Return to Zero History (review)

I am a fan of William Gibson, although probably not much more than people in my demographic. Although I have read many of Gibson's works, and actively seek them out, I seem to undergo a predictable phase of amnesia whenever I begin reading them, which goes through the following phases:

  1. What is going on here? I am confused. What is this even about? This makes no sense.
  2. What did I ever like about this? What is the point of all this? This is ridiculous!
  3. Oh, I get it...wow, he weaved this pretty fine!

Perhaps one day I will never reach beyond phase 1 or 2, and the magic of Gibson's spell will wear off. But in "Zero History", I went through the stage of confusion with Gibson's bewildering array of characters and my dislike of his portrayal of a hyper-bourgeois/hipster lifestyle, and found the story buried beneath.

Zero History is, like much of Gibson's work, a spy novel, not all that much different from the thrillers that are bought at grocery stores. It is not a conventional spy story, involving the attempts of Belgian advertising entrepreneur Hubertus Bigend to acquire a contract for designing military clothing, which brings him into conflict with a rogue military operative who also wants to get into that business, leading to a McGuffin laden chase and fight scene. The plot isn't really that important, as much as what else Gibson is developing with this book.

The problem is, even though I enjoyed the book, and enjoyed Gibson's descriptive and quirk laden twist on the spy genre, I am somewhat befuddled with that Gibson is doing here. How in earnest is he?

Chosen somewhat at random, is a quote from the book:

But here was a small camera shop as well. He went in, bought a Chinese card-reader from a pleasant Persian man in gold-rimmed glasses and a natty cardigan.
The characters spend most of their time drifting from one fashionable restaurant or boutique to another, with detailed descriptions of the expensive, trendy clothing/food/electronic equipment they are buying, wearing or using being the main way the book establishes character, mood and setting.

Which Gibson does beautifully. The detail he throws in is evocative and interesting.

But the question (to me) is: is Gibson the journal or the journalist? Is his tale of rootless international punk musicians, marketing executives and fashion models who are described by the products they buy a subtle and deeply-cutting parody, or does Gibson think that the average educated American reader really thinks the idea of wearing an "anti-marketed" jacket to be the height of accomplishment? Is Gibson parodying "cool" consumerism or endorsing it?

Of course, it is possible just to read the book as an intriguing story, but for the type of people who read Gibson's books, the question "What is this about?" will probably pop up. And perhaps, as is often the case, what the reader takes away from the book is more important than what the author intended.

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