Bold fashion statement
Part thriller, part spy novel, this latest piece of Gibson’s trilogy set in the neurotic now holds a mirror to our consumer culture
Philip K. Dick wrote treatises in aberrant psychology masquerading as science fiction. William Gibson started out writing treatises in aberrant technology under the same guise. Aberration, though, has a way of domesticating itself. It was Gibson who coined the term “cyberspace.” In the years since his first, and still best-known, novel, “Neuromancer” (1984), his fiction has evolved into something quite different. Gibson now writes treatises in aberrant sociology masquerading as . . . well, part of the pleasure they afford is how they elude classification.
The two novels subsequent to “Neuromancer,’’ “Count Zero” (1986) and “Mona Lisa Overdrive” (1988) are recognizably science fiction. Gibson’s “Bridge” trilogy — “Virtual Light” (1993), “Idoru” (1996), and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (1999) — takes place in a dystopian near future. There’s a fair amount of technological flummery, but mood matters far more than machinery.
Gibson’s latest trilogy is set in an arrestingly anxious present. It consists of “Pattern Recognition” (2003), “Spook Country” (2007), and his newest, “Zero History.” They abandon science fiction altogether, even if the novels retain their predecessors’ fluorescent-lit, gunmetal feel. The trilogy combines elements of thriller, mystery, and spy novel, though the unblinking disquiet of Gibson’s sensibility has far more in common with Don DeLillo than John le Carré. What these novels offer, as Gibson writes of a BBC newscast, is “[e]arly-twenty-first-century quotidian, death-spiral subtexts kept well down in the mix.” Those subtexts are definitely there, though.
Gibson’s heroine in “Zero History,’’ Hollis Henry, was also the protagonist of “Spook Country.” (Having read the earlier books enriches the experience of reading “Zero History,” but isn’t required to make sense of it.) Hollis has been at loose ends for several years, since the break-up of the band she sang lead for, the Curfew. It sounds a bit like a ’90s version of the Velvet Underground, though Hollis is nothing like Nico. Intelligent and restrained, she’s a latter-day version of one of Henry James’s American women abroad (the novel is largely set in London): an Isabel Archer able to fend for herself, a Daisy Miller with access to quinine.
In “Spook Country,” Hollis took on an assignment for Hubertus Bigend. A wondrous creation, Bigend and his secretary are the only characters who appear in all three novels (“Zero History” features several from each of the other two). Belgian-born and London-based, he owns Blue Ant, a firm that does “brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.” Think of it as a private-sector, boutique CIA of consumerism. Bigend — “An overly wealthy, dangerously curious fiddler with the world’s hidden architectures” — is like a cross between a sleeker Sydney Greenstreet and Christoph Waltz’s Nazi colonel in “Inglourious Basterds.” He displays the same endearing ruthlessness and suavely odious unflappability.
“In Zero History,’’ Bigend has become interested in clothing contracts for the US Army — and, far more lucrative, the insights into future civilian styles that might come with them. He’s eager to find an anonymous designer of beautifully rendered denim clothes produced in couture quantities. It all sounds rather tame, clothes as McGuffin rather than drugs or state secrets, but along the way Hollis and associates face an attempted kidnapping, a successful kidnapping, and a ex-Special Forces officer who has them at the wrong end of a Kalashnikov.
One of those associates is another holdover from “Spook Country.” Milgrim (no first name) has shaken his drug habit and now works for Bigend, translating trends as well as Russian. “Zero History” is easily the funniest of Gibson’s novels. There’s much less darkness to it and a more explicit sense of wonder. Much of the comedy and a portion of the wonderment come courtesy of Milgrim: “genuinely mild, amiable, but also singularly alert, in some skewed way, as if there were something else looking out, around corners, swift and peripheral.”
The final hundred pages becomes a wee bit mechanical — a caper, really, like a London “Ocean’s 11,” with Hollis’s boyfriend, Garreth, in the George Clooney role. Yet there’s also a dazzling narrative coup that connects “Zero History” to “Pattern Recognition.” It’s another reminder of what a demon plotter Gibson is. Still, what he notices matters more than what he sets in motion. The man has fabulous antennae (that’s something else he shares with DeLillo). Reading him can seem like studying screen shots from the world’s smartest surveillance camera. A London cab has “faux-leather upholstery a shade of orthopedic fawn.” Its passenger wears a jacket of “Japanese herringbone Gore-Tex, multiply flapped and counterintuitively buckled.” Who else has noticed that the South Carolina state flag “looks oddly Islamic with its palm tree and crescent moon?” Or that “[s]ome very considerable part of the gestural language of public places, that had once belonged to cigarettes, now belonged to phones?”
More than just expert plotting and keen observation, “Zero History” offers an epistemology of consumption, an ontology of ownership. What cyberspace was to Gibson’s first three novels, logospace or brandspace is to these. Commercial names fill the pages of “Zero History”: Neo, Holiday Inn, Selfridges,
The names aren’t simply showing off. Their role is structural, not merely cosmetic. They provide a kind of gazetteer of desire, an armature of possession. Products and companies fascinate and excite Gibson the way sin did Graham Greene and butterflies Nabokov. All these names are so much evidence, pieces of the puzzle that is contemporary life in the affluent West. If Trollope hadn’t already taken the title, Gibson could call this trilogy “The Way We Live Now” — or “The Way We Acquire Now,” as the case might be.
Mark Feeney, a member of the Globe staff, can be reached at email@example.com