White Figure on a White Background: a review by Lee Battersby
I‘d hate to be a guest at William Gibson’s house. I bet it’s always cold, and the place is full of shiny, expensive objet d’art, and chrome surfaces and exposed floorboards, and you’re never allowed to touch anything. I bet you have to take your shoes off at the door and have a disinfectant foot-bath before he lets you in, and you have to wear cotton gloves so you never ever leave a fingerprint. I bet you have to wear a paper suit over your real clothes.
If it’s true that a great novelist always leaves something of themselves within their work, then William Gibson must be one of the great sterility fetishists of our time.
Pattern Recognition concerns itself with Cayce Pollard, a ‘cool consultant’ who uses her sensitivity to trademarking to advise companies as to which logos and designs should prove successful in the marketplace. Pollard is the ultimate extension of the Gibson sterility fetish: a character who is allergic to logos and trademarks, allowing Gibson to remove even the ephemeral images of our existence from his world view.
Pollard is on the hunt for the creator of a series of images found on the web, images that seem to be making some sort of movie, or visual comment that Pollard and her net-friends find irresistible. Along the way Pollard jets from London to Japan to the former Russian states, all the while agonising over her American-ness and how it compares to the increasingly homogenised surroundings in which she finds herself.
Not that location seems to matter to Gibson. Each new locale is just like the last. Sterile, blank, white upon white. From the London flat of her best friend, emptied of furniture with only a game cube and three featureless body casts for company, to the ultra-clean, barren surroundings of Japanese hotel rooms, Gibson invests his settings with a lifelessness that forces the characters and their actions into an unnatural highlighting. This is Brechtian theatre: no sets, no costumes, nothing to distract the audience’s attention away from the slightest movement or mannerisms of the actors in front of us.
And this is a novel of mannerisms. Everyone has a second agenda, everyone is hiding something from everyone else, alliances and betrayals are forged and broken with the slightest of motions as Cayce and those who surround her spiral inexorably toward the maker of the fragmentary web images that have captured their attentions. It is testament to Gibson’s extraordinary skill as a novelist that he sweeps us along on this journey, drawing us into the games and paranoias of his cast. For in truth there is no great surfeit of pure plot here, and without endless descriptions of time and place to absorb us Gibson is forced to rely on his characters to take us to the end of this book.
And that they do, with power to spare. Because Pattern Recognition becomes a truly absorbing book. The minor gains and reversals that make up the delicate power games within it become a constant tickle to the reader’s system, until the reader finds themselves carried pell-mell into the minor, yet completely captivating resolution of all the separate threads of Cayce Pollard’s journey: the creator of her images, the fate of her father who may or may not have disappeared some time before, the self-realisation that she has so desperately wished for and seemed unable to find.
It’s been a while since I’ve read Gibson. After his Neuromancer series he disappeared off my radar. It’s fascinating to see the elements of his style that have survived the twenty year gap, to see him transform into a novelist of artistic power. I’m interested in what he does next, because I’d like to see him reverse the tone of this novel: get rid of the paper suits, track mud into his house, empty the disinfectant foot-bath and let people leave fingerprints and coffee marks wherever the hell they like. In short, I’d like to see Gibson step outside the sterility and get dirty. The final image of Pattern Recognition is of Cayce Pollard up to her knees in grime and mud, digging in filth. I hope that image carries over into Gibson’s next novel, that he imbues it with such texture and dirt that we feel grit between our fingers as we turn the pages.
Um, I’ve just admitted I want to see William Gibson get dirty. Does that make me a perv?