Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen (1993)

‘Men will try anything,’ Monique Jr said, sceptically. ‘Anything for pussy.’
(Strip Tease, page 16)

There are many levels on which to consider this book:

  • for its place in Carl Hiaasen’s series of comedy thrillers
  • its dramatic theme (strip club)
  • its socioeconomic theme (the corrupt Florida sugar cane industry)
  • its political theme (corrupt drunk politicians)
  • its feminist theme (woman objectified and abused by men, and badly let down by a patriarchal legal system)
  • its contribution to the thriller genre – blackmail and murder
  • as gruesome farce – a man’s tongue is swallowed by a wolf, a man’s arm is replaced by a golf club

At the most factual level, Strip Tease is the fifth in Carl Hiaasen’s series of 15 bitingly funny, savagely farcical comedy thrillers set in the moral swamp that is South Florida, and it closely follows the winning formula established its predecessors.

The theme: erotic dancing

Top level is the book’s main theme and setting. The previous four novels each rotated around a distinct and colourful theme, namely: eco-terrorism, corrupt fishing competitions, bogus plastic surgery and crappy theme parks. This one centres on a not-very-successful nude dance club called ‘the Eager Beaver’ (which changes its name half way through to ‘The Tickled Pink’ (p.331).

It is not, the owner and performers emphasise, a strip club, but a venue for ‘exotic dancing’ – albeit the dancers are almost naked to start with and then take off their bras or g-strings to become fully naked. Characters refer to it as a ‘nudie bar’ or a ‘tittie bar’ (p.51).

The Eager Beaver is owned by Mr Orly, a sweaty, nervous man who tries to awe his customers and the disgruntled dancers he employs with lies about the club’s mythical Mafia owners – whereas, in fact, with comic irony its main investors turn out to be harmless orthopedic surgeons from Lowell, Massachussetts (p.102).

The Eager Beaver has a bouncer (who prefers to be referred to as a ‘floor manager’) named simply Shad, owner of an enormous bald head and impervious to physical pain, which comes in handy during the various fights he gets involved in (Shad’s full name is only finally given in the Epilogue on page 403: Gerard L. Shaddick).

And the club employs a set of 6 or 7 exotic dancers, chief among them Erin, the lead character in the novel. Other dances include Monique Sr and Monique Jr and Urbana Sprawl, a black stripper with big boobs and a no-nonsense attitude. (The word ‘sprawl’ made me think of William Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy of novels and also Les Murray’s wonderful poem, The Quality of Sprawl. Great word, ‘sprawl’.)

The setting of a ‘tittie bar’ provides countless opportunities for characters or the author to reflect on the sleazy nature of strip clubs, exotic dancing, the sex trade (although there is very little actual sex), and, in particular, loads of editorialising about:

  1. men, the sleazy men, sad men, frustrated men and scary men who attend titty bars, specially the new generation of bankers wearing Wall Street braces, driving BMWs, off their faces on cocaine, and
  2. the generally honest women who staff them, the novel giving a realistic depiction of their day-to-day worries as discussed in the poky dressing room (they complain about the air conditioning, the temperature, the pay, the character Lorelei complains about the crappy replacement she’s given after the original boa constrictor she danced with is kidnapped and chopped to pieces) when they’re not bumping and grinding on the stage or at high-paying individuals’ private tables

Orly’s club is in fierce competition with a rival just a mile down the road, the ‘Flesh Farm’ run by the Japanese Ling brothers. This doesn’t impinge on the ‘serious’ plot much but is a source of running gags as the Lings are continually trying to persuade Orly’s dancers to go and work for them, which leads Orly and Shad to plan increasingly florid counter-attacks. This low-level feud climaxes in Shad buying a hundred rats and vermin off a snake dealer down on his luck and chucking them down the air con vents at the Flesh Farm, having previously called up a hygiene inspector who is, therefore, on the premises just in time to observe the sudden outrageous vermin infestation.

Divorce law and Erin the exotic dancer

So, the strip club is the book’s obvious setting and this sub-set of the sex trade the novel’s obvious theme. But just as powerful, just as dominating in the narrative, is the plight of Erin the dancer (I don’t think we ever discover her last name), victim of what is portrayed as a brutally unfair, patriarchal legal system.

Erin is the daughter of a woman who became a professional gold-digger, marrying and divorcing a series of richer and richer men (p.26). In a bid to be different, Erin married Darrell Grant who was tall and handsome and kind but turned out to be a drug addict, lowlife thief. Once she’d realised this, Erin was on the verge of leaving him when she got pregnant and Darell promised to clean up his act. Thus it was that Erin had a daughter, Angela, but all too soon Grant fell back on his old ways. Erin sued for divorce but two things utterly screwed her.

One is that Grant had earlier been busted by two corrupt cops, Piccata and Merkin, who made a deal to not prosecute him if he became a stoolpigeon and copper’s narc. As a result, they deleted his long and seedy criminal record from the computer records so Erin had no evidence for his egregious worthlessness.

Meantime, Erin discovered that lawyers’ fees for pursuing a divorce case are very expensive and found out the hard way that she couldn’t afford them, as a clerk working in the office of the local FBI (p.40).

So a friend recommended exotic dancing as a way of trebling her income and the novel describes Erin’s first tentative steps in front of a mirror (p.26), her first few nights at the club (p.86), and then how she settled into a regular 5 night a week job at the Eager Beaver, paying four times as much as her clerk wage.

(The trick, she says more than once, is to forget about the smutty men grabbing at your legs and lose yourself in the music and indeed a lot of music is mentioned in the book, Madonna, Prince, ZZ Top, rap music. Erin prefers white rock if she’s in the mood – ZZ Top or the Allmann Brothers – or singer-songwriter stuff if she’s feeling more soulful – Jackson Brown, or Van Morrison, ‘Dancin’ in the Moonlight’.)

Trouble is, when the divorce case came to court: a) Grant’s egregious criminal record had been disappeared by the two cops, and b) Grant can easily prove to the court that Erin is a stripper and therefore an ‘unsuitable mother’ to have custody of her child.

Thus, through the corruption and hypocrisy of the system, the drug addict thief Grant is granted custody of little Angela, now aged four. He sets a terrible example. It is a travesty of any kind of justice.

To really rub it in, we are given three additional facts:

  1. Scumbag Grant’s latest money-making scam is stealing wheelchairs for the disabled. Turns out they have no licence plate or identifier, are easy to buff up and sell on to hospitals, old peoples homes etc. Erin is driven to distraction when she learns that her little girl is being used in these wheelchair heists, but she has no legal way of rescuing her.
  2. Grant has a sister, Rita, who is raising and training a litter of wolves. Rita is sympathetic to her divorced sister-in-law but her husband, Alberto, who works at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant (p.36) drools over Erin on her occasional visits. Eventually, fed up of his leching, she agrees to perform a little private dance for him when his wife is out back with the wolves. Erin leads Alberto on and then, just as he’s started to froth with excitement, gives him a violent knee to the jaw which makes him bite his tongue off and knocks him out. Rita bursts in with one of the wolf pups, which promptly gobbles up Alberto’s severed tongue before anyone can stop him (p.189).
  3. Adding maximum insult to injury, the very same judge who denied Erin custody of her daughter because of her so-called ‘immorality’, himself becomes a regular visitor to the Eager Beaver, achieving an acme of male hypocrisy by prominently displaying a Bible on his desk next to his cocktail, and loudly telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s here to ‘save’ the poor benighted girls, all the while under the table with his other hand he’s busy whacking off at the sight of all this poon.

The ultimate peak of scumbag hypocrisy is reached when this two-faced judge tells Erin, when she confronts him at his table in the club, that he’ll reverse his custody decision only if she gives him a blowjob (p.68). Erin is a woman of principles, almost the only character in the book with any, and angrily refuses. Men!

‘All you got to do is flash your twat and men throw money. Isn’t it a great country, Erin? Aren’t you proud to be an American?’ (Darrell Grant, p.62)

Sugar money

American politics has always been about money, power and corruption. It’s amazing how many journalists, commentators, academics and naive liberals think otherwise, think it’s something to do with democracy or liberty or some such.

