The Anxiety Maze


It begins with a woman far from home, rising from a strange bed in an immaculate space. Detached but alert, she reflects on her surroundings. Strong winds send palm trees thrashing on the street below, “like dancers miming the final throes of some sci-fi plague.” The high-end refrigerator in the empty kitchen is so new, she notes, the interior “smells only of cold and long-chain monomers.” Thinking about her job here, she’s all alone with her thoughts. Unless you count the robots.

This is a composite description of the opening chapter of two different novels by William Gibson. In Pattern Recognition, his 2003 bestseller, a “cool hunter” named Cayce Pollard has arrived in London to consult on the logo of a multinational sneaker company. In Spook Country, Gibson’s latest, a woman named Hollis Henry has just arrived in Los Angeles on assignment for a magazine called Node to investigate “locative art,” an underground movement of tech-savvy artists into the mapping, annotation, and holographic reshaping of virtual space.

Cayce and Hollis are in similar circumstances for the exact same reason. Spook Country is a sequel of sorts to Pattern Recognition, an extension of its territory and themes. Masterminding the narrative of both is the sinister and seductive Hubertus Bigend, founder of the avant-garde advertising firm Blue Ant. In Pattern Recognition, he’s described as “a nominal Belgian who looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgin’s blood and truffled chocolates.” His Wikipedia entry in Spook Country describes him as the child of a wealthy industrialist and a sculptress with links to the Situationist International.

Bigend is Gibson’s image of hyper-capitalist consciousness evolved to such sophistication that it becomes indistinguishable from art, philosophy, even magic. Advertising for Bigend isn’t a means to make money, but a method for tapping into the ancient reptile mind at the base of consciousness and culture. In Pattern Recognition, he engages Cayce to locate the author of “the footage,” a sequence of enigmatic film clips randomly posted on the Internet that spawn a global cult of enthusiasts and explicators. When Spook Country reveals the utterly banal use that Bigend makes of this knowledge, the effect is chilling. More disturbing is the sense that he may be the only character in these stories who’s discovered a way to embrace and diffuse the accelerated terrors and inchoate anxieties of the post-9/11 world.

Where the thriller mechanics of Pattern Recognition were motored by the energies of two super-savvy media adepts, Bigend and Cayce, the heroes of Spook Country are more evidently puppets. Hollis is assigned to the locative-art beat not for her journalistic chops, but because her celebrity as the former lead singer of the indie-rock band Curfew is the precise tool needed to pry access to the goal: the location of a mysterious shipping container known to Bobby Chombo, genius of the locative set (and Curfew fan).

Spook Country triangulates the Hollis/Bigend narrative with two other plot lines, each told from the point of view of someone with a limited understanding of their role in some obviously larger and certainly dangerous dynamic. Milgrim is a junkie fluent in Volapuk, the pseudo-Cyrillic text invented by Russians grappling with the Roman keyboards of their first computers. He has been kidnapped by Brown, a man with a large supply of pharmaceuticals and a need to eavesdrop on Volapuk text messages. These are being sent amongst members of an elite Cuban-Chinese spy family with ties to the CIA and the KGB, and have direct bearing on Tito, our guide to this wildest of the Spook Country plots, as he engages in such cloak-and-dagger routines as the slipping of a data-encrypted iPod to an operative in the shoe department of Prada.

None of which begins to describe the narrative complexity of Spook Country, with its fugue-like advancement of these melodies toward an oddly harmonic resolution at a port in Vancouver. Not that it matters. Compelling for their own sake, the techno-thriller mechanics of these recent Gibson novels are largely beside the point. Gibson doesn’t engineer his labyrinthine plots to disclose the meaning at their core: The maze is the message.

Why Hollis is at the Standard is ultimately less interesting than how she feels in being there. A thousand novelists could arrange for the portentous arrival of Bigend in the lobby, but only Gibson could describe how “the small dry sound of an envelope being slid under the door” of Hollis’s room, “familiar from her life on tour, suddenly triggered, as it always had, the atavistic mammalian fear of nest invasion.”

Pattern Recognition was partly concerned with specifying the ambient sense of invasiveness in all aspects of life after the collapse of the towers. Taking that anxiety as given, Spook Country is the more reflective, less unnerving of the two novels. Concentrating on a single protagonist focused the textural intensity of Gibson’s prose; splitting his attention over three has diffused its hallucinatory voltage. Yet even at half-wattage, it illuminates our techno-psychic landscape like nothing else in contemporary letters.