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Reviewed by Bill Sheehan
Sunday, July 22, 2007

Spook Country

By William Gibson

Putnam. 371 pp. $25.95

William Gibson has spent the bulk of his career creating vivid, intensely detailed fictional futures that reflect, with uncanny precision, the rapidly shifting realities of contemporary life. This tendency was evident in his first novel, Neuromancer, which works both as an ingeniously constructed cyber thriller and as a meditation on the impact of information technology on every aspect of human society. When, in 2003, Gibson abandoned science fiction to produce an up-to-the-minute mainstream novel called Pattern Recognition, it came as no real surprise. In his way, Gibson has always written about the here and now. But with that book, he began a remarkable exploration of post-9/11 America that continues, with undiminished vigor, in Spook Country.

Like its predecessor, Spook Country depicts a world transformed by globalization, by the threat -- and memory -- of terrorist attacks, and by the presence of proliferating technologies. But though they are set in what is recognizably the same world, these are distinctly different books. Pattern Recognition explored, among other things, the nature and practice of advertising, the power of images and the subliminal code that helps determine success or failure in the global marketplace. Spook Country, by contrast, is an overtly political book that takes an unsparing look at a country awash in confusion, fear and pervasive paranoia, a country torn apart by an endless, unpopular war in Iraq.

The plot proceeds along parallel tracks that converge in the later stages of the novel. The first concerns Hollis Henry, former lead singer for a defunct rock band called the Curfew. Hollis is now a journalist freelancing for a fledgling magazine called Node, a "European version of Wired" that has yet to publish a single issue. Its guiding spirit is Hubertus Bigend, a figure familiar to readers of Pattern Recognition. Bigend, an advertising wunderkind who trolls the culture for potentially profitable anomalies, sends Hollis in search of an eccentric recluse named Bobby Chombo. Bobby is the acknowledged master of an advanced form of Global Positioning Software used in a radical new art form called Locative Art, which builds virtual images of actual events (such as the death of film star River Phoenix) in the precise locations where these events occurred. But, as Hollis will eventually learn, Bobby's expertise has other, less esthetic, applications.

Supporting narratives involve two small groups of players, each fundamentally opposed to the other. One centers on Tito, the youngest member of a Cuban/Chinese crime family based in New York City. Tito works for a mysterious old man who is -- or may once have been -- an important figure in American intelligence circles. Together, the two act out an elaborate charade aimed at passing crucial disinformation to the final group of players. The leader of this last contingent is Brown, a brusque, obsessive right-wing loyalist with unspecified connections to the American government. Brown is determined to capture Tito, the old man and the data he believes they possess, data that casts an unflattering light on the American adventure in Iraq.

These disparate storylines ultimately converge around a single common goal: a mysterious cargo container that is moving, by a circuitous route, toward an unknown destination. The container and its contents comprise what Hitchcock -- whose name is invoked in the novel -- called a MacGuffin: the single, crucial element around which everything in the narrative revolves. (The use of such Hitchcockian devices, which include the high-tech sunglasses in Virtual Light and the mysterious footage in Pattern Recognition, has become a common motif in Gibson's fiction.) Once the elements are in place, the action shifts from a variety of locales (New York, Los Angeles, Washington) to the port city of Vancouver, where the container and its contents meet a surprising fate.

Despite a full complement of thieves, pushers and pirates, Spook Country is less a conventional thriller than a devastatingly precise reflection of the American zeitgeist, and it bears comparison to the best work of Don DeLillo. Although he is a very different sort of writer, Gibson, like DeLillo, writes fiction that is powerfully attuned to the currents of dread, dismay and baffled fury that permeate our culture. Spook Country-- which is a beautifully multi-leveled title -- takes an unflinching look at that culture. With a clear eye and a minimum of editorial comment, Gibson shows us a country that has drifted dangerously from its governing principles, evoking a kind of ironic nostalgia for a time when, as one character puts it, "grown-ups still ran things." In Spook Country, Gibson takes another large step forward and reaffirms his position as one of the most astute and entertaining commentators on our astonishing, chaotic present. ยท

Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree" and is co-editor of the recent anthology "Lords of the Razor."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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