So the other central theme of this novel is the vast amount of money generated by the Florida sugar cane industry. Hiaasen is so exercised by this that he explains it in journalistic detail not once but at least four times (pages 13, 111, 210, 366). The last chapter intersperses plot with chunks of factual exposition which could come from a magazine article about sugar cane, its agriculture, profits, work practices, how it is grown, harvested and refined (chapter 31).

Key fact is: The US Federal Government keeps the price of domestic sugar cane artificially high,  thus subsidising the big sugar companies with taxpayer money. At the same time the US government also bans the import of sugar cane from the poor countries of the Caribbean and Latin America, helping to keep those nations in dependency and poverty.

Nonetheless, the wretched job of growing and in particular cutting the ripe cane crop falls to the poorest immigrants from precisely those wretched Caribbean countries, who work a punishing 10 hour day in the blistering Florida heat for a pittance.

Hiaasen invents a super-rich sugar cane family, the Rojo dynasty, who own just such a huge sugar cane growing and refining company, the Sweetheart Sugar Corporation. The senior and spooky owners of the corporation are Wilberto and Joaquin Rojo. Through these characters Hiaasen describes the nature of the business, the way government subsidises them, how they ruthlessly exploit their labour to the limit, and how all the pollution and waste from the industry is poured off into the Everglades to kill the eco-system.

The guaranteed government subsidies mean that the Rojo family has so much money it literally doesn’t know what to do with it. This is epitomised by the young scion of the family, dashing cocaine addict Christopher Rojo, who spends his entire life cruising in a chauffeur-driven limousine from high-class parties to strip clubs, awash in champagne, coke and hookers.

The drunken lecherous politician

What about the plot, I hear you ask. Well, the novel kicks off at the Eager Beaver one night when a totally drunk husband-to-be, Paul Guber, out on his stag night, drunkenly clambers onto the stage and embraces Erin while she’s doing her routine, grabs her round the waist, so close that her pubic hair looks like his goatee.

What nobody expects is that Erin has a secret, not-to-say obsessive admirer, a US Congressman named David Lane Dilbeck (p.174) (detailed backstory p.232).

On this particular fateful evening. Congressman Dilbeck also happens to be in the Eager Beaver, drunk off his face, and when he sees some guy groping his favourite dancer, he too lurches up onto the stage and starts beating Paul Guber over the head with a heavy champagne bottle. Again and again. When the Beaver’s bald bouncer, Shad, tries to stop him, Dilbeck’s minder and bagman, Erb Crandall, draws his gun as a threat. The whole thing has got wildly out of control in just a few moments.

What makes this absurd incident the trigger for a 400-page comedy thriller is that several people in the club that night recognise Dilbeck (despite his feeble disguise of a false moustache), someone takes a series of photos of the incident, and so his people are agonisingly aware that he could be blackmailed and ruined: for being in a stripclub at all, and for aggravated assault.

Now Dilbeck, routinely described by all who know him as a scumbag dickhead, is not himself unexpendable save for one big fact: Dilbeck plays a key role in Congress in getting the US sugar subsidy laws renewed each year. In other words, he may be a pitiful ‘pussy hound’, a thick-witted alcoholic and a prey to the every pretty woman he sees – but behind him stand some very seriously rich heads of the Florida sugar cane industry and they are not about to see their fortunes jeopardised. After all:

In politics, stealing is trouble but pussy is lethal. (p.260)

An election is pending and Dilbeck is up against the admittedly bonkers right-wing Republican candidate, Eloy Flickman (who wants to nuke Havana) but still, he is the sugar lobby’s swingman in Washington so anything which threatens Dilbeck threatens very rich powerful people which is why some of the little people who think they can swing a little blackmail are in for a very nasty surprise.

The political fixer

Which is where we come to the political fixer who is employed by the powerful Rojo family to keep dim Dilbert on the straight and narrow. This is the cold, calculating Malcolm J. Moldovsky. (It is a very fleeting coincidence that this Machiavellian political fixer bears the same first name as the Machiavellian political fixer in the British TV series The Thick of It, Malcolm Tucker.)

Malcolm is very short (‘no taller than a jockey’, p.236), very clever, dresses carefully and precisely and his political hero is John Mitchell, Attorney General to President Richard M. Nixon, convicted for his part in covering up the Watergate break-in (pages 126 and 323).

Moldovsky is used to doing political deals, bribery and payoffs, he is sued to the subtle interplay of power and money, so he is unhappy when the crudeness of the Eager Beaver affair forces him to take unusually direct action.

First is the murder of Jerry Killian (profile p.82). Killian is a sweet and fairly innocent guy who just adores Erin’s dancing and attends the club night after night to watch her. He was one of the few to recognise the Congressman and he makes the bad mistake of trying to shake down Malcolm. In fact, when the pair have a meeting Malcolm is genuinely surprised when all Killian wants is for the Congressman to have a word with the presiding judge in Erin’s custody case in order to award her her well-deserved custody. We learn that the judge in question wants to get promotion to the federal circuit, Killian wants Dilbert to tell this judge he will put in a good word for him in exchange for the judge reversing his decision and awarding Erin custody of Angela. That appears to be how the legal system works in America.

Despite his modest aims, Malcom realises he can’t have Killian swinging round making wild claims and so has him bumped off by three Jamaicans. His body is found in the Clark Fork River in far-distant Montana where he was wont to take his annual leave and where, by farcical coincidence, Detective Al García is on vacation with his second wife and his step-kids. Al García? Yes the very same Dade County detective we have met in the previous three Hiaasen novels. Thus, despite being on holiday, he finds himself being drawn into a murder case originating over a thousand miles away.

Second to be murdered is Paul Guber’s fiancée, Joyce Mizner (p.321), and her fat shyster lawyer Jonathan Peter Mordecai (comic backstory p.191, full name p.402). Mordecai also tries to contact the Congressman and is put through to Malcolm, meets and tries to shake him down. He claims to have photos of the whole incident.

(It is very funny the way Joyce Mizner is corrupted: at first she is amazed and shocked to discover her fiancé was at a strip club; then she is all devotion and attention when visiting Guber in hospital where it takes him several weeks to recover from his battering; then the lawyer slowly tempts her, holding out the possibility of big bucks compensation; then crosses a line by suggesting they blackmail the Congressman, Joyce becoming steadily more interested in securing her and her husband-to-be’s futures; and finally the lawyer corrupts her enough that Joyce drops all plans to share the money with Paul and settles in to becoming the lawyer’s partner in their ill-fated blackmail scam.)

Anyway, cunning Malcolm says he needs time to consider, then arranges a second meeting. He doesn’t attend the second meeting. Instead Mordecai and Joyce (Paul is away on business in New York) are met by some tough guys who kill them then attach their car to an empty freight vessel which is due to be blown up and sunk in Biscayne Bay and where, many months later, a horrified honeymoon couple on a scuba diving trip discover them. Very elaborate, violent and grotesque. Very Hiaasen.

Grotesque incidents

A lot happens in 400 pages, after all it’s one of the characteristic features of farce as a genre, that the plot becomes evermore manically complicated, featuring wildly improbable coincidences, garish characters and gruesome events. For example:

I’ve mentioned Erin’s sister-in-law’s husband biting off his own tongue when she kicks him under the jaw and that one of their pet wolf cubs eats it.

The judge who awarded against Erin in the custody case has a heart attack and dies at the Flesh Farm. ‘The man died staring at pussy, ‘says Shad. ‘There’s worse ways to go’ (p.169).

Darrell, high on drugs, gets into a fight with Shad, wrestling him down on the ground and carving a G into his bald head.

A lot later Shad is able to return the favour by swinging a tyre jack at Darrell so hard that it shatters his arm, exposing the bone (p.309). Darrell’s endlessly patient sister, Rita, fixes him up, using a golf club as a splint, arranging it head downwards so that it becomes a very effective bludgeoning tool when Darrell goes on one of his rampages.

We learn that Al García’s non-descript Chrysler always has an Igloo ice-box in the back. At one point his new buddy Shad asks him if there are any beers in it. No, García replies, he uses it to store dismembered body parts.

