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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

my reads: ‘Pattern Recognition’ by William Gibson

It’s an odd coincidence that commenter LaSargenta mentioned William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition recently, because it’s one that’s been in my short pile of books to write about for a while. Or maybe it’s not so odd. Because there may be a pattern to be recognized in how all this came about. I bought the book in the gift shop at the Tate Modern the last time I was in London, in February 2009. Now I’m here again, and was complaining about jetlag when LaSargenta pointed us toward one amazing bit in which Gibson describes jetlag like this:

Five hours’ New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.

It is that flat and spectral non-hour, awash in limbic tides, brainstem stirring fitfully, flashing inappropriate reptilian demands for sex, food, sedation, all of the above, and none really an option now.

She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien’s theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.

I also like this, from just a few paragraphs later, as a glimpse into the nameless purgatory that is international travel:

Mirror-world. The plugs on appliances are huge, triple-pronged, for a species of current that only powers electric chairs, in America. Cars are reversed, left to right, inside; telephone handsets have a different weight, a different balance; the covers of paperbacks look like Australian money.

(You can read more from an excerpt at Gibson’s site.)

Or maybe it’s all just coincidence that LaSargenta read the patterns that make up me.

There are a few reasons why this novel is deeply cool, and why I think you’ll find it interesting if your interests are similar to mine. First, the protagonist is a freelancer who consults with big corporations around her unique “talent,” though it’s really more of a curse to her. She’s “allergic” to logos, to branding, to the sort of ubitiquous selling we are all exposed to every day. She has to rip the labels off her clothes, or — if she can manage it — finding the plainest, most nondescript clothes to begin with: black jeans, white T-shirts, industrial sweaters she buys in bulk from boarding-school suppliers. How she copes with this unique disability, and how she turns it into an advantage, is a fascinating commentary on how we are sold things — how everything that is sold to us is done so in very deliberate ways — and what it means to live in a world where almost everything is branded. Though this is most definitely a science fiction novel, it is set in what is most definitely our world… though it’s seen through the eyes of someone who has been forced to be something of an outsider. She’s a fish who has been forced to acknowledge that she’s swimming in a particular kind of sea, instead of being able to take it so much for granted that she doesn’t even notice it.

Second, much of the plot revolves around mysterious cinematic footage that is appearing in snippets anonymously on the Internet, and around which an online community has developed to interpret it, piece it together, and figure out just who the heck is creating it in the first place. It’s a puzzle that concerns not just movies but film fandom online. It’s a story just about tailor made for anyone who reads this site on a regular basis.

That said, I’m not entirely satisfied with how the book ends: it feels a bit anticlimactic. I’d be curious to hear what other readers think of it. But please do post a spoiler warning if you’re going to discuss the ending here.

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