Top critical review
strangely underwhelming for a huge fan of his fiction
Reviewed in the United States on April 27, 2013
I LOVE Gibson's fiction. I started, of course, with the Sprawl trilogy, back in the time of Sony cassette Walkmen. In the time that has elapsed -- the past 25 years -- Gibson's writing style has changed, but it has never lost its evocative edge nor the often wistful, yearning quality of many of his characters. I read every novel and short story he published, including the collaboration with Bruce Sterling (The Difference Engine, which I _loved_).
Yet I didn't follow his nonfiction unless it happened to occur by surprise in something I was reading for a totally different reason (an issue of Rolling Stone, for example). And I couldn't get into his blog for the same reason I couldn't get into most people's blogs: it seemed like a waste of time, sometimes, when there is already too little time in my life, and though it was free and his books were not, the blog was not a hit of the Gibson fiction I was jones-ing for. It wasn't that his blogging wasn't interesting, but it was that *everyone* had a blog. If I were going to read his, then why not the blogs of dozens of other authors I admire? But doing that would leave me no time to read their actual *fiction*. I can't say I was surprised when Gibson stopped blogging and stated it was because it interfered with his writing fiction. I thought: Yeah, the OTHER reason I don't read people's blogs: because if they're writing them, and I'm reading them, not only don't I have time to read their novels, they're _not_ writing novels -- they're blogging.
Gibson continued to write books that, despite being rather different in prose-style from the novels that first put him on the map, still managed to tap into the kind of chronic unease and disconnection of our super-connected post 9/11 world with a more "normal" prose style... the better to insinuate the characters' predicaments and personalities into your head and have you thinking about them days after you finished the novel, just like with the first three cyberspace novels.
I saw the documentary "No Maps For These Territories" back in the early 00s, and Gibson readily admitted that fans often ask him why he doesn't write something like Neuromancer again. His startlingly upfront and honest answer was that he is not the person he was, when he was writing Neuromancer -- so he _can't_ write stuff like Neuromancer again. Fortunately I'm not one of the fans who found this disappointing, because I found the Bigend/Blue Ant trilogy of Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History among his most haunting work. (I admit the prose of the last trilogy is much more accessible to the average reader than that of Neuromancer or the rest of the Sprawl trilogy. Hell, it's much more accessible to _me_, though less challenging. With Neuromancer alone, I wished for a glossary like the one provided with my 1970s dog-eared copy of Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, which I bogarted from my older brother).
So I had high hopes for this collection and, intentionally unfamiliar with his blogging and published nonfiction, I guess I hoped for non-fiction in a similar vein to his fiction. And it IS nonfiction in the style of his fiction, more often than not. But, maybe because I find his prose so fantastic and have read and re-read all of his books multiple times, I was somewhat underwhelmed by this collection of Gibson's nonfiction work. He has a sharp eye for observation and an interesting analysis on everything he writes about. But it just wasn't as compelling for me as his novels. Some pieces are incredibly short. The inherent interest and content varies quite widely from piece to piece. The entire thing is worth reading, but it doesn't feel like it coheres, somehow. It was just missing something for me -- missing his fiction, I guess.
I found the whole experience of being underwhelmed by this book rather odd, because Gibson tends to include so much ADD-ish contextual details and information in his fiction, that it seems counterintuitive that his nonfiction would fail to be less than compelling for me. (I say "ADD-ish contextual details" as someone with ADD myself, which may be why I always liked his densely packed prose.) And he does that here, but somehow it didn't evoke as much for me -- it didn't pull at my psyche, plant his characters in my mind for days after finishing a novel, didn't bring me to tears like his best work has (both in the Sprawl trilogy AND in the Bigend/Blue Ant trilogy). It did, however, often make me laugh out loud, which his fiction has also often done for me.
If you are a big Gibson fan, read through all the "Look Inside!" materials here on Amazon before you buy this. It will give you an idea, though not complete, of the nonfiction in the book. You may or may not want to read more. Personally, totally subjectively, I am sorry I didn't like this more than I did. However, Gibson's own introduction to Distrust That Particular Flavor explains a bit, I think, of my underwhelming reaction to this collection. I'm quoting here from the introduction ("Introduction: African Thumb Piano"). Discontinuous passages have "...." between them.
"The door into fiction-writing space began to open more easily, and more regularly. A huge amount of the thing is simply practice, but that practice, for me, had to be practice in the actual writing of fiction. The itch to become a writer could be scratched, I suspected, too easily, with other kinds of writing. Self-discipline never having been my strong suit, I became un-characteristically strict with myself about writing only fiction.
Which is why I have never felt entirely comfortable with the pieces collected here.
They are violations of that early prime directive. They aren't fiction. Worse, they somehow aren't quite nonfiction either, it feels to me, because they were written from the fiction-writing place, the only writing place I had, with fiction-writing tools, the only writing tools I had. I didn't feel adequately professional, writing nonfiction. I felt as thought I was being paid to solo on some instrument vaguely related to one I actually knew how to play.
I had had no formal training in journalism. The idea of keeping a diary or journal had always made me uncomfortable. The idea of direct, unfiltered autobiography made me even more uncomfortable. By the time I began to occasionally be asked to write nonfiction, the membrane surrounding the fiction-writing place had been sanded to a workable thinness, was porous. On a good working day, I watched as some largely unconscious process turned reality, or what passed for it, into fantasy. Which was what I had wanted, how I had wanted to make my living. To write nonfiction felt worryingly counter to that....
When I taught myself to write fiction, I eventually accepted that I had learned to do what passes for the writing of fiction when I'm the one doing it. The volume on the imposter-syndrome module decreased. Writing nonfiction, I've often felt as though I'm applying latex paint to the living room walls with a tooth-brush. The volume on the module shoots up. Perhaps people will assume that the resulting texture is deliberate. Perhaps not. Writing fiction is a unique activity for me, a neurological territory, an altered state. Writing nonfiction isn't, quite, but I'm gradually coming to accept that I've learned to do what passes for the writing of nonfiction when I'm the one doing it."
I guess my feeling on this collection is that I'm not entirely comfortable with these pieces. It's like listening to an accomplished musician attempt to play familiar, loved music on a totally unfamiliar instrument on which they weren't properly trained; there are hints of their talent and their response to the loved music, but it's clearly missing something they would be able to pull out if they were playing their preferred instrument. Apparently, for me, reading William Gibson's fiction is a unique activity for me, a neurological territory and altered state in which, not only do I find his nonfiction uncomfortable, but in a peculiar way, it feels like it's almost an interloper. A very peculiar problem for a fan -- one I wish I didn't have.