In what is probably the most macabre scene, Shad, an imposing figure, forces his way into the office of the Ling brothers at the Flesh Farm, strips and dangles the younger Ling brother by his hands from a wall fitting and then looses from a bag he’s carrying a live boa constrictor.

We experience Ling’s (comic?) terror as the huge snake twines round his leg and then spots something hanging between his thighs which looks like a nice juicy hamster (his penis) before it springs at lightning speed (pages 338 to 339). This extreme measure, in case you’re wondering, was payback for Ling touching up one of the Eager Beaver dancers who went to work for him and came back in tears.

Both Shad and Orly are oddly puritanical. In fact it is a running joke that after 11 years exposure to bare naked women, Shad doesn’t even realise they’re naked any more. He can only get remotely turned on by clothed women.

Late in the plot García is late to the yacht where Erin has made a date with the congressman because he is delayed by a domestic homicide. Jesse James Braden spilt some of his Bloody Mary on the freshly laundered upholstery of his wife’s Toyota Camry so she shot him three times in the genitals. According to witnesses who saw the dying man stumble from the car, his schlong was pumping like a firehose as he bled to death (p.344).

See what I mean by grotesque?

The climax

The climax comes when Erin agrees to go and do some private dancing for Dilbeck on the luxury yacht he’s allowed to use by the fabulously wealthy Rojo family (and which they have punningly named The Sweetheart Deal).

Malcolm hangs around nervously outside on deck, ostensibly to protect his ward, which is where Darrell, out of his tree on a range of painkillers and wolf medication (provided by his sister), and in pursuit of Erin who he blames for his increasingly violent accidents, confronts Malcolm and quickly bores of the short, smart man’s clever answers and simply bludgeons him to death with the club. Oh well.

When Darrell stumbles into the cabin where Erin is dancing for the Congressman, she deftly pulls a gun and guides both men out to the waiting limo. She’s gotten friendly with Dilbeck’s chauffeur, a Haitian who’s fed up of his employer’s casual racism and warms to Erin who treats him as a human being.

So the chauffeur doesn’t ask any questions but drives Erin, spaced-out Darrell and drunk Dilbeck miles out of town to, fittingly enough, a sugar cane plantation. Here Darrell brandishes his golf club before running off and Erin can’t quite bring herself to shoot him. In any case, the narrator tells us, Darrell the lowlife scumbag finds a hopper full of cut cane and falls fast asleep in it. Next morning the hopper feeds its load, along with hundreds of others, onto a conveyor belt and into a cane cutting machine which dices comatose Darrell into thousands of shreds and flakes, before the metal golf club gums up the works and prompts workers to call the cops.

Erin didn’t want Darrell anyway. Back in the cane field, she forces Dilbeck to start chopping cane with the machete she’d thoughtfully packed. Of course he is flabby and red with exhaustion in just a minute. Neither of them can believe that the Haitian and Dominican workers in these groves cut 8 tons a day each! Modern slavery.

Next Erin strips a little and allows Dilbeck to dirty dance with her. He has just got predictably carried away, and has pushed her to the ground and is fiddling with his willy, when a load of cars pull up and illuminate them in their headlights.

Remember I mentioned that back before she took up dirty dancing, Erin had worked in the Florida office of the FBI, for a cleancut good guy named Officer Cleary. Well, they had stayed in touch, he’d tried to help her with her divorce and custody case, and now she had phoned him and told him to come with backup out to this specific cane plantation and catch a crooked Congressman.

And so it is that three carloads of FBI agents catch a half-naked, sweaty Congressman rolling on the floor with a woman half his age, attempting rape. Soon afterwards Detective Al García and Shad roll up. Through the complex convolutions of the plot they have formed an unlikely buddy-buddy partnership  based on joint concern for Erin’s safety and, although they arrived at the luxury yacht too late to find Erin, she had written the location of the cane plantation in lipstick on the toilet mirror, which explains why they turn up now to discover the placed crawling with Feds.

So now Erin puts her plans to the Congressman. Plan A is she prosecutes him for rape with carsfull of FBI agents as witnesses, and his name is ruined forever. Plan B, Dilbeck has a strategic heart attack, retires sick for a few weeks, thus effectively conceding the upcoming election and, at least temporarily, and in a small way, breaking the stranglehold of the sugar lobby on Congress.

I didn’t like this ending at all, it felt like it just didn’t come off. Previous novels ended in balls of flame like James Bond movies, but Erin taking the Congressman out to a field in the middle of nowhere and encouraging him to get naked and aroused by dirty dancing with him, in the hope that the Feds would turn up in the nick of time… It felt wildly implausible but not in a crazed, bizarre way, just in a ‘not very good plan’ kind of way.

The patheticness of men

Quite a steady stream of criticisms of how lame and poon crazy men are, incapable of thinking with anything except their dicks.

  • Men are easily dazzled. (p.368)
  • It taught Erin one of life’s great lessons: an attractive woman could get whatever she wanted, because men are so laughably weak. They would do anything for even the distant promise of sex. (p.26)
  • How easily amused they are! she thought. There was little difference between this and what her mother did; it was the same game of tease, the same basic equation. Use what you’ve got to get what you want. (p.27)
  • Erin was constantly reminded of the ridiculous power of sex; routine female nakedness reduced some men to stammering, clammy-fingered fools. (p.87)
  • In such extreme states of desire, men tended to lose their fine-motor skills. (p.188)
  • Men were so helpless, she thought, so easily charmed. Monique Jr was right: they’d do anything for it. Anything. (p.243)

A possible solution

What to do about men’s insatiable appetite for sexual stimulation? Well, hundreds of thousands of feminists have been working on the problem for half a century. A character in this novel, clear-eyed Malcolm, suggests wanking. After all it is the ultimate in safe sex and, in our COVID times, entirely lockdown-compliant. As he tells the helpless ‘pussy hound’ Dilbeck:

‘Know what we need to do? We need to teach you to masturbate creatively. Then maybe you wouldn’t bother women.’ (p.158)

But the way both Shad and Orly have become utterly indifferent to all the naked boobs and bums around them suggests a different way forward. To some extent the naked female form excites such lust in men because it is so strictly rationed; in cold puritanical England, a bare boob is a rarity ogled at by every man in sight.

The obvious solution is for women to wear less, a lot less. In this respect the Free The Nipple campaign is onto something. If topless women were ever to become as common and everyday as men who work (doing manual work) topless or sunbathe topless, it would remove a lot of the mystique, it might even become boring, boring enough that men didn’t break their necks ogling and leering over every millimetre of cleavage to women’s disgust and, often, bewilderment. After all, what’s the big deal, as Erin tells the drunk and lecherous Congressman:

‘Two pleasant handfuls of fat… That’s your basic human breast, Davey. Ninety-eight percent fat, with a cherry on top. What’s the big attraction?’ (p.356)

But that will never happen. Nothing much has changed since this book was published 30 years ago; I don’t expect much to change in this regard in the next 30 years, if I live that long.

Miami Vice references

Hiaasen referenced the smash hit TV show Miami Vice in the previous novel. Figures, it covers his turf.

And the stubble,’ Erin said. ‘Come here, let’s see.’
‘No way.’ He stood up sullenly.
‘Is this your Don Johnson period?’ (p.61)

Except it doesn’t really. The TV show promoted an image of South Florida as cool, full of handsome dudes in designer stubble wearing Armani jackets and driving shiny convertibles. Hiaasen, as we have seen, is more about low rent strip clubs, corrupt businessmen, drunken Congressmen, lowlife psychopaths and trailer trash.

Types of fuck

In an earlier novel Hiaasen introduced me to the concept of ‘sportfucking’ i.e. sleeping around just for laughs. In Native Tongue Joe Winder’s girlfriend Nina offers him a ‘mercy fuck’. Now, Congressman Dilbeck considers he is (that sleeping with him amounts to) a ‘powerfuck’ i.e. having sex with the rich and powerful. It’s good to be educated about these matters.

Epilogue

Hiaasen’s novels routinely feature an epilogue giving us brief summaries of the fates of his characters. From this we learn that even though Dilbeck quits the election race he is still elected in his absence, but nonetheless retires. But that doesn’t stop the agricultural committee of Congress renewing the multi-million dollar subsidies to the sugar industry.Nothing can. Big money corruption is eternal (p.401).


