Sunday, August 03, 2008

'Spook Country,' William Gibson

"Obscurity is much praised by elitists, but I disdain it. The audience starts out knowing nothing about your story. It's your job, as a storyteller, to let them in on it. … What takes talent is clarity." —Orson Scott Card

Well, William Gibson don't do clarity, and that's the primary reason why I'm one of the only people I know who loves his novels. He is, almost exclusively, purposefully and doggedly obtuse. He drops you into his novels like you should already know what's going on, which, of course, you never do. I take long gaps between Gibson reads, because my mind has to be sharp and in tip-top shape to keep up with them.

All that being said, his latest novel, 2007's "Spook Country," stinks. The second novel he's written in the present (as opposed to his uncannily imagined future), this work is marred by too much intention. It's easy to imagine a situation where Gibson heard the news reports about "illegal wiretapping" and decided to write a novel about it. Or, in the least, that's the idea that set him off into "Spook Country," which deals tangentially in government conspiracies, no-bid contracts, and the like. For the first time, a Gibson novel reads along the lines of a DNC talking points memo. In a book that is so disjointed, murky, and impenetrable (even for Gibson), these obviously political references stick out like a black-helicopter strobe light in the middle of a pitch-dark night. (Speaking of "dark knights" (OK, sorta), the brilliant Christopher Nolan film does a much better job engaging this issue of surveillance than Gibson's book does).

The most egregious fault of "Spook Country," though, comes back to Gibson's actual writing. The story centers around three central characters, and Gibson devotes a chapter to each back-to-back-to-back almost exclusively until the book reaches its conclusion and the individual plotlines begin to merge. The chapters are quite brief, many less than two pages, so you never really get to know the characters at all or feel anything for them, which has always been a strong point for Gibson. One of the three (I won't tell you which one), serves almost no purpose whatsoever, and having read through the entire novel I still cannot figure out why he receives so much ink.

It's less than 30 minutes until the first Redskins' preseason game begins, and I feel I'm not being very clear, and certainly not very poignant, in my criticism, so I should just end here. "Spook Country" simply tries too hard, even for Gibson. In identifying so clearly the target of his paranoia, Gibson in turn forfeited his ability to pinpoint cultural phenomena, a skill he has been so freakishly accurate with in the past. It's the first book of his I haven't enjoyed at any level, no matter how difficult he always is to read.

Grade: C-

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