gibson, it's certain that the Russian mafia will be involved eventually.
The thing is, though, that Gibson has always been about perception, which is exactly what pattern recognition is. Did the world really change on September 11th, or were only our perceptions altered? There's no question that it had a profound impact on the lives of individuals. Cayce is still reeling from the event, which she did not actually witness; at the time of the first plane's impact, she is absorbed by something she sees in a shop window, and she sees the second on television even though she is in New York at the time. To say that Cayce needs to process her grief is to be both irritatingly dismissive and accurate; in the context of the novel, September 11th becomes a touchpoint for entry into this world. It mirrors, if you like, the increasingly unsettled nature of living in the world. Increased communication is a two-edged sword; we know more than ever before, but a tragedy can circle the globe in seconds.
The change that Cayce undergoes, once her quest has concluded, is never articulated; here Gibson's overflow of language falls silent. Perhaps it is for the best. Adherents of ancient mystery religions were instructed never to reveal what they had experienced, but it's a little bit like trying to describe the way music sounds in any case; there comes a point when words, even Gibson's words, are inadequate.
Pattern Recognition is an intriguing construction. Its characters meet and interact in ways that seem coincidental or random; Cayce even muses on her father's sayings on the nature of coincidence. Yet eventually, each of them emerges from cyberspace into the real world. Cayce's friend Damien, for instance, who gives her use of his apartment while she's in London, does not himself appear in the flesh until about halfway through the book. Likewise, with the footage that Cayce tracks to its creator; there's the message first, then its originator.
Reactions to Pattern Recognition have varied. For many, Gibson's avowed cleverness overshadows his work, an opinion that people have had about his novels before. In some ways, the film footage, its mysterious dissemination and origin, almost seems like a response to such criticism. Of course, if it were only that, the book wouldn't be worth reading, but it seems like sooner or later every artist gets around to making something about art. Gibson's elegiac tone here makes this feel like a quieter story than it really is.
Recovery from tragedy, questing for treasure -- these are not new ideas, if there are any new ideas left. Gibson's daring here is his willingness to use a national tragedy as a backdrop while that event is still fresh in the minds of those who experienced it. The effort could have fallen on its face in so many ways; instead, Gibson has produced a profoundly moving novel.
Copyright © 2003 Genevieve Williams
Genevieve Williams is a carbon-based lifeform residing in the Pacific Northwest region of the continental United States. Writer, editor, and bookslinger extraordinaire, she's also a Clarion West 2002 graduate with a compulsive passion for the written word. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.