Credit

Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen was published in the UK by Macmillan London in 1993. All references are to the 1994 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen (1991)

An irresistible convergence of violence, mayhem and mortality. (p.280

Frankie ‘the Ferret’ King was a low-level operative for the mob in New York. When he was arrested for supervising the import of a consignment of pornographic videos (which accidentally get shown to junior school children, since they were labeled as kids programmes) he happily turned State’s witness and sang like a canary about fellow racketeers in the mob. After which the State put him in the witness protection program and sent him to South Florida:

prime relocation site for scores of scuzzy federal snitches (on the theory that South Florida was a place where just about any dirtbag would blend in smoothly with the existing riffraff). (p.39)

He takes the name Francis X. Kingsbury (the X is for Xavier, which he invents because he thinks gives him ‘class’) and trains as a real estate salesman. It was the era when unspoilt Florida land was being sold off to developers to quick-build condominiums, resorts, golf courses, endless roads, and Kingsbury quickly got rich as a realtor.

But then he got ambitious and announced his plans to the local chamber of commerce for a South Florida rival to Disney World, to be called The Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, complete with Wet Willy water flume, Magic Mansion, Orky the Killer Whale, Jungle Jerry, the Wild Bill Hiccup show, a petting zoo and much more (pages 32 and 107).

Within a few years the Kingdom of Thrills is a roaring success and has a full-time press and PR section, in which nobby ‘vice president in charge of communications’ Charles Chelsea oversees much cleverer, down-on-his-luck journalist, Joe Winder. Joe was fired from his newspaper for getting into a fistfight with a senior editor about a damning story he (Joe) had written about his (Joe’s) own property developing father (p.133).

Joe’s girlfriend, Nina, makes a living on a sex chatline spinning elaborate erotic fantasies to men who jerk off to her voice at premium rates meaning that, on her one night a week off, the last thing she wants to think about is sex, leaving Joe very frustrated.

Among Kingsbury’s many scams he tumbles to the fact that Federal wildlife agencies will give you money to look after endangered species. So Kingsbury contacts a crooked wildlife dealing woman he met once while they were both waiting outside court during their trials, and between them they cook up the idea of a fictional species, the ‘blue-tongued mango voleMicrotus mango‘ (p.288), and Kingsbury persuades the authorities that he is protecting the last surviving pair of this almost extinct species and gouges $200,000 out of them for their care.

Of course there’s no such thing as the ‘blue-tongued mango vole’, they are just common or garden voles whose tongues Kingsbury and his team paint with indigo dye at regular intervals. In fact the original female vole died and the Amazing Kingdom’s security chief (the vast Pedro Luz, addicted to anabolic steroids) replaced her with a female hamster, with various bits nipped and tucked. Despite this, the male vole is likely to try and mate with the hamster, who replies with fierce violence and so a security guard has to be stationed at the voles’ enclosure to prevent them from murdering each other.

So far, so farcically ludicrous, And the voles are just one of the centrepieces of the Rare Animal Pavilion at this amazingly crooked, corrupt theme park, where fat tourists from the cold North (known to native Florideans as ‘snowbirds’, p.32) queue up to admire the little critters, to buy blue-tongued vole t-shirts, posters, key-rings or make a donation to their preservation. Kingsbury even made up tacky names for the fake couple, Vance and Violet Vole (p.313).

Everywhere he looked there were old people with snowy heads and pale legs and fruit-coloured Bermuda shorts. All the men wore socks with their sandals, and all the women wore golf visors and oversized sunglasses. (p.29)

The plot is set rolling by a sweet but crazy old lady, Molly McNamara, who lives in a nice apartment in a retirement home and runs a little group of like-minded pensioners who are dreadfully concerned about the environment called The Mothers of Wilderness (p.31). Unknown to the other nice old ladies, Molly has hired a couple of small-time crooks, specialists in breaking and entering, the dim Bud Schwarz and even dimmer Danny Pogue, to break into the Amazing Kingdom and liberate the voles.

This they do, one fine night, but when one of the voles escapes through an airhole in the cardboard box they’ve put them in, on the seat of the car they’re driving, Danny playfully throws it into a passing convertible full of a tourist family (causing a near crash and consternation) and a little later, when the other one escapes, they throw it into a passing truck. This is because Molly neglected to tell them how rare and precious the voles are, and the two dim burglars mistake them for common rats.

When they turn up shamefaced at Molly McNamara’s apartment, the little old lady amazes them, and the reader, by shooting Bud Schulz through the foot and Danny through the hand. She doesn’t mess about. She reminds me of the character Maude, played by the redoubtable Ruth Gordon, in the 1971 movie, Harold and Maude.

Farce

This is enough of a taster for you to see that Native Tongue is another of Hiaasen’s violent and savagely satirical crime farces. Wikipedia defines farce as:

a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, ridiculous, absurd, and improbable. Farce is also characterised by heavy use of physical humour; the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense; satire, parody, and mockery of real-life situations, people, events, and interactions; unlikely and humorous instances of miscommunication; ludicrous, improbable, and exaggerated characters; and broadly stylised performances.

Well, that’s what we have here. Another aspect of a farce is its absurdly complicated plot and this, also, characterises Hiaasen’s fictions. Rather than try to untangle it, I’ll give some of the more absurd and excessive highpoints. Basically the plot spins out of control as Kingsbury tries to cover up for the disappearance of the blue-tongued voles, threatening and then bumping off the small number of employees who were in on the scam.

Joe Winder emerges as the ‘hero’. After putting up with a series of lies and accidents at the Amazing Kingdom he eventually quits and goes freelance, trying to puzzle out the various shootings, murders and other violent events which have started to take place there.

The most florid of these is the mystery disappearance of the Amazing Kingdom’s vet, Dr Will Koocher. A day or so later one of the Kingdom’s star attractions, Orky the killer whale is found dead. When the state authorities conduct an autopsy they discover Orky choked to death on the body of Koocher! Joe liked Koocher so his suspicious death is one of the triggers to him digging deeper into what is really going on, and eventually quitting/being fired.

There’s an entertaining back story about Orky (original name Samson) who is, in fact, a rogue and bad-tempered animal who rarely performs as he’s meant to, and – we learn – had been rejected and sold on by a number of other reputable theme parks before he comes to rest at Kingsbury’s park, the lowest of the low. Everything about the Amazing Kingdom is like that – all the performing animals are duds, the floats don’t work, ‘Uncle Eli’s friendly elves’ are a bunch of bad-tempered, dope-smoking midgets, and so on.

‘You mean it’s a scam.’
‘Hey, everything’s a scam when you get down to it.’ (Joe and Carrie, p.75)

One of the first things Joe does after he’s been fired, is issue a series of satirical and facetious ‘press releases’ on Amazing Kingdom-headed notepaper, designed to stir up maximum trouble for his old employer. The first one satirically points out that the recent outbreak of hepatitis at the Amazing Kingdom, or the sudden infestation of moccasin snakes, is not that serious, and not that many tourists have been injured or died. He faxes these to every media outlet in the country, driving Kingsbury wild with frustration and ordering Charles Chelsea to write press releases countering them.

Thus the middle of the novel contains an entertaining battle of the press releases which are quoted in their entirety. They reminded me of the medieval genre of flyting, the ritual exchange of insults in medieval literature, or of the pamphlet wars which characterised Elizabethan London or the vituperative Grub Street satirised by Alexander Pope in the 1730s (pages 198 to 262).

During this period Joe has been slowly breaking up with Nina who a) isn’t keen on sex b) has aspirations to write longer, more imaginative erotic scenarios (in the amusing Epilogue, Hiaasen tells us that after the events of the novel are concluded, Nina goes on to write poetry which is promoted by Erica Jong and ends up as a Hollywood scriptwriter).

Instead Joe gets into a relationship with Carrie Lanier who works at the Amazing Kingdom wearing the ‘Petey Possum’ costume. After he gets beaten up by unknown assailants, Carrie takes him back to her trailer in a trailer park, where he eventually moves in, bringing along his collection of classic rock cassettes and his typewriter (on which to write the satirical press releases).

