Benjamin's Reviews > Distrust That Particular Flavor

Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson
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's review
May 30, 2012

bookshelves: bedside-reading

William Gibson is one of my default answers for "favorite living novelist" questions, and this collection of non-fiction shows about 50% of why that's so--all it's missing is a plot and some characters.

The pieces in this book are an eclectic mix of articles (both newspaper and magazine), introductions to books, speeches, and a blog post; the pieces not written for the book range from 1989 to 2010, but there's a definite focus to the book: the 1989 piece is an article for Rolling Stone about the experience of "the Net" and new technology, while the 2010 piece is a talk at Book Expo about the increasing encroachment of the Future on the Now. This is pretty standard Gibson territory: not so much predicting technology, but talking about our disjunctive and joyful relationship with the future, which is now. (Then again, that focus may be a result of what sort of topics Gibson is asked to cover for these magazines and other outlets.)

One reason why I like William Gibson's work is his attention to the stuff our dreams are made of, and vice versa--the dreams our stuff has made possible. And a lot of these pieces deliver both that attention and that dreaminess as Gibson talks about various media platforms and the digital cut-up/re-mix culture, with promises of Johnny's future entertainment system, that extrudes an action figure that Johnny has composed: "It is a woman, posed balletically, as if in flight on John Wu wires. It is Meryl Streep, as she appears in The Hours. She has the head of a Chihuahua." ("Up the Line" (2003))

So this collection might be of interest if you're thinking about media, about future stuff, about the transformation of lived experience when confronted with unadulterated Newness, which soon becomes quite adulterated. Gibson: “My first impulse when presented with any spanking-new piece of computer hardware, is to imagine how it will look in ten years’ time, gathering dust under a card table in a thrift shop.” ("My Obsession" (1999)) This is what makes Gibson so electrically interesting to me: he's neither a techno-fetishist like some of the techier punks nor a techno-dystopian like many literary writers. If Gibson occasionally sounds like Videodrome's Brian O'Blivion when he talks about how the internet is part of our nervous system now, that might seem triumphalist to some, but it just sounds descriptive to me.

It's also obviously (perhaps too obviously) of interest to people who like Gibson's fiction, since here he often takes out for a test drive images or characters that soon find their way into his work (e.g., the Garage Kubrick, the MacGuffin of Pattern Recognition); or gives some behind the scene post-mortem on the experience of making this work ("The Baddest Dude on Earth" (2002) is basically a well-deserved love-letter to Takeshi Kitano, who was in the movie Johnny Mnemonic). A lot of these works have a personal slant; so, for instance, Gibson failed to write an intro to a H. G. Wells novel because what he produced was more about him than about Wells, which is part of the charm, I think. His essay on his eBay obsession--mechanical watches from the 1940s and 50s--makes me salivate over the objects he's describing, but it makes me feel even sharper Gibson's own feeling of adoration.

This personal slant occasionally keeps the pieces feeling very chatty, as when he writes about a new Steely Dan album, “I’m not a reviewer: I just want to say I like this record a lot, O.K.?” ("Any 'Mount of World" (2000)) This is part of Gibson's charm but also his problem as a non-fiction writer: as he notes in the intro, he's really not a non-fiction writer in any sense that we know of. He's not a critic or a reviewer or even an essayist in anything but the original, Montaignean meaning (some of these pieces do feel like essays, that is, attempts, tries to describe some issue). There's no front-to-back argument in this book, no reason to read these pieces in the order given (which is not-at-all chronological). I really enjoyed these essays, and I can see myself dipping in to read a few again in the future, but that's probably the correct way to approach this book: not reading for the book, but dipping for the thoughts.

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