Pattern Recognition

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In William Gibson’s seventh novel, Cayce (pronounced Case) Pollard travels from New York to London to evaluate a footwear logo. Ironically for someone in her profession, she hates trademarks, removing all from her clothing, and is actually terrified of the Michelin man. The most meaningful aspect of her life is following “the footage,” 135 pieces of film available on the Web. Are they segments of a unified whole? What are their maker’s goals? Where and who is the maker? Cayce’s employer, a Belgian billionaire, asks her to find out. Can she trust him? Can she trust anyone? Who is following her and why?

Gibson’s tale works well as a mystery and as a character study. Many novels about the postmodern world offer mere figureheads as protagonists, but Cayce is well rounded, resourceful, and sympathetic: a lost soul as Everywoman. Pattern Recognition examines the ways the Internet creates unlikely communities, while recognizing the need of the individual, even cynics like Cayce, to be part of communities.

While the novel is intelligent and well written, it lacks that extra element that would elevate it to a higher level. Gibson is often compared to Thomas Pynchon, clearly a major influence here, as are Martin Amis and Don DeLillo, but Pattern Recognition resembles less the Pynchon of V. (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) than the one of The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). It is an admirable but lesser achievement.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 6 (November 15, 2002): 548.

Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 22 (November 15, 2002): 1641-1642.

Library Journal 128, no. 2 (February 1, 2003): 116.

New Scientist 178, no. 2397 (May 31, 2003): 50-51.

The New York Times Book Review, January 19, 2003, p. 7.

The New Yorker 78, no. 45 (February 3, 2003): 87.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 3 (January 20, 2003): 57-58.

Time 161, no. 6 (February 10, 2003): 80.

The Times Literary Supplement, May 2, 2003, p. 24.

Pattern Recognition

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Pattern Recognition is William Gibson’s first novel since All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), which concluded the trilogy that began with Virtual Light (1993) and continued with Idoru (1996). In that most obvious sense, this book marks a point of departure. In other ways as well, while clearly in continuity with Gibson’s earlier work all the way back to his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), Pattern Recognition is different from anything the author has done before. It is his first novel set in the present—a bold departure for a writer of science fiction, even though his recent novels have been set in the very near future. It is different in style, being far less fragmented and having a narrative point of view that hews closely to the present-tense experience of the protagonist, Cayce Pollard. Its emotional texture is strikingly different from that in Gibson’s characteristic works, allowing for deep sentiment (especially Cayce’s love for her father, Win) that is not undercut by reflexive irony.

Cayce Pollard is a “coolhunter.” As she explains, “I hunt ‘cool,’ though I don’t like to describe it that way. Manufacturers use me to keep track of street fashion. . . . What I do is pattern recognition. I try to recognize a pattern before anyone else does.” (In this she resembles earlier Gibson creations, especially Colin Laney of Idoru, “an intuitive fisher of patterns of information.”)

Like much else in the book that might appear to be purely fictitious, Cayce’s profession is a real one. (See, for example, Malcolm Gladwell’s March 17, 1997, article in The New Yorker, “The Coolhunt”: “Who decides what’s cool? Certain kids in certain places—and only the coolhunters know who they are.”) Cayce, however, is a coolhunter the way Sherlock Holmes is a detective: mundane reality cubed, endowed with a quirky genius and a cluster of endearing peculiarities and vulnerabilities.

Like Holmes, she’s well-nigh infallible when exercising her gift. (“She’s met the very Mexican who first wore his baseball cap backward.”) Holmes, too, was in the business of pattern recognition, finding the coherent explanation that makes sense of a bewildering array of “evidence.” Whereas Holmes prides himself on deduction, Cayce works by instinct: Given a proposed design for a new logo, for example, she knows instantly, without conscious thought, whether it will work or not. So sensitive is her reaction to style and fashion that she is violently allergic to certain trademarks and brands: The Michelin Man makes her ill, and anything by designer Tommy Hilfiger sets her off. Pattern Recognition is Gibson’s funniest book and is all the funnier for never seeming to try too hard.

While Holmes sought solace in the violin—and, now and then, in cocaine—Cayce’s refuge is “the footage,” a series of enigmatic video frames released anonymously on the World Wide Web, one at a time and at unpredictable intervals, 135 in all so far. Each segment is like a tiny bit of a motion picture. How do the segments connect? Who is responsible for their creation? (Some devotees nominate this or that famous film director, others posit an unknown genius, a “Garage Kubrick.”) Cayce and her fellow footageheads—including her friend Parkaboy, as he is styled in his e-mails, whom she has never met in person—debate such questions endlessly at an online chat forum devoted to the subject.

As the novel begins in the summer of 2002, Cayce has come from New York (where she lives) to London to do a quick consulting job for Blue Ant, an avant-garde international advertising agency founded by Hubertus Bigend, a formidable and wealthy Belgian. The real reason Bigend has brought Cayce to London is to see her coolhunting intuition at work. He is trying to discover the source of the footage—he sees its dissemination as a brilliant exercise in marketing, and he want to exploit it. Cayce, he suspects, might be capable of finding the maker, given sufficient resources. The consulting job is thereby a...

(The entire section is 1682 words.)