Pattern Recognition

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282

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?

Illustration of PDF document

Download Pattern Recognition Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1682

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 pretext for an audition of sorts—and Cayce passes the test with flying colors. Although she does not like Bigend, she accepts the assignment; the fascination of the footage is too strong to resist.

Meanwhile, for reasons not yet clear, other forces—represented most notably by the malign Dorotea Benedetti, a graphics design executive and industrial spy—are seeking to frighten and discourage Cayce sufficiently to send her home. They follow her to Tokyo and bedevil her there even as, with the help of Parkaboy, she is beginning to hone in on the source of footage. Ultimately the quest leads to Moscow, where Cayce meets Stella Volkova, a young Russian woman whose twin sister, Nora, is the maker; Stella is the disseminator. Both, as it turns out, have a great deal of help.

Stella explains that their parents were killed by enemies of their uncle, who has become one of the richest men in Russia in the post-Soviet era and for whom the twins’ father worked. The method was remote detonation of a U.S.-issue claymore mine that somehow found its way into the hands of the Russian mafia. In the explosion, Stella suffered only minor injuries, but Nora was terribly wounded, rendered near-catatonic, and a fragment of the mine is still lodged in her brain, impossible to remove because of its location. A numerical coding embedded in each segment of the footage has led Parkaboy and a fellow Web savant to construct a “map” that turns out to correspond to this fragment. When, at last, Cayce is able to see Nora at work in a darkened studio, she knows that she is:

in the presence of the splendid source, the headwaters of the digital Nile she and her friends had sought. It is here, in the languid yet precise moves of a woman’s pale hand. In the faint click of image-capture. In the eyes only truly present when focused on this screen.

Only the wound, speaking wordlessly in the dark.

This is the climactic moment of pattern recognition in a novel that explores this theme on many levels. Perhaps Gibson is suggesting metaphorically—as many have before him—that art typically grows from pain and loss. In a short autobiographical essay that was part of the press kit for Pattern Recognition, Gibson begins with science-fiction novelist Gene Wolfe’s observation that “being an only child whose parents are dead is like being the sole survivor of drowned Atlantis. There was a whole civilization there, an entire continent, but it’s gone. And you alone remember.” So it is with him, Gibson says—his father died when Gibson was six years old, his mother when he was eighteen—and he approvingly cites another science-fiction master, Brian Aldiss, who “believes that if you look at the life of any novelist, you’ll find an early traumatic break.”

Perhaps so—or perhaps this is an example of what Win Pollard, Cayce’s father, warned her against: “apophenia,” the “perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things.” Certainly Gibson himself is keenly aware that apophenia is a persistent human temptation. “What if the sense of nascent meaning they all perceive in the footage is simply that,” Cayce wonders: “an illusion of meaningfulness, faulty pattern recognition.” There is a strain of modern thought—some would say the dominant strain in contemporary art, whatever the medium—which argues that all human attempts to see meaningfulness in the world is illusory in just this way.

Gibson’s novel argues otherwise. While the unfolding action shows how easy it is to fall prey to “faulty pattern recognition,” and while the footage remains enigmatic even when its maker is found and that “sense of nascent meaning” is magnificently vindicated—the connections, in other words, are far from neat, the meaning vibrant but elusive—Pattern Recognition shows that it is in the act of finding meaning, in the act of pattern recognition, that humans are most themselves, and what they are finding, at their best, is real. Hence the shadow of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, whose collapse on September 11, 2001—remembered by Cayce—haunts the entire book, the quintessentially, inescapably real, “an experience outside of culture,” Gibson writes.

Indeed, Gibson builds into the novel an awareness not only of the dangers of apophenia but also of its opposite: a refusal—because of preconceptions—to acknowledge connections, patterns, even if they are virtually hitting one in the face. While Cayce greatly respects her father, a security consultant who was in the vicinity of the towers on September 11 and is presumed dead, though his body has never been found, she has little patience for the obsessions of her mother, who is part of “an intentional community of sorts” in Hawaii, dedicated to “Electronic Voice Phenomena” (EVP): “They scrutinize miles of audiotape, some of it fresh from its factory wrap, listening for voices of the dead.”

Strange things happen in the course of the story. On several occasions when she is in peril, Cayce seems to sense her father’s presence or even hear his voice, telling her what to do. This sense saves her life. (On the last such occasion, she has the certainty that he is now departing for good and will not “visit” her again.) Stranger still, at one point Cayce’s mother passes on several EVP “messages” that she is sure are from Win to Cayce. At the time, Cayce is struck by the “banal, inchoate, utterly baffling nature of the supposed messages” in which her poor, nutty mother fervently believes. Subsequent events, however, invest these fragments with meaning—for instance, “Cayce, the bone . . . In the head, Cayce.” Is it apophenia, with a vengeance, a little authorial joke, or something more—a warning against foreclosing possibilities? Gibson, as one might expect, leaves it for the reader to decide.

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.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial