Spook Country

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.

10 thoughts on “Spook Country”

  1. Dear Steve:

    I don’t have a comment. I have a question, and I think it’s a question that only you can answer. My question is this: What do you make of recent works of ficition, like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, which deal with simulation? In Be Kind Rewind, whole movies are re-staged, and in Remainder, a man’s whole life (or what he remembers) is re-staged. Is this new? Or are the other works that set a precedent? Obviously, PKD would most likely be the progenitor, but I can’t think of anyone else. Is what I’m talking about simulation, or am I using the wrong word? Is this just another branch of post-modernism, or is it what comes after? The reason I’m asking is because I sense that there is something fresh about ficitonal works that use as their subject the re-staging of other fictional works. Or maybe this is just old hat and I’m ignorant of a whole body of work. Either way I would appreciate your ideas. Doom Patrols is one of my favorite books, btw.

  2. Chris,
    I don’t have any easy answers to your questions. I think that works of art have for a very long time recycled/appropriated/re-staged previous works (Shakespeare’s use of his sources would not pass muster under copyright law today). But I do think there is something particular, a new twist lately, to such simulation or re-staging today. Partly because of how digital technologies enable both copying and transformation, and dissemination, in new ways, and partly because of the role that copyright/DRM/”intellectual property” plays today. (And also the ways that more and more aspects of “experience” have become privatized and commodified, or at least susceptible to privatization and commodification).

  3. hey Steven,
    regarding the question posed by Chris, do you think that the proliferation of appropriated/recycled/citational art (movies, literature, visual arts, music) largely contributes to the damaging reassurance that we live in a post-industrial world? It’s true that works of art have reused previous works for quite a while, but if the timing of Chris’s comment is any indication, this practice appears to be particularly visible today. It seems that technologies like Apple’s Garageband allow us to produce music via templates and samples, which surely have some historical origin, but are now deprived of their context and served up as just another building block painlessly ready to plug in. Tarantino’s Grindhouse resusitates a very specific film genre, and while his hands are capable, he is essentially creating collage/re-stagings of the movies he loves. Do you think collage is a marker of a lack of visible industry in the 1st world? What’s the art/music coming out of Detroit look like these days? Do you think it reflects a loss of the site of production of, say, automobile manufacturing?

  4. Ian,
    Obviously appropriation/recycling has an especially pronounced role in contemporary culture, and probably this could be specified in terms of both current digital technologies and current economic/property regimes (“intellectual property”). But I am unwilling to generalize beyond that.

  5. Again, this is in response to Chris’s question. There are a number of books which rewrite or restage existing sources, such as Jacqueline Rose’s ‘Albertine’ which retells Proust’s novels from the titular character’s POV and Pia Pera’s ‘Lo’s Diary’ which does the same for ‘Lolita’. ‘Be Kind Rewind’ reminds me of the work of novelist and film critic Kim Newman who makes frequent use of other people’s characters. His best known book is ‘Anno Dracula’, a sequel to ‘Dracula’ set in an alternative earth where Dracula’s invasion of Britain was succesful. His website is http://www.johnnyalucard.com. Newman is influenced by both David Thomson, whose novel ‘Suspects’ might be up your street, and Philip Jose Farmer who wrote ‘biographies’ of Doc Savage and Tarzan. Farmer also inspired the ‘Wold Newtonists’, who similarly chronicle the ‘real’ lives of fictional characters. You can find out more at http://www.pjf.com.

    My (frighteningly) soon to be handed in doctoral thesis deals in large part with this kind of fiction and its relation to copyright law. If you want to talk more about it feel free to get in touch. I’m here:

    d.sweeney@englit.arts.gla.ac.uk

    Cheers!

  6. I like what you wrote about the book, which I finished a few minutes ago, but the book, while admirable in any case, is less so if you think of it as a novel–it doesn’t quite become a novel, because of the reasons you admire its ending and anticlimactic resolution. It goes for perhaps 250 pages impressing you with this perfect crystallization of 2006 (so that you can at least catch up that far, if you hadn’t already), and is like an instruction book on some of the parts of locale you might not have been paying enough attention to because they offer so little sensation. Superlative on New York as it is right now, down to the smallest objects, and this sort of writing is also very fine in the
    ‘movie-action’ sections with Tito. But Milgrim is the only character that has character in the old sense, and in the sense of what I think of as flesh-characters in a novel. For me, after 225-250 or so, the continued high-strung insistence on detailing every reaction to every movement each of which is made preciously framed no matter how banal, finally makes the book sink as a novel, although most decidedly not as a kind of manual: In that sense, the book is a much better warning of what to watch out for in contemporary media and streets than anything futuristic. But everything is placed on too equal a footing somehow, for it not to become boring after you’d been impressed with the exacting perfection of this high-strung stuff. It is like a TV movie and has no real drama. The total absence of any sex is quite striking, I’ll admit, but the characters are like cartoons to begin with and their destiny is to become more of the cartoons they already are. But still, extremely impressive on West Hollywood and New York, in particular, as they are now (or were, we now find–and this tapping in to the center of the speed and slowing it down into writing is the major achievement of the book as far as I’m concerned). But these characters are not that much older than any of those in ‘Falling Man’, which is also good at placing some much-needed punctuation marks in that 6-year period; but Hollis, in particular, is dreadfully two-dimensional, a mere receptor of something usually portrayed as menacing which all of a sudden is proven to be little more than a phantom who’ll change courses and go off into more adult ventures, like Chinese ads. So–for me, a fine book which gets its material across in the form of an imitation novel. That sounds more disparaging than it is, although I do wonder whether he wishes he could have pulled off something that, unlike this, does not seem to run out of steam and thus seem laboured.

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