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Pattern Recognition

William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and coiner of the term 'cyberspace,' was not an author on my list until the reviews of Pattern Recognition (Putnam, 2003) persuaded me that science fiction, which I avoid on principle, plays no part in his new novel. To be sure, the story line of Pattern Recognition skates on the very edge of the actually contemporary, but if it occasionally crosses the line and anticipates unrealized technology, its settings are anchored in the present. Much of the appeal of Pattern Recognition owes to the privileges that seem to carry its characters into an exalted, even advanced sphere of life. Certainly privilege is a salient of the novel's tone; the wonder is that Mr Gibson can swaddle his heroine and her employers in colleagues in so much luxury, however minimally-accented, and still produce an intriguing novel. Livery cars drive a motif all their own right through the book. Although the heroine, Cayce Pollard, is not a rich woman by any means - on the contrary, she lives in a tiny walkup on West 114th Street - she enjoys an endless stream of perks, or would if she accepted them all. Resolutely autonomous, Cayce does what she can to keep her reciprocal obligations as minimal as her wardrobe. But there is always a car to pick her up and bring her to a rush meeting, always a drily efficient agent to make immediate travel arrangements, first class all the way. This is, of course, the sweet appeal of most escapist fiction, but Mr Gibson's crisp, somewhat acidic style assures that Pattern Recognition, like its heroine, keeps its cool. 

Cayce is an American marketing guru. Pathologically sensitive to matters of branding - the very sight of the original Michelin man reduces her to nausea bordering on coma - she advises her clients on the viability of such things as logos and product lines. As sideline, she is a 'coolhunter,' someone who has actually met the first Mexican kid to wear his baseball cap backwards. For fun, she follows something called 'the footage,' a series - whether a sequence or not is open to question - of digital film clips of mesmerizing stillness. The maker of the footage is unknown, and Cayce belongs to a listserv devoted to parsing the mystery surrounding and embedded within the hundred-odd film clips. All three of these aspects of Cayce's life will be brought together when she is enlisted by Hubertus Bigend, an advertising genius out of Belgium who looks like Tom Cruise but with too many teeth in his smile, to unearth the maker. Meanwhile, she has to parry the malicious thrusts - and worse - of an industrial espionage expert, Dorotea Benedetti, who has her own reasons for beating Cayce to the maker.

It is Cayce's character, sympathetically drawn, that keeps Pattern Recognition fresh and lively. Mr Gibson is almost in love with his heroine, but only almost; he sees her clearly enough to avoid the wish-fulfilling besottedness of a beach book. Put MZanother way, Cayce defines herself against, not in terms of, commodified luxury.

Twenty minutes later, in Shibuya, she's settling in to a hot-rocks massage that she hasn't asked for, in a twilit room on the fifteenth floor of a cylindrical building that vaguely resembles part of a Wurlitzer jukebox. None of these women speak English but she's decided just to go with the program, whatever it is, and count on getting her hair cut at some point in the process.
Which she does, in great and alien luxury, for the better part of four hours, though it proves to involve a kelp wrap, a deep facial, manifold tweezings and pluckings, a manicure, a pedicure, a lower-leg wax and close-call avoidance of a bikini job.
When she tries to pay with the Blue Ant card, they giggle and wave it away. She tries again and one of them points to the card's Blue Ant logo. Either Blue Ant has an account, she decides, or they do Blue Ant's models and this is a freebie.
Walking back out into Shibuya sunlight, she feels simultaneously lighter and less intelligent, as though she's left more than a few brain cells back there with the other scruff. She's wearing more makeup than she'd usually apply in a month, but it's been brushed on by Zen-calm professionals, swaying to some kind of Japanese Enya-equivalent.
The first mirror she sees herself in stops her. Her hair, she has to admit, is really something, some paradoxical state between sleek and tousled. Anime hair, rendered in hi-rez.
The rest of the image isn't working though. [Her clothes] can't stand up to this sushi-chef level of cosmetic presentation.

By convincing us that Cayce is not accustomed to this 'great and alien luxury,' he saves her from our envy and/or contempt. In fact we worry about and root for Cayce all the way. While her adventures rarely reach thriller proportions, she seems always to be in some kind of danger, and the menace that leads from episode to episode considerably dampens the desirability of her lifestyle.

Pattern Recognition is set in London (Camden Town, mostly), Tokyo, and Moscow, with flashbacks to 9-11 in New York, the disaster in which Cayce believes her father, an intelligence worker in his own right, perished. Having actually seen the Towers fall, she has found that her bad reaction to certain marketing strategies now includes an aversion to television news. The urban landscapes will probably not enlighten readers not already familiar with their prototypes, but anyone who has stayed at a Park Hyatt hotel will recognize that chain's very distinctive version of luxe, calme et volupté. (June 2003)

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