Zero History by William Gibson
Zero History is a book that everyone and his dog has already reviewed. I guess this makes my thinking comparable to that of a flea on the backside of the last dog. For those of you who read these reviews, this introduction confirms my approach as self-deprecating. How can I hope to compete with the heavyweights? (Anguished tone.) Except, of course, this reviewing game is not a real competition. Although some media sources like the NYT, LA Times, The Independent, Guardian, et al have their brand names well-established, the opinions of us minnows are equally valid. Indeed, since we are not dependent on the advertising revenue from the corporations owning the big publishers, we’re far more likely to tell you the truth than these big newspapers. It’s just we run at a different level in the cyberverse (a real word, not of my coining, and for once, not one coined by William Gibson either — he only managed cyberspace). Whereas these media brand leaders have their reputations on the line every time anyone commits words to the virtual page, I can scribble whatever rubbish I like and delete the ad hominem abuse that comes in as comments without having to worry about my rep, street cred or any other measure of my traffic statistics. It’s all rather liberating, really.
So this William Gibson, whose name is a brand in its own right, selling books just because those two words appear on the front cover in a large font, has penned a third book in a series starting with Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. It has Hubertus Bigend putting together a team to find out all there is to know about a brand of clothes called Gabriel Hounds. Hollis Henry and Milgrim are back in the saddle and their quest starts in London, then moves over the Channel to Paris and thence to more distant ports of call.
One of the first things you notice about this book is the language. It has the kind of senseless magnificence that makes you want to use words with hyper as the prefix to describe them. You can imagine an author sitting down to have fun and producing this conflation of attitude, opinion and wit. When you read it, you feel as though you have suddenly been issued with a pair of skates and propelled out on to a frozen lake. The view is breathtaking, but spoiling the mood is the thought there may soon be a thaw and, if you are not careful, you could fall through the ice into the freezing waters below.
So you skate on in hope, trusting there will prove sufficient substance in the text to support you through to the end. Unfortunately, in Shakespearean terms, it slowly becomes apparent that the whole is “. . .full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (extracted from the Scottish play and other trademarked versions of the original name). No matter how superficially pleasing, whatever words are selected by the author should be employed in telling a good story. Looking back in time for a moment, there used to be a whole subculture that delighted in telling shaggy dog stories. These were wonderful conflations of hot air that momentarily delighted the ear until you arrived at the lamest possible punchline. Indeed, the more pedestrian the point of the story, the greater the teller’s perverse delight in wasting everyone’s time with it. Today, the original shaggy dogs have been consigned to the dustbins of history. Not even my elderly generation would tell them now. So it comes as a sad surprise to find William Gibson effectively writing a shaggy dog book. Consider the point of the story. Hubertus Bigend finds himself embroiled in an espionage caper over a clothing brand.
Now you can say this is an example of satire, a commentary on our modern obsession with branded goods. The brainless wealthy pay exorbitant sums of money to buy into the mythology of a brand identity. Our culture dictates that to be considered wealthy, you must be seen wearing these clothes with those accessories while driving this make and model of car. This is exclusivity through pricing. The reality is that clothes are just pieces of material with which to hide our nakedness and cars nothing more than a way from getting from A to B. Inflating the price of some bits of cloth to stratospheric levels and only making ten of them does not make them any more effective in protecting modesty. Indeed, to stand out from the crowd, it may be necessary for the branded clothing to redefine the social boundaries of modesty. Maintaining celebrity status depends on being talked about and photographed. Outraging current conceptions of public decency is one way to achieve just that end.
From all this you will gather William Gibson may have to do some work on his own brand image. His name has ensured reviews in all the top places. This is a response befitting an author with leading brand status. But if he tries to peddle “verbal fluff” like this too often, not even the most benign of reviews in the most auspicious of quality outlets will prevent more general word-of-mouth from devaluing his reputation. So you should only read this if you like spending an idle hour or so on literary frippery.