How Soon Is Now?

William Gibson's Present Tense

As befits its title, Pattern Recognition invites the reader to look closer. It's tempting to view William Gibson's first contemporary novel as its own kind of event horizon: When the original console jockey removes his simstim goggles to find our reality virtually virtual, have we gate-crashed all tomorrow's parties? But to the extent that Gibson's oracular near-futuramas (the consensually hallucinated cyberspace of the Sprawl trilogy, the nano-tweaked ruins of the Bridge trilogy) are a factor of being pressed up against what he calls "the windshield of the present," Pattern Recognition may be his quintessential work. The book peers so intently at the unthinkable here and now it induces something like infinite vertigo.

It's worth noting that the novel's present is actually our very recent past. Gibson deploys temporal signifiers with Swiss-quartz precision, as if embedding radioactive elements for the eventual benefit of carbon daters. "Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day," a character declares, "one in which 'now' was of some greater duration." In attempting to freeze-frame our elusive now—or at least shadow its rippling wake—Gibson produces a post-traumatic CAT scan. Dipping into a repertory of media savants, techno playthings, and virtual environments, the book is, most indelibly, an achingly sad psychic chronicle of the liminal season that was summer 2002: aftershocks resolving into who knows what, a paradigm shift still beyond comprehension, a dreaded anniversary beckoning on the horizon.

In these spectral times, heroine Cayce Pollard's hallucinogen of choice is footage. To be precise, video clips that have been appearing on the Internet without attribution, 135 so far, seemingly non-sequential, content and style hauntingly impossible to date or place, the subject of intensifying cult obsession. A coolhunter by profession, Cayce knows a thing or two about subcultures. She freelances for bleeding-edge marketers, identifying street-level fashions and—one of those mystical talents Gibson so relishes—judging the effectiveness of logos, functioning basically as "a very specialized piece of human litmus paper."

William Gibson: "a very specialized bit of human litmus paper"
photo: Karen Markowitz
William Gibson: "a very specialized bit of human litmus paper"

In an irony Naomi Klein might appreciate, Cayce's gifts are the direct flipside of her allergies to certain trademarks, "a morbid and sometimes violent reactivity to the semiotics of the marketplace": Tommy Hilfiger and Louis Vuitton bring on anxiety attacks; the "bloated, maggot-like form" of the Michelin Man practically triggers apoplexy. Everything she owns has had its labels snipped off, its logos abraded. When the pontifical Belgian ad mogul Hubertus Bigend, in awe of the brand allegiance the phantom footage fosters, recruits Cayce to track down its maker, she embarks on a transnational (or, in Bigendspeak, "postgeographic") expedition, looking for something that may lie beyond the reach of market forces.

A parallel mystery: Her father, a retired CIA security specialist, was last seen in Manhattan the morning of September 11, 2001, getting into a downtown-bound taxi. Pattern Recognition bears oblique yet systematic witness to our present dislocation by zeroing in on Cayce's hopelessly altered state. If Don DeLillo identified an "esperanto of jet lag," Gibson fills out its metaphysical vocabulary (he prefers the term "soul delay"). As the book opens, Cayce "wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm," an essential part of her still somewhere between JFK and Heathrow. Later, in Tokyo, she wonders if the "snarl in her trailing soul-tether" is a permanent one. A hit of melatonin sometimes helps, despite the static of "neurological dryer lint."

Up close, Gibson's fractal prose, a headrush of sculpted fragments, hard and compact as glacier ice, is the great all-purpose fetishizer it has always been (even jet lag sounds faintly sexy). But the novel is nothing if not prismatic: Step back a little, and it manages to be absolutely lucid in conveying indistinct shapes—the ineffable and the in-between. There's an odd sense in which events are observed as if from an astral plane, the result of having jacked into the consciousness of a serotonin-starved protagonist further grappling with the out-of-body incredulity that mourning entails.

Resolute, casually brilliant, and, in the rare moments that she allows herself to consider it, terribly lonely, Cayce shuttles between "mirror worlds"—London, Tokyo, Moscow—with an antenna up for nagging dissonances and mysterious constants, cross-cultural feedback and unforeseen (de-)recontextualizations (how air has a "nationally specific flavor," how Starbucks has the same faux-Murano lamps in every outlet). Gibson knows his way around imaginary municipals, but working with a real-world itinerary, he proves no less attuned to the fault lines and secret lives of cities. Pattern Recognition reads like the globe-spanning adventures of a new kind of superhero: the molecularly sensitive Psychogeographic Explorer.

Not that the novel by any means restricts itself to physical loci. No mere backdrop, the Web is here a full-fledged milieu, a breathing organism, an arena for action. Many secondary characters appear almost entirely as e-mail correspondents (vividly, at that), and the book goes so far as to offer an anthropological study of Internet life. Cayce is a regular poster on F:F:F (Fetish:Footage:Forum), and Gibson expertly replicates the biosphere of a discussion board: the coffee-shop intimacy, the fishbowl paranoia, the splintering factions, the inevitable flame war. As the narrative shifts gears into thriller mode, you realize how much of it is driven, literally, by keystrokes—from the telltale entry in browser history to Google eurekas to the e-mail sent accidentally on purpose.

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