I just finished William Gibson's Pattern Recognition a few days ago, and it's been bouncing in my head. A few thoughts as a means of productive procrastination from my paper on narrativity and stillness in anime.
1) Gibson reads very very much like Don DeLillo, except that Gibson's narratives involve plot much more than DeLillo's does. I'd say that there's an effect from this that designates DeLillo as 'literature', while Gibson is supposedly on the peripheries of literature, just acceptable within academic discourse. This, despite the fact that Jameson and others have written about Gibson (invoking his excellent "conspiracy is the poor man's cognitive mapping" quote), and that Gibson really isn't writing about science fiction but a very slightly alternate form of the current, the now. There's a whole slew of discussions on genre and the hierarchy that ensues from genre divisions which I really don't want to take part, in except to say that: I say it's better to stand outside of genre, the way that you'd stand outside of disciplines in recognition of the middle 'table' of mappings and categorizations that Foucault conceives of as operating between perception and logic. Partitions without any basis.
Anyways, I argue that long, involved plots (and I'm not dissing these by any means) tend to eventually become diegetic, just because of the fact that a sufficient amount of information needs to be transmitted clearly in order to deal with the amount intertwining and interweaving that a complex narrative has to have. Or, the other option is to portray a complex plot as a series of fragmented perceptions, centered around the first-person perspective gleefully lost in a freewheeling miasma of events, having given up some sense of unity or clarity. There's this opposition between clarity and perception, portrayed and perceived chaos that runs along the lines of diegesis/mimesis within the complex (and dare I say?) postmodern novel.
What Gibson does is that he intertwines both, and he pulls it off nearly successfully, I think. Often this takes the form of a very nicely detailed focus on the small events, little pieces of curling gaffer's tape on a leather jacket, and so on -- but I didn't mind, it worked for me.
There's another whole set of predilections given to mimetic narratives that I think sci-fi always has to struggle against; or maybe the narrative is mimetic but things happen. It's as if the conception of 'uselessness' -- that is, the Kant-influenced notion of aesthetics, that things are aesthetic because they lack use and we are detached from interest -- is relevant here. If 'use' for the narrative is mapped to its ability to depict concrete events, then a useless, disinterested narrative is that in which, maybe, nothing happens and a lot is said. Which is often the case in DeLillo's novels -- I'm thinking Underworld and White Noise, both which I enjoyed immensely. So when the counterpart to these novels is Gibson, with his narratives in which many, many things do happen, is this the reason why he is considered to teeter on the edge of 'discussability' within an academic context?
And granted, he is discussed sometimes by big names which is awesome, and comp.lit. is probably liberal enough to take whatever it wants and to look at it in a fascinating and interesting way. And that's the way it should be. And I can only speak for my self -- at least for me, I feel this invisible tug that I constantly have to resist, that seeks to discern Gibson from DeLillo and White Noise from Pattern Recognition not on the basis of style or technique but on the basis of subject matter or plot, or rather maybe on the density of plot, an aesthetics of uselessness.
2) What Gibson and many other sci-fi writers love is a) immersion and b) a homogeneity of heterogeneity. Immersion is straightforward: the first page probably doesn't make sense until you've read through a bit; in that way, the narrative first makes you aware of the sheer otherness of this world, then indoctrinates you and brings you inside. After this, you won't be able to read the first page anymore with the same confusion you first had. This happens in Snow Crash, Neuromancer, numerous other short stories, etc, etc, and it happens in Pattern Recognition.
I like this. I mean, it's pretty standard, especially in sci-fi, but I like the idea of a generated one-way perception; once you've done this adjustment, had the sense of bewilderment (which might be something like an extremely diluted version of the isolation you get when traveling (alone) in a different place), there's no way to have it again. The familiarity with both the characters as well as the technology/environment/language/custom of scene can't be lost, unless you actually forget the book entirely and come back years later to read it again.
As for a homogeneity of heterogeneity: what I mean by this is Gibson will often say depict society as a freewheeling mass of discrete identities, all clashing and rebounding off of each other. Different political groups all with their own agendas, a bunch of micronarratives, maybe. Like this:
"On the far shore, a vast cathedral, and on its own little island a statue of quite unthinkable awfulness. Her Lonely Planet tells her it's Peter the Great, and must be guarded, else local aesthetes blow it up."
I'm sort of thinking about the "postmodern nominalism" that Jameson talks about, in which "the name must also express the new, and fashion: what is worn-out, old-fashioned, is only useful as a cultural marker". The phrase "local aesthetes" serves to wrap up and incarnate a group seemingly hellbent on pursuing aesthetics. There's a necessary singlemindedness characterized by invoking these brief descriptions as if they explain it all: "the Rickson's having been created by Japanese obsessives driven by passions having nothing at all to do with anything remotely like fashion." And this is joyous in a certain way, I like it, there's a vast sprawling heterogeneity of groups and individuals all doing their own thing, an absolute fragmentation.
What happens, though, is that the narrative becomes populated with a massive number of characters that are relatively flat. It's a sort of chaotic macro heterogeneity created at the expensive of homogeneity at the local level -- as opposed to the opposite, maybe a clearly defined and simple narrative with a few deeply complicated characters. I'm not complaining too much -- I acknowledge there's only so much you can do in a few hundred-paged-book. But this is why, in my opinion, DFW's Infinite Jest is such a masterpiece -- there's so much detail packed into every single multifaceted corner; a single pursesnatching (or should I say heart-snatching) event spiders out into all directions, into all characters. That's also the reason why IJ is over a thousand pages and has footnotes.
And in addition, I say, that's also not the way groups work. The way Gibson (and Stephenson, and many other writers) depicts his societies, they are constituted of little globules of personality so uniformly different that it seems as if there is no mainstream. Maybe this is because Pattern Recognition and other novels are so focused on the peripheral societies, but there aren't very many American Idols, no discussion of NPR or New York Times-like entities, large groups that generate spaces of sharedness around which people congregate. Everyone seems to watch cable and have 500+ channels in the sci-fi narratives; everyone's on a highly specialized website narrowly bounded by a very intimate community. CNN is mentioned a few times in Pattern Recognition, I think, but I don't get the sense that F:F:F, the underground and tight-knit forum, is especially underground. Or -- if I do, it's because of the narrow array of avatars mentioned to exist on the forum: Parkaboy, Mama Anarchia, Maurice, Ivy, Filmy. "There are perhaps twenty regular posters on F:F:F, and some much larger and uncounted number of lurkers." But this isn't so -- the Footage is depicted as having many different fans all across the world.
The sense of widespread obsession necessary to depict the breadth and vastness of the internet clashes with an artificial intimacy necessary to depict the specificity and marginal status of this tiny internet community. Community and intimacy clash -- and this is the story of mainstream versus marginal, homogeneity versus heterogeneity, embedding itself in Gibson's narrative on the level of literary technique and description. Really, not all groups are similarly marginal, though. Rather than a homogeneous heterogeneity, accuracy would mean a heterogeneous heterogeneity. Or if, as Lyotard argues, postmodernity is characterized by no longer having grand narratives, then really there should be no grandnarratives concerning the lack of grandnarratives. In this now, narratives both grand and miniscule survive together. CNN next to F:F:F?