Some notes on William Gibson’s new novel, Spook Country:
“The door opened like some disturbing hybrid of bank vault and Armani evening purse, perfectly balanced bombproof solidity meeting sheer cosmetic slickness.” William Gibson’s prose is cool and precise: minimal, low-affect, attuned to surfaces rather than depths. It’s overwrought, filled to bursting with similes and allusions; yet somehow it still manages to feel as if it had been executed skeletally, entirely without flourishes. There’s a sense of density built up in layers, but packaged inside a bland and featureless box; this writing is like a nondescript cargo container (one of the book’s main images) filled with everything from expensive brand names, hi-tech geekery, and the detritus of popular culture to micro-perceptions of psychological shifts that take place just beneath the threshold of conscious attention.
At times, the effect of this prose is one of deadpan absurdity, as when townhouses in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. are described as radiating “the sense that Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren would have been hard at work on interiors, together at last, sheathing inherently superior surfaces under hand-rubbed coats of golden beeswax.” At other times, it’s surreally dislocating, as when one of the protagonists is startled by the actions of her companion, so that “for an instant she imagined him as a character in some graphically simplified animation.” At still other times, it’s slyly mordant, as when one character is described as looking “like someone who’d be invited quail-shooting with the vice president, though too careful to get himself shot.”
But most of the time, Gibson’s prose is just a little bit spooky, dislocated, and unbalanced. Some details stand out disconcertingly, like the teeth of one character, “presented with billboard clarity” when he smiles. Other details are blurred out by distance; or better, they are muffled like when you’re addicted to downers, as one of the three main protagonists, Milgrim, actually is. Milgrim thinks of his drug-cushioned perception as being like “one of the more esoteric effects of eating exceptionally hot Szechuan… that sensation, strangely delightful, of drinking cold water on top of serious pepper-burn — how the water filled your mouth entirely, but somehow without touching it, like a molecule-thick silver membrane of Chinese antimatter, like a spell, some kind of magic insulation.”
Gibson’s prose style is his way of perceiving, and presenting, the world. And the world he presents is the one we live in today: a postmodern world of globalized flows of money and information, driven by sophisticated technologies whose effects are nearly indistinguishable from magic, saturated by advertising and by conspicuous consumption run amok, undergirded by murky conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, and regulated by nearly ubiquitous forms of surveillance. Distant points are closely connected, as if space had been altogether abolished; so that when Hollis, another major protagonist, in Los Angeles, talks on her mobile phone with a friend in Argentina, she is startled by “a true, absolute and digital silence” on the line, “devoid of that random background sizzle that she’d once taken as much for granted during an international call as she took the sky overhead when she was outside.”
At the same time that everything is global, specific localities become ever more important. Spook Country is centrally concerned with GPS tracking, and how it creates a “grid” so that every point on the earth’s surface can be monitored and distinguished. There is also a lot about “locative art”: which means site-specific multimedia installations that only exist virtually, and that can only be accessed by wearing a virtual-reality helmet with a WiFi connection, so that you see spectral 3D images (bodies, furniture, architecture) overlaying actual physical locations. Both GPS and locative art give new meaning to the local; and emphasize the point that, in our globalized world, every particular site is unique, not to be confounded with anyplace else.
William Gibson, of course, is best known as a science fiction writer. His 1984 novel Neuromancer was the seminal work of so-called “cyberpunk” SF, as well as the book that invented the word “cyberspace,” and influenced a whole generation of software engineers, who mistook its dystopian visions as the epitome of cool. But Spook Country is Gibson’s second book — after Pattern Recognition (2003) — to be set in the present moment instead of the future. (The narrative of Spook Country takes place in February 2006). Evidently Gibson wants to suggest that the actual world today is science-fictional enough as not to require fictive extrapolation. The technology that we used to think of as startling and different is increasingly being woven into the texture of our everyday lives. One of the characters in Spook Country even says that “cyberspace” is now an outmoded term. “It was a way we had of looking where we were headed, a direction.” But now, “we’re here. This is the other side of the screen. Right here… We’re all doing VR, every time we look at a screen. We have been for decades now. We just do it.”
I’ve been writing about Gibson’s prose, and how it embodies a view of the world. But of course, Spook Country is also a genre novel: a high-tech thriller, or a “caper” story, to be precise. The title refers both to the spookiness of virtual reality and advertising simulacra, and to “spooks” meaning spies or secret agents. The story concerns — not to give away the plot — a cargo container, with mysterious contents, which is “of interest” to a variety of feuding CIA (or ex-CIA) factions, as well as to advertising entrepreneurs and elements of the underworld. The novel is carefully and elegantly plotted, and all the characters and plot strands come together in an action climax that provides some unexpected twists, while resolving questions about the nature of the cargo and of the various parties’ interest in it.
And yet, the slick narrative that I am describing is to a very large extent beside the point. It almost tends to dissolve, or to have its outline blurred, amidst the welter of details of which it is made up. And by the end of the book it somehow loses importance — it all turns out to be rather mundane, and of limited relevance to anybody. The illegal caper that the whole narrative has prepared us for is just a kind of high-tech, super-secret “prank” (as one of the characters comes to think of it), rather than an exploit that will make anyone fabulously rich, or that possesses any wide political significance. In our world of spooks and surveillance, there are conspiracies aplenty — but none of them seems to come to much of anything.
This odd sense of anticlimax and disillusionment is, I think, the greatest accomplishment of Spook Country. The novel moves us through a series of muted excitements and muted anxieties, to an endpoint of (relative) equilibrium. What are we left with? In the final pages of the novel, the former singer of a defunct post-punk band with a cult following is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to “sell out” (for a suitably high fee, of course) and allow one of her songs to be used in a car commercial, so that it may become “a theme, an anthem, of postmodern branding.” The erstwhile avant garde returns to business as usual. And Spook Country gives us an uncomfortably lucid glimpse of just those aspects of our hypermediated lives that we generally do not notice, because we take them so much for granted.