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Book review: 'Distrust That Particular Flavor' by William Gibson

This new collection of nonfiction opens a window into the groundbreaking novelist's thoughts on contemporary culture and his own inner workings.

February 12, 2012|By Margaret Wappler, Los Angeles Times
  • William Gibson's latest is a collection of nonfiction.
William Gibson's latest is a collection of nonfiction. (Michael O'Shea, Penguin…)

Distrust That Particular Flavor

William Gibson

G.P. Putnam: 272 pp., $26.95

Canadian cyberpunk soothsayer William Gibson has been much celebrated for his prediction of some nascent form of the Internet in his 1984 debut "Neuromancer," but his new collection of nonfiction shows that his secret strong suit is with the here and the now.

"Distrust That Particular Flavor," which yokes together short essays Gibson wrote for Wired, Rolling Stone, Time Asia, as well as various conference speeches and book introductions, crackles to life when he writes about Singapore and Japan in the '90s and early '00s. In one of the snappy one-liners that streak the book, he describes Singapore as "relentlessly G-rated," the product that would have resulted "if IBM had ever bothered to actually possess a physical country."

Japan has been the setting for many of Gibson's novels, including 2003's "Pattern Recognition," and it's little wonder why: The country, as Gibson states in his piece "Modern Boys and Mobile Girls," is "the global imagination's default setting for the future."

Writing for the Observer, Gibson describes a relationship between Japan and London, which at first might seem a trumped-up scheme designed to please a British editor. But it serves as one of the sturdiest bits of architecture in a book filled with essays that sometimes float so far off in the theoretical future that they threaten to dissipate into nanoparticles that will eventually get sucked into the black dwarf of our collective reading conscious. In other words, you'll forget some of them 10 minutes later.

In "Modern Boys," Gibson writes that "London is somehow the best place from which to observe Tokyo, perhaps because the British appreciation of things Japanese is the most entertaining. There is a certain tradition of 'Orientalia,' of faux Oriental that has been present here for a long time, and truly, there is something in the quality of a good translation that can never be captured in the original."

Herein lies one of Gibson's most incisive gifts: his appreciation for the undersung, the copy, and how it can proliferate. Not the original, because as recontextualization, mash-ups, memes and other clever varietals of simulacra have possibly forever detonated our sense of originality and authenticity, the first is simply the start of an idea and not necessarily the best iteration, at that. Instead, Gibson knows that each copy adds more nuance to the object of our cultural fascination, imparted in its own weird, sometimes trashy but wholly individual code. The moments in "Distrust" where he translates the details of those codes are among the collection's best.

London, he says, "can reflect Japan, distort it, enjoy it, in ways that Vancouver, where I live, never can." In Gibson's writing, he functions as London does but to the past; he reflects it, distorts it and then projects it into the future. Or more precisely, he finds certain fun-house experiments already happening in the culture and then he takes those ideas and extrapolates them to their hysterical end in fiction. Take his massive urban environment, the Sprawl, used in "Neuromancer" and other books and short stories, a city that spawns so much of itself that it's monstrous.

Whether in the past or in the "endless digital Now," Gibson says the Future, the capital-F preoccupation of so much science fiction, "be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive postnuclear wasteland," is gone. But this is a good thing. "It indicates a kind of maturity, an understanding that every future is someone else's past, every present someone else's future."

The correlation to the thrifter's adage "one man's trash is another's treasure" isn't incidental. In the essay "My Obsession," the same writer who semi-seriously ponders whether we'll have microchips in our heads one day — quick answer: maybe — details his hours spent deep in the bowels of EBay searching for vintage watches. He pines for an object long gone, a Rolex Oyster he sold to buy a hotel room for a doomed tryst with his high school sweetheart, a passing anecdote that glimmers with a hint of raw emotion, something the analytical Gibson doesn't touch nearly enough.

In his introduction to "Distrust," Gibson confesses that writing nonfiction feels like trying to play the African thumb piano, an instrument he scarcely knows. In certain pieces, he fumbles and sometimes overwrites in frenzied response. His lusty letter of Steely Dan fandom only adds to the band's reputation for attracting insufferable fancy lads prone to dissecting Donald Fagen's every tequila reference, and his preface to "Labyrinths" by Jorge Luis Borges, one of his heroes, finds him clearly cowed by the assignment.

But as in his intro, Gibson often admits his failings in the notes after each piece. One of his descriptions of the Internet provides a clue to his working methodology. "It is like rummaging in the forefront of the collective global mind," he muses. "Somewhere, surely, there is a site that contains… everything we have lost?"

margaret.wappler@latimes.com

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