Meanwhile, the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills’s head of security, Pedro Luz, is mildly injured and put on an IV drip at hospital, but is so thick he takes to drinking the drip through his mouth. Since he was already on an unhealthy diet of steroids and body enhancements, this begins to have a drastic effect on his health and appearance. Basically, he turns into a mutant: his cock and balls shrivel up, his face bloats like an old melon and he becomes covered in florid acne.

Tiring of the war of press releases, Kingsbury sets the increasingly grotesque Pedro Luz to ‘deal with’ Winder, so Luz trails him back to Carrie’s trailer park. When he presses his head against the trailer wall, Luz hears a shower going and blasts a load of bullets through the shower wall. At this very moment Carrie drives up and, seeing Luz doing this, carries right on and knocks him over with the car, parking on his foot.

By this point off his face on steroids and other drugs, Luz chews his own foot off above the ankle, and makes off on his stump, driving himself to hospital. It’s at moments like this that Hiaasen goes way beyond the standard amount of killing and physical mayhem you might find in a crime novel, into a whole new level of the macabre and gruesome. It is his signature manoeuvre, his distinctive strategy.

Property development

Eventually we discover that the real motor for the plot, as so often, is corrupt property development. Having sold property in the first part of his career, and having amassed a few million running the Kingdom, Kingsbury’s next step is to create a huge new complex, the Falcon Trace Golf and Country Club Resort Community (p.228). (Just as the Reverend Charles Weeb’s plans for a vast housing development with fishing lakes was at the centre of this novel’s predecessor, Double Whammy).

Creating the space for this new development has required devastating a large area of untouched Florida forest and lake and it just happens to be an area of lake which, since he was a boy, has been important to Joe Winder as an escape and a refuge from his difficult relationship with his father.

One day Jim turns up with his fishing rod and the entire place has gone. All the trees and underbrush, everything has been scoured flat leaving a wasteland of sand and gravel and some huge diggers ready to start excavating the foundations. Joe expresses what sound like Hiaasen’s own howls of pain at seeing the beautiful landscape of his boyhood state being massacred, flattened, burned and blown up by corrupt, crooked and soulless exploiters.

‘I’m just sick of asshole carpetbaggers coming down here and fucking up the place.’ (p.296)

An extra spin is given to Joe’s grief and anger by the fact that his very own father was one of the original Florida land developers and so he carries a heavy load of Oedipal guilt.

Skink

And Skink the 6-foot-6, hulking environmentalist vigilante, punisher of bad guys and all-round avenger, Skink is back!

For new readers Hiaasen gives a brief recap of Skink’s backstory, namely that he was once Clinton Tyree, dashingly handsome ex-Vietnam vet with a gleaming smile who stood for governor determined to clean up Florida’s corrupt politics. But when he vetoed the latest in a long line of corrupt land development deals, the powers that be (banks, developers, golf course and lake and condominium developers, TV companies and advertising agencies) ganged up to stymie his every policy and law until on one climactic day, when a case he’d brought against demonstrably corrupt developers was thrown out of court and a famous wildlife area began to be bulldozed, Clint snapped. He walked out of the Governor’s mansion, disappeared into the outback, has never been seen since, as Clinton Tyree (chapter 17).

For fifteen years the governor had been living in an expatriation that was deliberately remote and anonymous. (p.149)

Instead, Clint changed his name to Skink, lived wild, ate only roadkill and berries and fish, grew his hair into a long grey ponytail, took to wearing bright orange hazard suits and floral decorated showercaps.

Hiaasen introduces Skink at a dramatic moment about a third of the way into  the story. Joe Wilder had been lured to a meeting at an isolated point on the coast by someone who said they had information about the (at that point still-unsolved) disappearance of Dr Will Koocher. It’s a trap. Two thugs bear down on Joe and then start to beat him up, badly. He is just about passing out when the beating stops, he’s aware of screams, out of one half-closed eye sees one of the attackers running for his life, then passes out.

It’s Skink, come to the rescue at just the right moment – although it’s a while till Joe formally meets the ex-governor. With typical savagery, we later discover that Skink strangled one of the attackers and hanged him by the neck from a nearby bridge and the other one is found dead and folded up in the boot of a wrecked car.

Skink is a hero of sort, and his cause – defending the environment – is just, but he frequently steps way over the boundaries. He is chivalrous to ladies – it turns out he has a long-standing friendship with old Molly McNamara who set the entire plot rolling – but he also blows off his frustration by shooting at planes coming into land at Miami airport or just at random tourist hire cars on the freeway. He is, as Bud Schwartz remarks, ‘Bigfoot without the manners’ (p.191).

Bud Schwartz said, ‘You realise we look like total dipshits.’
‘No, you look like tourists.’ (p.105)

Trooper Jim Tile

Special mention must be made of Trooper Jim Tile, one of the few black highway patrolmen in the state of Florida, who Governor Clinton promoted but who lost his job and was kicked back into the boondocks the moment Clinton disappeared. Trooper Jim recurs throughout the novels as Skink’s loyal minder and protector who tries, with uneven results, to keep him and other ‘good guys’ in line with the law. Jim emerges as, quite simply, the most dependable, sound and moral character in the series.

Bad stuff happens

From this point onwards the plot assumes a similar shape to its predecessors, in that around Skink cluster a constellation of good guys –Joe Winder, girlfriend Carrie, at one remove Molly and the two burglars Bud and Danny – against the bad guy, Francis Kingsbury and his very bad henchman, steroid-crazed Pedro Luz, who goes right off the rails and starts beating up or trying to kill everyone he can.

It is Luz, for example, who breaks into Molly McNamara’s apartment and beats her very badly, breaking some ribs and knocking out some teeth, for her part in liberating the blue-tongue voles. Mind you, during the struggle Molly manages to bite off the tip of one of Pedro’s fingers.

See what I mean by ‘savage’, as in savage and brutal farce. When there is violence it is brutal violence: Dr Koocher being stuffed down a killer whale’s throat, Jim’s attacker being strangled and hanged from a bridge, Molly being savagely beaten, Luz getting his finger bitten off. Like Jonathan Swift, you feel Hiaasen’s savage satire goes beyond specific wrong-doings and expands to become mockery of human beings as a species, vulnerable as we are to so many absurd and risible physical catastrophes. It is a multi-angled attack on the very idea of human dignity.

To make Skink even more grotesque than before, Hiaasen now has him trialling a new mosquito repellent for the army (Extended Duration Tropical Insect/Arthropod Repellent, EDTIAR, p.124). He’s also wearing a 150 megahertz radio collar he took off a dead panther. Florida’s environmental agency tags its pitifully small population of panthers. Skink is wearing the collar of number 17, which he found dead on the highway, run over by, naturally, a tourist hire car (pages 102 and 234).

I haven’t made clear that the dimwits Bud Schwarz and Danny Pogue come round to liking and respecting old Molly (despite the fact that she shoots both of them in their extremities). They are genuinely outraged when the (at that point unknown) intruder breaks into her apartment and badly beats her (when the two dimwits are not there). Although twerps, they become enrolled on the side of the ‘goodies’.

Hence another grotesque highlight when Luz and a sidekick, Churrito, ex-Nicaragua military (p.158), lure Bud and Danny to a meeting at a rival theme park attraction, Monkey World where, when they all start fighting, a gun spins into the baboon enclosure and a baboon picks up the shiny object and accidentally shoots Churrito in the face (p.195).

Later on, Kingsbury organises a media event to launch the beginning of his property development and new golf course, by getting a tired old championship golfer, Jake Harp, to playfully tee off a couple of balls from a small patch of astroturf which has been set up on the building site and out over the ocean.

Not one but two snags foul up this plan, which are that a) the golfer turns up so terminally hungover that he can barely focus on the ball let alone hit it and b) remember how Frankie came to Florida under the Witness Protection Scheme? Well, the two small-time burglars inform on him, phoning mob connections in New Jersey (Salvatore ‘the Salamander’ Delicato, p.213) and, in return for a bag of cash, telling them where their stoolpigeon is hiding out.

With the result that the Mafia send a (disappointingly unglamorous) hitman, short fat, farting Lou, who tracks Kingsbury to this grand press launch and shoots an assassin sniper rifle at Kingsbury just as the golfer is teeing off. Except that, at that vital moment, the golfer had asked Kingsbury to adjust the tee, so the ex-racketeer ducks at the vital millisecond and the Mafia hitman ends up shooting the golfer instead (chapter 29). Oops.

