The Relentless Pursuit of What It All Means: William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition

Copyright © 2003 by William Gibson. Cover design by Archie Ferguson.

Eyes closed, she finds herself imagining a symbol, something watermarking the lower right-hand corner of her existence.  It is there, just beyond some periphery, beyond the physical, beyond vision, and it marks her as… what?

That passage alone is as good a summary as any for one of William Gibson‘s most recent tales, Pattern Recognition.  It is a story of mystery, classic film noir executed by a thoroughly modern woman.

The Story

Our main character is Cayce Pollard, a “coolhunter” who specializes in helping companies re-brand themselves and finding out what’s going to be the Next Big Thing.  When she gets hired to investigate the origins behind a series of un-sourced videos that are generating a lot of excitement on the Web, Cayce finds herself drawn into an intricate conspiracy based around corporate logos, the Russian Mafia, and the mysterious disappearance of her father on the morning of September 11, 2001.  To get to the bottom, she must rely on her father’s wisdom–garnered from a career in Cold War espionage–and her own image-sensitive instincts to survive, let alone unravel the truth behind the conspiracy and the source of these mysterious videos.

The Style

This story is just fascinating from start to finish.  It’s not a page-turning thriller in the sense that a Tom Clancy or Dan Brown novel might be, but it’s still effective and well-written.  Right up to the climax, the reader is left wondering along with Cayce whether she really is seeing the patterns or just suffering from apophenia (that is, seeing patterns in what is really just random data) and wondering just which of her friends is really trustworthy.  Gibson also demonstrates–through Cayce’s recollections of her missing father, Win–a good understanding of the “culture” of paranoia that the Cold War developed in both the West and the Soviet Union.

I also feel that this story is perhaps one of the best snapshots of life in the twenty-first century.  Gibson captures a lot of what has become commonplace in the modern age: the effects of globalization, the ease of instant communications and file sharing, the phenomenon of viral videos, the subculture of Internet forums, and the insecurities felt by Americans after the September 11 bombings.  It is all in here and it all ties into the plot.

The Connection

As I got deeper into the novel, I found myself comparing it to another conspiracy-driven story: The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.  Lot 49 is about a 1960s housewife named Oedipa Maas who goes on a hunt for information about a mysterious group called “Tristero” that may or may not be an elaborate hoax.  Although they came from different eras and work in different backgrounds, I could see a lot of similarity between Oedipa and Cayce, especially in their sensitivity to particular symbols that tugs at their curiosity and motivates their journeys.  Lot 49 is still one of my favorite stories, and remembering that was probably what helped me enjoy this story all the same.

Final Verdict

As a final note, I leave you, dear reader, with these lines that may also be an accurate summation of the story, a diagnosis of Cayce Pollard’s predicament, or perhaps a perspective about the modern psyche:

We have no future because our present is too volatile… We have only risk management.  The spinning of the given moment’s scenario.  Pattern recognition.

Bibliography: Gibson, William.  Pattern Recognition.  New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 2003.

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