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Book review: <i>Pattern Recognition</i> by William Gibson

I found this book to be EXTREMELY difficult in a multitude of ways. During the reading process, which was quite drawn out due to the following, I struggled through stages of ambivalence, irritation, eagerness, interest, distaste, and the desire to just read something else and forget about it. So, I suppose you could call Pattern Recognition emotionally evocative... And, now that it’s over, I STILL don’t know whether I thought it was good and/or whether I liked it and/or whether I would recommend others to read it. So, I suppose you could also say that Pattern Recognition defies categorisation and encourages a lot of thinking time. I guess everything I’ve said about it so far is fairly positive. Still, a difficult text indeed.

The content

Cayce Pollard is a thirty something New Yorker with an exciting, pathological aversion to some trademarks (but not others), which advertising companies pay good money to have access to. She is referred to as a “cool hunter” (I have an aversion to how uncool this term is, but anyway) and has an obsession to mysterious footage that turns up a bit at a time on the internet. But from what the “footage-heads” (the collective term for those with the same obsession) have seen this footage is in a league of its own. Even to Cayce the cool. Also central to Cayce’s character is the disappearance of her ex-US secret service father, Win, who was last seen near the twin towers on September 11. So Cayce, and all her baggage, get roped into working with a Belgian guy—one of the largest and smartest global advertising heads—who she was contracting for. He wants her to find the maker of the footage, because it seems like such a deviously brilliant advertising scheme. However, there are lots of people across the world who don’t want her to find the maker, and will stop at nothing to prevent her from succeeding.

Okay. Firstly, I would like to preface this review by saying I have never previously read William Gibson. I have heard he is highly acclaimed as an author. However, I am aware that this is his first novel to be set in the present (or immediate past) time, and his first to have a fairly realistic feel to it. Okay, so now I’ve let you know what I do and don’t know, I’ll proceed.

If he’s not used to writing modern things I’ll try and forgive him for certain terminology used in this book I found a bit cringe-worthy—“cool hunter” for example. While he qualified that Cayce wasn’t a fan of the label, she still used it, and WHO came up with it? Was it her mum? Her granny? Someone with a terminal uncoolness problem? Whoever it was, this wasn’t qualified enough. So, every time I saw this phrase, I thought it looked like one of those dodgy sci-fi terms made up by an inexpert sci-fi writer trying to sound cool and edgy, but who just ended up sounding a bit... contrived. There were other elements I found contrived, like the the behaviour of a lot of the characters... like they had been told how “cool” people act and were setting about replicating it in a geekish way. However, where I see this as a bit isolating for the reader, the interactions of the characters on the net are very realistic. The tones of the emails and the chat forums and whatnot are very real... it seems like William Gibson is very comfortable with the natural-ness of this scenario, so that sort of makes up for the stiltedness of the characters when they aren’t on the net.

Secondly, this novel was all very fractured and contemporary and stuff, and it was tackling September 11 and simulacrum and globalness, etc. However, I personally felt there was something missing, and I think this may be because the subject matter was being dealt with so close to September 11 and the author was injecting an excess of personal emotions into the novel that didn’t sit so well there. While there is no problem with conveying the fractured and lonely and bleak and difficult nature of the contemporary world, I just felt like elements of this book were so lost and nostalgic that I just couldn’t be bothered. I didn’t experience any joy, or intrigue, or humour... and these are the things that normally keep me going in a super depressing book. This one just sounded... lost. I did think about this a lot, because I couldn’t initially figure out my problem with it. I have read lots of books about tragedy and loss and war... why did this one get me so much? I think the reason is actually what was going on in the book itself—saturation of events and media and advertising to the point of nausea. So maybe if I read it in fifty years, when I wasn’t still hearing about September 11, I could experience the book academically. However at this stage, it just felt like further exposure to something that is still getting incredible media time... and the injection of the September 11 elements just felt like overkill so the author could work out his issues. Which is fine... but it just made me feel like the book was so devoid of anything but isolated and fractious and heavy depression and an almost self-indulgent quality that I just wanted to read The Baby Sitters Club instead. I also felt that this focus on the tragedy of America distracted from what the author was trying to acheive in that he seemed to want a global feel, but kept falling back to being nostalgic for America while at the same time not setting any of the novel there.

Who is this book for?

Feel like something heavy with no redeeming features, no resolution, no lightness, no joy, Sylvia Plath without the poetry, and a nostalgic Americana style feel? Be my guest. However, if you happen to be having a depressed day... I’d advise steering clear.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Try something heavy but with redeeming lightness to it. Like Something Happened by Joseph Heller—depressing as hell, a statement as to the general futility of contemporary life—but with redeeming moments of humour and sly enjoyability. And you want to keep reading it! Which is important. Or something like that.

In short

Title: Pattern Recognition
Author: William Gibson
Publisher: Putnam Adult
ISBN: 0399149864
Year published: 2003
Pages: 368
Review Type: 


This was an interesting review Bridget, it made look at the book in a new light. I wouldn't have guessed it would strike a new reader as being so depressing! I'd certainly agree that there's a sense of absence at its core, which is deliberate, but now I think about it there's an absence at the core of all Gibson's other books, too...perhaps it's just less noticeable in a dystopic future setting! His main characters are always lonely, disconnected, and usually have an ugly past. I can definitely say that Gibson seems to have a style people either love or leave, and if you didn't like this then I wouldn't bother looking up his older work, unless you think more action would improve it, which doesn't seem to be the case, judging from your review.
The "coolness" aspect is interesting, too. I find him to be largely successful in creating a refined (and increasingly understated) sense of style around his characters and settings, but I will certainly concede that it is as much about an atmosphere and attitude of style as any particular specifics - when he talks about clothes and interiors, for instance, I think he largely ignores actual current fashions (which will inevitably date) and tries to reach a level where everything perfectly suits the people and the situation. In the film Blade Runner, for instance, (which shared many aspects of atmosphere with Gibson's first novel) there are elements of Ridley Scott's vision of a future Los Angeles which, isolated, seem a bit silly today, but the vision has historic weight because A- it's cohesive, it hangs together, B- as such, it's a capsule which represents the time in which it was made as much as the future it seeks to portray, and C- it has, for the fan, at any rate, a self-contained sense of cool which exists in a parallel world to whichever cut of jeans is currently doing the rounds. I would make the same claim on behalf of Mr. Gibson's science fiction novels, but the argument loses some of its steam when you're talking about a book set in the present and which is likely to attract readers who aren't familiar with his earlier work. I might have to read it again and try to look at it as a new reader. Cheers Bridget, nice work.