Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

William Gibson’s best-known novel, Neuromancer, was published in 1984. I read it back then and thought it was excellent. I don’t remember much about it, but if I close my eyes, what comes to me is an image of cyberspace as a set of large, colored boxes, some labeled with their corporate names (like IBM or Exxon). The young man or woman at the center of the story travels through this bizarre virtual reality, but I can’t remember why. It’s fair to say the novel was ahead of its time.

I’ve been tempted to read something else by Gibson through the years but never bothered. I guess I doubted he had more to say. Then recently I saw a positive reference to his 2014 novel, The Peripheral. I wanted some lighter reading so made a trip to the library (which now asks us to visit for no more than 20 minutes and doesn’t allow access to the restrooms). On the shelf next to The Peripheral was Gibson’s 2003 novel, Pattern Recognition. A blurb on the back cover said it was his best novel since Neuromancer

Pattern Recognition wasn’t as futuristic as I expected. It’s a story about a woman, Cayce Pollard, who is extremely sensitive to contemporary culture (circa 2003). She makes her living by telling her corporate clients what’s “cool”. Is the new logo they’re considering acceptable or not? She’s paid to give a “yes” or “no” answer, no explanation required. It’s not her usual kind of job, but she accepts an assignment to investigate a series of mysterious little videos that have been popping up on the internet (the people who obsess about it online call these videos “The Footage”). Complications ensue.

What also ensues are many, many references to the clothes Cayce wears and the restaurants she visits. One minute she’s in London, then she’s flying to Tokyo, then it’s Paris, and then New York, followed by Moscow, and back to London. Cayce uses her client’s VISA card to really get around. I got tired of reading about her jet lag and the cool neighborhoods she visits. (Did William Gibson visit the major cities of the world as his career developed? Is that how he acquired so many details about city life here and there?)

Pattern Recognition might have been a better book if the author gave more attention to The Footage, which is rarely described, and less to Cayce’s favorite jacket and the decor in her hotel rooms. Maybe The Peripheral will be better than Pattern Recognition. I hope it’s Gibson’s best since Neuromancer.

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

After reading Eve Babitz’s semi-autobiographical novel Eve’s Hollywood last year, I wrote:

I’m glad her books are being reprinted. I’m looking forward to reading her second novel, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., and a collection of her journalism, I Used To Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz. There are much worse ways a person could spend their time.

Slow Days, Fast Company, like her first novel, is a series of vignettes written in the first-person. “Eve” visits Bakersfield, Palm Springs and Laguna Beach. She is taken to a Dodgers game. She writes about Los Angeles when it’s windy and when it’s rainy. She hangs out with friends and lovers, none of whom are as interesting as “Eve” says they are.

The impression I got was that Eve or “Eve” exaggerates a lot. If Babitz used elements from her life, I bet she made them sound more glamorous or exciting than they were. If she made things up, she laid on too much glamour and excitement.

Slow Days was first published in 1977. This is from the back cover of the 2016 paperback edition:

Slow Days, Fast Compay is a full-fledged and full-bodied evocation of a bygone Southern California…. In ten sun-baked, Santa Ana wind-swept sketches, [Babitz] seduces us.

I Used To Be Charming, the collection of her journalism, might be better than Slow Days, but I bet she exaggerated there too. This time around, Eve failed to seduce.

“Watchmen” by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

I used to update another blog every time I finished a book. I’d summarize the book and offer an opinion or two. An Ingenious Device For Avoiding Thought is still out there, but I’m going to discuss the books here now.

Watchmen is a 1980s comic book/graphic novel that deals with a bunch of caped crusaders, similar to Batman, in an alternate timeline in which America won the war in Viet Nam and President Nixon never resigned. There is one character with actual superpowers, the result of a horrendous accident. Watchmen has a terrific reputation:

“A work of ruthless psychological realism, it’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium.”—Time Magazine

“WATCHMEN is peerless.”—Rolling Stone

“Remarkable … the would-be heroes of WATCHMEN have staggeringly complex psychological profiles.”—New York Times Book Review

“Groundbreaking.”—USA Today

It was adapted for a movie in 2009 and an HBO series last year. I saw the movie and some of the TV series and was interested enough to get a copy of 2013’s deluxe, hardcover edition. I would finally see what all the excitement has been about.

I’m sure Watchmen would have been more interesting if I’d read the original twelve comic books when they came out in the 80s. Its “costumed adventurers” or “masked vigilantes” and their violent exploits would have been more novel back then.

Reading it in 2020, I was disappointed. It was good enough to keep reading, but overall it was repetitious and sometimes boring. There are two interesting characters (the dangerous, extremely intense Rorschach and the naked blue superhero with godlike powers, Dr. Manhattan) but too much of it has the feeling of a soap opera. The artwork is decent but the only reason I finished it (aside from a bit of Puritan work ethic) was that I wanted to see what one of the characters — said to be the smartest man in the world — eventually does to New York City. Recurring characters who hang out at a newsstand, an extended parallel story involving 17th century pirates and a troubled mother-daughter relationship were especially tedious.

So, that’s Watchmen, an entry in Time‘s list of the 100 best novels written since 1923 and, according to someone at the BBC, “the moment comic books grew up”. I guess you had to be there.

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The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

The English translation of Houellebecq’s best-known novel was published 20 years ago. It was widely-discussed, even controversial. I can see why.

It’s the story of two French step-brothers, Michel and Bruno, from their school years into adulthood. Michel is brilliant and becomes an important molecular biologist. But he is extremely emotionally detached. Bruno is bullied in school and very self-conscious. He becomes a writer and is mostly concerned with sex.

I’d say the theme of the novel is the decline of the human race. It includes a lot of science and a lot of explicit sex. Michel and Bruno don’t live happily ever after. Neither does humanity. Yet the story ends on what seems to be a positive development. Houellebecq is suggesting that things can only get better from here.

Submission: A Novel by Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is one of France’s leading novelists, maybe their leading novelist. He is known for being controversial. This is the only book of his I’ve read. It made me want to read another.

The story is told from the point of view of a middle-aged professor of literature at the Sorbonne. He is relatively well-known in academic circles, but feels his career is at a dead end. He has frequent affairs with his female students. He is especially attached to one young woman, but otherwise feels lonely.

The novel is set in the near future. What may have made it controversial is that Houellebecq imagines that a new political party is having great success in France. It’s the Muslim Brotherhood. An election is coming and it looks as if they may win. Nobody knows what will happen. The professor isn’t really interested in politics, but he’s nervous about his future in a country that appears to be rapidly changing.

The arabic word islam means “submission” or “submission to the will of God”. I suppose Submission is satire, and it’s funny at times, but it addresses serious themes. I only wish I had understood more of the cultural references. The author refers to lots of French historical and literary figures, as well as current politicians and pundits. If I’d known who he was talking about, I’d have appreciated more of the jokes.