Book: Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson


Grade: B+

When my brother found out I was doing the “52 Books in 52 Weeks” challenge, he sent me a list of novels he thought I’d enjoy. This was at the top of the stack.

I’ve read Neuromancer, of course, and appreciated (as opposed to “enjoyed”) it. Gibson’s other books have frustrated me. Have you ever had a serious conversation with someone whose accent is difficult to follow, or tried to listen to a dinner-party companion in the middle of a very noisy restaurant? You can follow the gist of what’s being said; you get the main points; but there are large stretches of time when you just keep smiling and nodding, waiting for the next audible words. Islands of meaning rise up out of the inaudible fog that obscures the rest. You’re mostly adrift in the mist.

That’s my experience when I read Gibson. Usually I have to reread two or three times before I can follow him. I don’t like this. It makes me feel stupid.

That sense was present but muted during my reading of Pattern Recognition. The book isn’t cyberpunk (a genre I don’t think I really have an affinity for), but Gibson’s still got his allusive, present-tense, real-time, proper-name thing going, and it doesn’t take much of that before I start struggling. (“Still doing heels, she checks her watch, a Korean clone of an old-school Casio G-Shock, its plastic case sanded free of logos with a scrap of Japanese micro-abrasive. She is due in Blue Ant’s Soho offices in fifty minutes.”)

Plus, I have absolutely no idea why Gibson decided to drag 9/11 into his plot. It didn’t fit when he introduced it; it still wasn’t fitting at the book’s end. It was totally extraneous to the novel’s world.

Despite that I was drawn into the plot (eventually; it helped that I got stuck this week on an airplane to Indianapolis with nothing else to read). To put this in a spoiler-free fashion: Gibson’s writing, in a way that strikes me as very personal to him, about the impossibility of existing in today’s world as a solitary, independent artist. You can create all you want; you can lock yourself in your lair, your studio, your retreat, your chicken-shed, and turn out the most innovative, beautiful, gripping stuff in the world; but if you don’t have an enormous, powerful, and very rich publicity machine behind you, no one will ever see/hear/read what you do. And the most effective publicity machines of all are those with enough money and clout to disguise marketing ploys as spontaneous interest.

Which I know to be true. It was a heart-felt and very depressing read.

Showing 6 comments
  • Leah


    I have enjoyed reading your blog for quite some time. I’m not a parent. I just graduated from college a few years ago. I had a wonderful experience in college, however one of the main discoveries I made in college was just how awful my public school education had been. My politics are quite liberal, but I have come to hate was political correctness has done to our education system, although I do believe it should have a place in our public discourse. I wish I had been classically educated. In any case, I always enjoy reading your views on how children should be educated. (I actually came across your blog for the first time while doing some research, just out of personal curiosity, on different educational philosophies.)

    I decided to comment because I saw the question you posted on the Well-Trained Mind message boards about your son’s interest in majoring in English. I’m sure he has no shortage of advice available to him at home. I also don’t know how the school I wanted to recommend would fit with his political/religious views, etc. However, my impression is that John’s College might be a good option for him to consider. Their curriculum (they have no majors) is completely based on reading the classics. However, all the interpretation comes from the students. There is no literary criticism component. In case you might be interested their website is:

  • Ev.

    lmao – ‘chicken shed’ 🙂 As a long-time reader of your blog, this made me laugh out loud! All I can say, is that some wonderful work has come out of that chicken shed. lol

  • Cindy

    You came to Indianapolis this week?!? Did I miss a speaking appearance? I’d be so disappointed – I really want to hear you in person!

  • Jerry Pattengale

    Susan, Your “dinner party conversation” imagery strikes a cord. Even in your blog you write with a sharp but mature pen–and it’s of little surprise about the Prose Awards. Also, your time at Indiana Wesleyan Univ. proved valuable for many of our students. Quite the opposite of Gibson, they heard you clearly–as if the only other wet of eyes in a cafe. Earlier this hour, I pulled up your website for an excellent young scholar, to catch a glimpse of your casual conversations. She’s a Bauer fan after your lecture, and yet to read a word. 🙂 Of course, I handed her your recent tome. I’m looking forward to Vol II of the world–and seeing how the story unfolds. JP

  • David Bryan

    Hmmm…I loved the book, but then again, I’m a huge Gibson fan in general. The premise of becoming over sensitized to brands seems as likely a real post-modern (can’t believe I just said that) affliction as any, and I thought made a good story element. I actually really like his writing style, however I can see your accent analogy, and certainly have found other writers’ styles to rub me the wrong way. I guess I just have the same accent so it doesn’t bother me. I suppose I’m just a native speaker of classical geek.

    That said, however, I think the reason this book will always be in my list of favorites is mainly due to one line (actually on the opening page) about jet lag. One of the characters presents the notion that jet lag is caused by your “soul” being left behind because it can’t move that fast. “Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”

    Forgiving his over-use of commas, every time I travel international (far more often than I like, sometimes), I think of that quote. Nothing else I’ve ever read quite captures what jet lag really feels like sometimes. Especially when you have 3 time zones in three weeks or something equally appalling. More than once I’ve used that line as an away message or status on my computer while I try to decipher 3 am TV in a language I don’t understand and pray for sleep.

    Glad it still got a B+ anyway!

  • Justin

    “Classical geek”…love it!

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