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'Pattern Recognition' by William Gibson

Irritating heroine distracts from unique approach

Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Anne Jolis

William Gibson has written an intriguing and unique novel; the problem is, he has about 30 other novels tucked between its pages.

"Pattern Recognition"

By William Gibson

Putnam ($25.95)


Gibson tells the story of two very strange weeks in the life of 30-something Cayce Pollard, a market-research consultant/street fighter/femme fatale/jet-setter/spy.

Luckily, each of these guises comes with its own armory of state-of-the-art technology and an obscene expense account, poor girl.

The novel is written entirely in third-person, present tense, but that's not what makes the language bizarre and often incoherent. Rather, it is the constant, unadulterated "hipster-technocrat, cyber-MTV" lingo -- overdone, and inappropriate for the story (all of them).

Gibson's many sci-fi fans have surely come to expect this kind of voice from him, since his works have been lauded as today's creme de la creme of futuristic fantasy.

But the language really has no place (or at least, a much less obtrusive one) in this book. The novel takes place in the present, and all of the technology, though sophisticated, is real and available at any large university.

The heart of the book lies in Pollard's confused family history, her current love life and international espionage adventures.

There are no alien landings, no time travel, not even a few gamma rays. This is not science fiction, so why does it sound like it?

The language is distracting and confusing, and, worst of all, it makes me feel dumb. (I'm not.)

The other main issue that any reader of this book will need to deal with is the fact that the aforementioned Cayce Pollard (our heroine) is possibly the most irritating nudge in recent fiction. She has everything going for her -- looks, brains, an exciting career, more than enough money, and interesting friends.

She gets to travel all over the world and gets paid large sums of money simply to say "yes" or "no" to the ad executives who show her their new logo ideas. But here's the nudge part:

Why does she get paid so much to say yes or no to a doodle on a piece of mat board? Because she is allergic to brand names and logos (Tommy Hilfiger and the Michelin Man are her worst triggers). So, supposedly, if the company's logo doesn't make her vomit, they run it. Mm-hmm.

This unbelievable and annoying "affliction," along with her moodiness, sulking, and what she herself refers to as "soul-delay," is interesting for 10 seconds, but then I wanted to throw her into the trunk of my car and drop her off at the Waterfront or some other logo-infested and "soul-delayed" hole, just to impress upon her that "mildly OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), highly egocentric spoiled brat" is not the original definition of the word "sensitive" (which seems to be what Gibson was shooting for).

She's a mousy brunette Daddy's Girl (her dead father being Plot No. 37) who wants only to browse the Internet and sleep and who simply doesn't know the meaning of the phrase "deal with it."

Still, if you can manage to shrug off how painful Gibson's heroine is, read through the Britney Spears-Bill Gates-love-child-with-paranoid-schizophrenia language, and if you can manage to keep track of the smorgasbord of plot lines (most of which are quite gripping, though not, as they say, "necessary"), you'll have fun.

There are some great insights into each of the cities that Pollard visits, a few obscure and fascinating history and CIA lessons to be had, and several genuinely touching scenes.

The book covers some engaging philosophical ideas with style and humor as well. With a little concentration, readers are sure to close the book with some new ideas haunting their heads.

Gibson is a talented author, and the novel is worth reading. Just keep me away from the heroine -- I'd like to give her a good smack.

Anne Jolis studies writing and philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University.

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