Joe Winder hires a former military man and a boat and gets him to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at the diggers which are starting on the Falcon Trace development, more precisely at the concrete mixer which explodes and spews wet concrete high into the air before spattering down on all the workmen. These are all wonderfully over-the-top, entertainingly violent and amoral extravaganzas.

The climax

As I’ve noted the plot is complex because complicated plots is one of the hallmarks of farce. Complex and coincidence-riddled plots in a way satirise the entire idea of a ‘plot’, of a ‘story’, and mock the notion of fictional ‘realism’ i.e. that any story can be sensible and moral and meaningful in such a screwed-up, violent and immoral world.

Hiaasen’s novels characteristically build up to a big climax, a big cheesy event of the kind celebrated by straight-faced, media-dominated, consumerist American culture and which Hiaasen the savage satirist loves pulling to pieces, like the beauty pageant in Tourist Season or the live TV fishing competition in Double Whammy.

In this novel the grand climax comes when, in a bid to counter the bad publicity generated by Joe Winder’s malicious press releases, Kingsbury has the bright idea of celebrating the alleged 5 millionth visitor to the Kingdom with a big prize for the visitor and a gala pageant celebrating the Kingdom, complete with music, floats of all the animals and costume characters etc.

Not least among the pageant’s objectionable features is the way it utterly bowdlerises the history of Florida, glossing over the religious persecution, the Indian extermination and the slavery in order to create a series of floats celebrating how the Indians welcomed the white man and how happy the slaves were on those plantations (p.182). Outraged satire.

Inevitably, the whole thing goes madly awry. Trooper Jim Tile has, by this time, been recruited to the cause, and organises a police roadblock which stops the cars of the Amazing Kingdom’s entire security force as they drive over the bridge into north Key West. When some of the stopped security guards call on Tile’s white colleagues to sort out this ‘n……’, it seals their doom and they are all arrested (p.279).

So, with no security personnel to police the parade, it is left to the by-now deranged Pedro Luz to try and stop the mayhem planned for the parade by Joe Winder, Carrie the Petey Possum character and Skink. He fails, although there is a lot of violence along the way. The upshot is:

  1. The Mafia assassin who shot the golfer by mistake, makes a return visit, ironically posing as the 5 millionth visitor and thus winning a prize car, before he shoots Kingsbury dead in his control room.
  2. After capturing and badly beating Joe Winder, Luz (by now ‘percolated in hormones’, p.194) is pushing him across the back lots of the Kingdom (empty because all the tourists are attending the parade) when they encounter Skink and, after a struggle, Luz ends up being pushed into the dolphin aquarium where he is shagged to death by the dolphin who is in a very horny mood, has a very long schlong, and strong flippers (pages 302 to 305).
  3. Luz had interrupted Skink in the process of ferrying cans of gasoline around the Kingdom which, with Luz out of the way, he proceeds to light up, setting off explosions all over the site.

Joe Winder and Carrie make it to safety through the swamps and out to the clear ocean while the entire Amazing Kingdom of Thrills goes up in explosions like the climax of a James Bond movie. Jim Tile turns up in a state police car and whisks Skink, who has also escaped the premises, off to safety.

In the comic Epilogue, which have become part of the Hiaasen formula, we are told that Bud Schwartz goes on to set up a private security firm. Danny Pogue, who had been converted by Molly McNamara to the cause of nature and the environment, goes off to Tanzania to train as a wildlife warden. Nina, Joes phone sex girlfriend, goes on to publish poetry then ascends to the giddy heights of writing Hollywood screenplays. Uncle Ely’s dope-smoking Elves never work again. Charles Chelsea retires from the PR business and sets about writing a novel.

Florida

A culture in terminal moral hemorrhage. (p.280)

Hiaasen’s novels take it for granted that Florida is the outstanding state in the USA for violence, universal corruption, and the utter amorality of a citizenry drenched in mindless consumerism.

  • Key West – where many of the judges were linked by conspiracy or simple inbreeding to the crookedest politicians. (p.31)
  • Like so many new Floridians, Kingsbury was a felon on the run. (p.38)
  • The Security Department at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills was staffed exclusively by corrupt ex-policemen, of which there was a steady supply in South Florida. (p.48)
  • ‘New Yorkers’, said Jim Tile, ‘they think they’ve cornered the market on psychopaths. They don’t know Florida.’ (p.266)
  • The man said, ‘I got a confession to make. I cheated a little this morning… I cut in line so we could be the first ones through the gate. That’s how I won the car.’ It figures, thought Kingsbury. Your basic South Florida clientele. (p.314)

Miami Vice

Hiaasen is aware that his fictional turf overlaps with the territory covered by the phenomenally successful TV series Miami Vice, which began to be popular just as he began publishing his novels. Miama Vice ran for five seasons on NBC, from September 1984 to January 1990, and popularised the image of Miami and South Florida as full of slick criminals and cool detectives wearing designer threads having high speed car and boat chases.

Hiaasen mentions Miami Vice several times, but his jaded cynicism comes from a very different place. Nobody is slick, nothing is ‘cool’ in Hiaasen-land; anyone who has any money must be a crook, a crooked lawyer, a crooked politician, a crooked land developer or a drug baron. The word ‘Miami’ doesn’t imply slick and stylish but degraded and corrupt.

The asshole probably did have a gun; it was Miami, after all. (p.138)


Credit

Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen (1989)

‘This is the worst year of my life, and it’s only the seventeenth of January.’
(Private investigator Mick Stranahan, Skin Tight, page 134)

Skin Tight is the third of Carl Hiaasen’s scathing and savagely satirical depictions of the corruption, greed and environmental destruction infesting his home state of Florida. If its predecessor, Double Whammy‘s central subject was the surprising corruption and violence surrounding coarse fishing and its big-stakes competitions, Skin Tight‘s central theme is plastic surgery. But, as usual, from the central topic all kinds of weird, macabre and violent threads spin off in all directions.

Mick Stranahan, Private Investigator, is the tough and capable guy we’re used to in the thriller genre. He has killed 5 men, some in Vietnam (p.21), been married and divorced five times (all to cocktail waitresses, p.90), now lives as an ‘outsider’, on a house on stilts built over the ocean ‘in the stretch of Biscayne Bay known as Stiltsville’ (p.11). (It’s worth noting in passing that Skink, Hiaasen’s great recurring character, also served in Vietnam.)

Mick had worked at the State’s Attorney’s office till he went to arrest a notoriously corrupt judge, Raleigh Gomper, who pulled a gun and, in the struggle, Stranahan shot Gomper dead. Though he was exonerated at the trial, shooting dead a judge didn’t sit well with an employee of the State Prosecutor and so Mick was forced to take early retirement. Hence, he is now a part-time private detective, the absolutely classic profession of the thriller genre, most famously embodied in Raymond Chandler‘s Philip Marlow.

Dr Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Graveline runs a plastic surgery clinic, the Whispering Palms Spa and Surgery Centre. In fact he himself is an unqualified butcher of a surgeon but is wise enough to concentrate on acting as the avuncular salesman and comforter of the nation’s many misfeatured and malshaped narcissists – taking their money but leaving the actual surgery to a team of four well-paid and infinitely more capable juniors.

The trigger for the plot is Maggie Gonzalez for Maggie knows that four years earlier, on 12 March 1986, Graveline ran a clinic called the Durkos Medical Centre and was giving a routine rhinoplasty (nose job) to a young woman, Victoria Barletta, when he accidentally killed her (p.39).

In a panic, Rudy called his brother, George Graveline, who had a gardening and tree surgeon business, and they disposed of the body in a timber grinder. When her family raised Victoria’s disappearance with the authorities, Rudy and all his staff swore she left the clinic after surgery, went and sat at the local bus stop but then disappeared, presumed kidnapped. To get them to agree to this cover story, he had to pay key members of his staff a hefty bribe. (A year or so later one of the doctors, Dr Kenneth Greer, tumbled to what had happened and started blackmailing Rudy, so Rudy paid for him to be disposed of in a ‘hunting accident’, p.285.)

