Pattern Recognition: A Novel by William Gibson (New York: Putnam, 2003. 362 pp)
William Gibson is an American-Canadian science fiction novelist. A pioneer in the genre of “cyberpunk,” Gibson has earned numerous awards including the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the Ditmar Award, the Seiun Award, and the Prix Aurora Award.
Form and the Unreliable Narrator
Sometimes I take minor joy in the serendipitous connections between my reading and television consumption habits. Currently, I’m diving into Mr. Robot, the critically acclaimed hacker drama. Taking a chapter out of the cult classic, Fight Club, Mr. Robot uses an unreliable narrator to question toxic masculinity and the expectations of the dominant culture. With visual cues corresponding to the screenwriting, the viewer not only understands the undependability of the narrator, but also how the visuals reinforce or contradict the unrooted core.
Interestingly enough, the latest book I have completed, William Gibson’s noir-ish Pattern Recognition, also leverages the unreliable narrator motif. And yet, where Mr. Robot’s first season shines in its visual flourishes, Pattern Recognition requires the reader to connect the dots. While I appreciate the technique and ambition of Gibson’s work, Pattern Recognition falls flat, at least in my current context.
A New Form of Brand Consulting
Set in the early 2000s, Pattern Recognition follows the developments of Cayce Pollard, a brand consultant with an odd set of skills and a unique back story.
In her day job, Cayce contracts with brands around the world, providing gut-feel reactions to new logos and brand expressions.
“There is a drawing there, a sort of scribble in thick black Japanese brush, a medium she knows to be the in-house hallmark of Herr Heinzi himself. To Cayce, it most resembles a syncopated sperm, as rendered by the American underground cartoonist Rick Griffin, circa 1967. She knows immediately that it does not, by the opaque standards of her inner radar, work. She has no way of knowing how she knows” (12).
This innate ability to detect positive and negative branding links to an odd phobia beneath Cayce’s tough exterior. Bad branding literally makes her sick.
“Tommy Hilfiger does it every time, though she’d thought she was safe now. They’d said he’d peaked, in New York. Like Benetton, the name would be around, but the real poison, for her, would have been drawn. It’s something to do with context, here, with not expecting it in London. When it starts, it’s pure reaction, like biting down hard on a piece of foil” (17).
Presently, Cayce finds herself in London, contracted with a marketing agency helmed by the colorful Bigend.
Early 2000s Internet Activity
Outside her consulting work, Cayce finds sanctuary in an online message board devoted to a set of early viral videos. These artistic expressions emerge from an anonymous artist, a little like Banksy’s graffiti popping up worldwide. The message board collects global fans of these videos and provides a space for them to offer conjecture on the source and meaning of these videos. For Cayce, this space provides a tangible connection to others, specifically the pseudonymous Parkaboy.
“Parkaboy is her favorite, on F:F:F. They e-mail when the forum really gets going, and sometimes when it’s dead as well. She knows almost nothing about him, other than that he lives in Chicago and, she assumes, is gay. But they know one another’s passion for the footage, their doubts and tentative theories, as well as anyone in the world does” (39).
The narrative skips into full gear when Bigend approaches Cayce with an unlimited credit card and the task of finding this cinematographer.
Unearthing Mystery as a Means to Unearthing Inner Lives
As the missions leads Cayce around the world, she must come to grips with the trauma she’s buried pertaining to the disappearance of her father in Lower Manhattan on the morning of 9/11.
Unfortunately, this dense plot circles around Cayce, its main character, whom Gibson establishes as one dealing with possible mental issues. If Pattern Recognition were developed into a series/feature-length film, I could see how it could build from the Fight Club or Mr. Robot blueprint toward wide acclaim. Yet, the unreliability coupled with the density of the plot taxes the reader.
For these reasons, I wouldn’t recommend Pattern Recognition. I understand William Gibson operates as a giant in the literary/science fiction world, and I plan to read more of his work. But for now, I’m not sure if I can say this book offers the best starting point for his canon.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5