William Gibson and the impossible
by Molly Templeton
William Gibson’s Zero History (G.P. Putnam’s Son, $26.95) is the third in a series that Gibson, on Twitter, calls “the Bigend books,” a loose trilogy directed by the whims of rich, peculiar Hubertus Bigend. In 2007’s excellent Spook Country, Bigend sent singer-turned-journalist Hollis Henry in search of a reclusive practitioner of “locative art.” Now, an indeterminate time period later, Hollis has absolutely zero interest in working again for Bigend — whom she thinks of as “an overly wealthy, dangerously curious fiddler with the world’s hidden architecture” — but the market has half destroyed her, and though Hollis would never admit as much, there’s something to the world in which Bigend’s quests take place. Looking for his impossible things involves dipping into a sort of cultural source code, finding a place where lines of thought, marketing and art link up and transform into the powers that drive the world.
There’s capitalism in Bigend’s curiosity — he’s interested in the “hugely better profit margins” possible in military garment contracts — but there’s also art and idealism. This time, he wants the secrets of the Gabriel Hounds. Impossible to come by and difficult to describe, Gabriel Hounds is a clothing brand that seems to defy marketing itself. Pieces can be obtained only at drops announced via email. One per person. They’re dark and heavy and nondescript, and when Bigend’s associates leave a Hounds jacket for Hollis, she, notably, almost never takes it off.
Bigend’s wealth and connections grease the wheels for Hollis, but what really works in her favor is her recognizability. Hollis was the singer in a ’90s band called The Curfew. They had a moment of popularity that Gibson is careful to never too precisely define; people recognize Hollis, but only some people. Only the people who need to, really. Her face is her calling card; her celebrity, minor as it may be, opens doors. People want to talk to her.
They are less warm toward Milgrim, Bigend’s other unusual hire. A former Ativan addict with a strong grasp of idiomatic Russian, Milgrim tends to go unnoticed. Who notices him, and why, is a second thread of Zero History’s plot, which also loops in Hollis’ former drummer, Heidi Hyde; her absent semi-boyfriend, a BASE jumper known only as Garreth; members of other bands; London motorcycle couriers; and, of course, Bigend’s competition.
But Zero History, as engrossing and propulsive as it is, isn’t a plotty book. Nor is it a character study; Gibson draws his cast quickly, in short, sharp lines that bring them instantly into focus, and then he sets them to watching as the world reveals new pieces of itself. Gibson’s last few books feel less like he’s creating a new world — as he did, monumentally, in Neuromancer — and more like he’s peering through the layers of this precise time, uncovering the unexpected connections and shifting forces that ride along with us through ordinary days, caught up in electronics and information streams from laptops to cheap cell phones to Twitter. Surveillance is a constant issue, but more important is interpretation: the shifting of military style into menswear; the demand created by a brand that’s unobtainable. Hollis, ever adaptable, and Milgrim, growing back into himself, interpret the narrative of their investigation differently, but they come to the same place in the end.
Zero History is a mystery, but not very mysterious; it’s prescient, but not science fiction. Gibson’s characters are observers — Bigend selects his reluctant employees for that habit — which means their endless comments on 21st century culture fit both their characters and the smart, thoughtful tone of the book, which whirls together disparate pieces into a whole that feels almost documentarian: This is happening, somewhere, or could be, or will be tomorrow. In the sphere of Bigend’s peculiar influence, Jankel-armored Toyotas, elaborately decorated private hotels, floating penguins and secrets that everyone knows a small piece of are all pulled together in service of a strange goal — the subtext of Bigend’s quests, which are ultimately concerned with what Milgrim refers to as “order flow.” It’s a technical term for the greatest secret of all: what happens next.
Zero History is out Tuesday, Sept. 7; William Gibson reads at 7 pm Wednesday, Sept. 8, at Powell’s in Portland.