Back to the present and, after a failed marriage and a series of pathetic failed relationships, Maggie is now broke and decides to cash in on what she knows (p.56). She goes to the New York office of a crime-investigating TV show, hosted by the unbearably preening TV presenter Reynaldo Flemm (who has a kinky penchant for doorstepping criminals and provoking them till he gets beaten up) and his long-suffering, clever and dishy producer, Christina Marks.

(It is typical of the duplicitousness of almost all the characters that we learn, late in the book, that the would-be smooth Hispanic Flemm is in fact really named Raymond Fleming and changed his name and appearance to appear more ethnic and glamorous.) Maggie tells Flemm and Marks her story and promises to repeat it on camera for $5,000.

Then it crosses Maggie’s scheming mind that she can probably have it both ways –getting money from the TV company and blackmailing the doctor – so she phones up Dr Rudy and says she’s scared because a Private Investigator, Mick Stranahan, has come snooping and seems to be about to revive the case. She has Mick’s name and number from back before he retired, was still an active prosecutor, and was briefly involved in the initial investigation. Now she just whistles his name up out of thin air as an entirely fictional threat solely in order to gouge more greenbacks out of Rudy.

Mick knows nothing about any of this but Maggie’s ploy not only persuades Dr Rudy to cough up some more hush money for Maggie but sets him thinking how to eliminate Mick as a threat. And so it is that when the TV people, Flemm and Marks, arrange a meeting with Dr Rudy, telling him they know all about the fatal accident though refusing to reveal their source, Rudy mistakenly believes that their source really is Stranahan (not, as it actually is, Maggie) and that Mick is about to blow the whole story and get him arrested for murder.

Thus it is that, based on this misunderstanding (Maggie’s deception), Rudy decides he has to get rid of Mick and so phones a contact in New Jersey, ‘Curly Eyebrows’. Rudy used to do basic plastic surgery for the Mob up there, nothing too complicated, just nose jobs and tummy tucks for the wives. Now he uses these contacts to hire a Mafia hitman, Tony ‘the Eel’ Traviola (p.59).

The novel opens with Mick innocently sitting on the decking of his house out in the bay, watching the boat approaching carrying a guy who we, the readers, know to be this hitman. You don’t get many strangers round these parts so Mick retreats into his house, takes down the stuffed marlin head from the wall and, when the hitman makes his move, standing in the doorway with gun in hand, Mick leaps out and thrusts the marlin’s long frontal spike into the man’s chest, severing his aorta and snapping his spine. Ah. Oh.

All this information is conveyed in the book’s first 30 pages, as a scene-setter or prologue, a kind of powerhouse of information structuring and communication.

Undeterred, Rudy hires a second hitman who will turn out to dominate the novel, a freak called Chemo, 6 feet 9 inches feet tall. Chemo acquired his nickname after suffering a catastrophic accident during a routine electrolysis treatment for a couple of unsightly pores on his nose. The surgeon, Dr Kyle Koppner, had a stroke and swept the electrolysis machine right across Chemo’s face, with the result that it looks like it’s made of Rice Krispies.

He looked like Fred Munster with bulimia. (p.207)

In agony, Chemo killed Koppner on the spot. For added incongruity, Hiaasen gives Chemo (real name Blondell Wayne Tatum, age 38, six foot nine, p.223) a long convoluted backstory which has him orphaned at an early age, raised by the Amish relatives, before he finally rebels and holds up a bank,. However, Chemo then (typically for Hiaasen) discovers he has a talent for local politics, with its combination of intimidation and corruption. But the facial disfigurement and the murder of the doctor abruptly ends his career in politics which, in America, is all about appearance.

The plot ramifies outwards like ripples in a lake. We learn that Gravelines had planned to invest some of his millions in a crooked real estate deal at a property named Old Cypress Towers. When he comes under pressure from – as he incorrectly believes – Mick Stranahan, he lets the crooked authorities who were taking bribes to let the planning permission go ahead, know that he is going to pull out unless something is done about Stranahan.

And so the head of the cabal of crooked local councillors, Roberto Pepsical, goes to see two of the thickest, slimiest cops on the police force, Joe Salazar and John Murdock, and tells them there’s greenbacks in it for them if they can get rid of Stranahan.

Meanwhile, Stranahan, realising someone is out to kill him, calls up his philandering brother-in-law, Kipper Garth (married to Stranahan’s sister, Kate), a supposed lawyer who in fact runs a sort of phone sales operation which chases claims of malpractice or injury and passes them on to reputable lawyers (pages 113 to 114) in what he calls ‘the referral racket’ (p.309).

Stranahan tells Garth that, for once, he’s going to have to prosecute an actual case himself, against Rudy, and hands over files of over a dozen patients of Dr Gravelines who have made various failed attempts to sue him. Pick one and sue him for real, Stranahan tells his brother-in-law, otherwise he’ll tell his wife all about Garth’s numerous infidelities which, with his connections at the Prosecutor’s office, Mick has managed to get documentary evidence about.

The plot then thickens over 400 pages of increasing complications, farcical twists and violent outbursts:

Maggie goes to New York and records a video giving her eye-witness account of the death of Victoria Barletta. Rudy pays Chemo to track her down and kill her but, when he finally confronts her in her New York hotel room, Maggie is so touchingly sympathetic about his face and his crippled hand that they end up becoming an extremely odd item. It helps that she herself has just undergone some plastic surgery with a view to changing her identity, so they can compare scars.

Mick gets to know the TV producer Christina and ends up having an affair with her, showing her the delights of nature, far from the city, making love under the stars on the decking of his house on stilts.

Improbably but comically Rudy Graveline has an affair with a stunningly good-looking model and TV star, Heather Chappell, who insists he operate on her even though her body is absolutely perfect. To get a discount for the operation, Heather lets Rudy screw him every which way in a variety of unexpected locations.

Detective Al García from Dade-Miami Police Department (who Hiaasen fans will recognise from the first two novels) shows up, sympathetic to Stranahan but representing a kind of recurring threat that he  (Mick) might be arrested at various points when various congeries of evidence point against him. For example, García doesn’t believe Stranahan’s claim that he has nothing to do with the macabre deaths of the two corrupt cops.

However, Stranahan steals a copy of the video in which Maggie describes the killing of Victoria Barletta and shows it to García who from that point onwards becomes a staunch ally.

In a dramatic scene Mick visits Rudy’s brother, George Graveline, at work as a tree surgeon. His questions rattle George so much that he whacks Stranahan over the head with a mahogany log and starts to feed his unconscious body into the timber shredder. However, García, who is quietly tailing Stranahan, sees this all happen and shoots Graveline, who drops Stranahan and himself falls head-first into the shredder and is blattered all over the place as Mick woozily regains consciousness.

Maggie reveals to Chemo the gravity of Rudy’s crime (murder) emphasising that Rudy is paying him an insultingly small amount. Angered, Chemo uses his garden strimmer on Graveline’s new apple red Jaguar.

Rudy takes a heavy suitcase containing $25,000 to meet the corrupt commissioner Roberto Pepsical in the confessional of a Catholic church but as they kneel, Rudy injects Pepsical with enough potassium to cause a massive heart attack, packs up and discreetly leaves. He is becoming a serial killer.

Meanwhile Kipper Garth had some luck with one of the plaintiffs Mick had turned up, one John Nordstrom who paid Rudy for his wife, Marie, to have a boob job which was so bad the boobs in question became rock hard and one day, during sex, she moved quickly and literally had his eye out, being blind in one eye leading him (Nordstrom) to lose his job as an air traffic controller. Savage comedy.

Garth pops round with the legal papers to see the couple and discovers that John is at work, in  his new job as a sports coach. Seeing an opportunity, slimy Garth talks the wife, Marie, into letting him touch her rock hard boobs. He’s in the middle of doing it just when John walks in. John’s new job as as a jai-alai coach and so quick as a flash he fires off a hardball with his wicker-glove which hits Garth at the back of the skull, knocking him unconscious to the floor.

Maggie and Chemo help Rudy sell Reymondo Flemm’s corpse to a man named Kimbler who sells body parts to schools and colleges in Central America.

