I finished reading William Gibson’s newest novel, Spook Country, a few days ago and have been trying to figure out how I feel about it. It is one of the few books I have eagerly scooped up in hardcover, I loved his Pattern Recognition so much. The promise of another book set in what can only be called the “extreme contemporary” moment was too much for me to pass up or wait for paperback to experience.
Unfortunately, Spook Country does not rise to the level of its predecessor. The main problem, in my view, is that there is a lack of harmony between its plot and its people. In Pattern Recognition, the quest to find the maker of the footage was intimately tied to the nature and capabilities of the novel’s protagonist, Cayce Pollard, and to the existential situation of our moment, which allows for the possibility of anonymous internet authoring. Cayce was, indeed, the right person for the job, perhaps the only person for it, and the footageheads were a genuinely new kind of social arrangement whose newness will quickly fade but whose novelty has been captured via Gibson’s trendspotting style.
In contrast, Gibson here gives us a cast of interesting characters whose position in this imagined present has little, in the end, to do with what happens at the level of plot or in terms of their historical moment, its specificity and existential terror. Does Hollis Henry’s having sung for The Curfew affect the plot? Only vaguely. Does Tito’s being from a Cuban-Chinese boutique crime family really matter? Though the idea is a terrific one, no. And Milgram, what is his ultimate purpose in the narrative? Why his trip to D.C.? Why does so much of the novel take place in transit between places? Or in restaurants, for that matter?
In the end, after 300 pages of passivity, we get little narrative reward for having gotten to know Milgram; he feels like filler, a third plot thread Gibson couldn’t figure out what to do with. And don’t get me started on my love of but ultimate disappointment in the concept of locative art. Gibson has hit upon a fascinating idea, but he has not taken enough time to develop its implications or tease out the relationship between this new medium and the nature of the contents of the “Flying Dutchman” shipping container. This leaves the last thirty pages of the novel feeling something like a tacked on effort to tie up loose threads (admittedly, the last chapter of Pattern Recognition fails in the same way).
All that said, let’s make no mistake: Gibson writes many amazing, observant sentences and the Union Square action sequence is fantastic, the best part of the book, rising to the level of the best he’s written. My disappointment stands largely in relation to my extreme admiration for what he accomplished in his previous novel, and for what I see as his power and potential as a writer. If I were going to give Gibson advice (never a good idea), I would say this: take an extra year or two to perfect the next novel in this trilogy, which undoubtedly will concern China, if the ending of this novel is any clue. Novels of this sort should stand as monuments, finely crafted explorations of the unknowable present, standing up to scrutiny from any angle, unimpeachable.