At some point in all this mayhem Chemo kidnaps Christina the TV producer from her hotel under Rudy’s orders. Rudy gets a messenger to deliver a ransom note to Mick out on his stilt house. However, Mick bites back by kidnapping the actress Heather Chappell who Rudy is boffing and taking her back to his house on the sea, leaving a written note for Rudy and his gang to bring Christina out to the house for a hostage exchange.

And it is this exchange of the two women which forms the climax of the novel: Rudy, Chemo, Maggie and their hostage Christina turn up in a boat at Mick’s stilt house expecting to do a hostage swap for beautiful Heather. Except Heather doesn’t want to go. Rudy had promised he’d give her light plastic surgery all over, had doped her out for a day, covered her in bandages and lied that he’d done the procedures. After kidnapping her, Stranahan removes all the bandages and proves that her ‘boyfriend’ is a liar. So now Heather doesn’t want to go back to Rudy.

Rudy, Christina, Chemo and Maggie clamber aboard Mick’s deck but as she gives him a helping push upwards, Maggie pickpockets from Chemo the keys to her and Chemo’s motel room, where they’ve stashed all the loot they’ve stolen from Rudy, meaning to head back by herself and take it all. When Chemo realises she’s done this he dives on top of her to seriously hurt her but Stranahan knocks him out with the butt of his shotgun.

When Chemo comes round, the boat has left with the women, Christina, Heather and Maggie. It’s just the men in the stilt house, Mick, Chemo and Rudy.

Mich has handcuffed Rudy spreadeagled to his bed. Mick has a cunning plan. He is going to recreate a nosejob on Rudy in order to terrify him into confessing everything, how he killed Victoria Barletta, got rid of the body, paid for a hit on the doctor colleague who was blackmailing him, hired Chemo to kill Mick, and so on.

But as the interrogation reaches its vital moment and as he has a small cold metal chisel stuck up Rudy’s nose as if he really is going to break the bone, unexpectedly Chemo gives it a big whack with a hammer and it goes right up into Rudy’s brain, killing him instantly. Shit. Stranahan had promised García he would hand over the culprit to the murder along with a full confession. Shit. Mick is going to have to come up with a plan B.

In the short concluding chapter Detective Al García is motorboated out to the stilt house by Luis Córdova, a young marine patrolman who regularly calls by Stranahan’s house, a good guy, where they find Chemo by himself with the corpse of Rudy Graveline. No Mick anywhere. The cops immediately jump to a false conclusion about what must have happened. They mistakenly assume that Chemo lured Rudy out here and subjected him to a torture which went gruesomely wrong. It all fits together. The bad guys are either dead or going to gaol.

When they look for Mick Stranahan there is no sign and his skiff is holed and sunk under the house. Off in the distance, hard to focus on, García thinks he sees a porpoise or giant turtle amid the waves. Couldn’t be a man. Couldn’t be Mick Stranahan swimming in the distance. Nah. He turns back to the murder suspect. It is a happy ending. Sort of.

Gruesome violence

‘It’s like a nightmare of weirdness.’ Al García (p.323)

The book is littered with cruel, grotesque and macabre violent incidents:

  • Chemo’s face being wrecked by a plastic surgeon having a stroke.
  • Mick killing the hitman Tony ‘the Eel’ Traviola with the spear of a stuffed marlin.
  • For a spell, Chemo hooks up with Chloe Simpkins Stranahan, one of Mick’s ex-wives. She tells Chemo that when Mick found her shagging one of the many men she was unfaithful with, Mick didn’t beat him up but glued him by the testicles to the bonnet of an Eldorado convertible (p.74).
  • Chloe eggs Chemo on to burn down Mick’s shack but eventually makes the bad mistake of ridiculing Chemo’s appearance while they’re driving a speedboat through the lagoons, with the result that Chemo chucks the boat’s 30 pound anchor at her, which knocks her straight over the side and down to the bottom of the lagoon, drowning her (p.99).
  • Mick feeds fish to a huge barracuda which likes to idle in the shade beneath his house on stilts. When Chemo comes to kill him, Mick shoots Chemo backwards off the decking and into the water where Chemo’s splashing attracts the big fish which darts up and bites off Chemo’s hand. Chemo survives and makes it back to civilisation where he goes to see a doctor. They offer him various prosthetic replacements, but Chemo’s preferred option takes across the narrative across a border into Hiaasen bizarro land when Chemo attaches a mini-lawn strimmer, a Weed Whacker, to his stump, powered by a battery tucked under his armpit, and which he uses to devastating effect in the second half of the book.
  • When the corrupt cops Joe Salazar and John Murdock hire a boat to motor out to Mick’s lake hideaway and bump him off, as ordered by their corrupt superior (in fact Mick is now staying in the rundown cabin of an old buddy, after his own house on stilts has been ransacked), Mick doesn’t wait for a shootout but ties super-strong fishing twine across the narrow entrance to the lagoon front of the house so that the two cops, approaching in a boat at 42 miles per hour, are  instantly garroted. Well, one of them is, the other one takes a while to die in agony (chapter 23).
  • Stranahan goes to see George Graveline to try and get him to talk his brother into laying off the assassination attempts. George makes a bid to strangle Stranahan who punches him under the heart then in the balls, then treads on his neck to calm him down, then kneels down next to him to carry on the conversation. At which point George whacks him with a chunk of mahogany and starts feeding Stranahan’s unconscious body into the timber shredder. At which point, García, who’d accompanied Stranahan to the meeting but stayed in the car, shoots George Graveline who himself falls into the timber shredder and is shredded to a pulp and bone splinters (p.282).

See what I mean by violent and macabre?

But the cherry on the cake is the incident near the end of the novel when Reynaldo Flemm decides to go undercover at Dr Graveline’s clinic in order to get a TV scoop. He checks in under the false name Johnny LeTigre pretending to be a male stripper who needs liposuction and a nose job. The plan is that Flemm’s cameraman, Willie will burst in mid-nose job, toss Reynaldo a microphone and the latter will bombard Graveline with cutting questions about the Victoria Barletta murder and so get a TV exclusive.

But the plan all goes horribly wrong. 1. Instead of doing the nose job first, Graveline decides to do the liposuction, which requires a general anaesthetic so Flemm can neither shout out instructions to his cameraman loitering outside, carry out an interview or anything. 2. Graveline is an unqualified incompetent who barely knows what he’s doing. 3. When Willie finally finds the correct operating theatre and bursts in, distracting Graveline with his bright TV lights and bewildering questions, Graveline is so put off his stroke that he pushes the liposuction tube (the cannula) beyond the narrow band of fat he’s meant to be sucking out and deep into Reynaldo’s gut, sucking out one by one all his vital organs and killing him (chapter 30). Gruesome.

Clothes

There’s something deeply wrong and corrupt about a worldview which happily accepts the most violent incidents, corruption and casual murder, but is obsessed with identifying the exact labels and brands of what people are wearing:

  • [Flemm] was wearing another pair of khaki Banana Republic trousers and a baggy denim shirt. He smelled like a bucket of Brut. (p.50)
  • [Tina] wore a baggy Jimmy Buffett T-shirt over a cranberry bikini bottom. (p.86)
  • [Stranahan] was barefoot, wearing cutoff jeans and a khaki short-sleeved shirt, open to the chest. (p.87)
  • [Chloe] was wearing a ridiculous white sailor’s suit from Lord and Taylor’s. (p.94)
  • [Al García]’s J.C. Penney coat jacket was slung over one arm, and his shiny necktie was loosened half-way down his chest. (p.101)
  • Kipper Garth wore grey European-cut slacks, a silk paisley necktie and a bone-coloured shirt, the French cuffs rolled up to his elbows. (p.114)
  • Stranahan had worn a pressed pair of jeans, a charcoal sports jacket, brown loafers and no socks. (p.132)
  • He saw a god-looking woman in a white cottony top and tan safaris shorts hop off the shrimp boat… (p.149)
  • The man wore blue jeans, boots and a flannel shirt with the left sleeve cut away. (p.167)
  • Chemo was dressed in a tan safari outfit… (p.183)
  • She wore a red windbreaker, baggy knit pants, and high-top tennis shoes. (p.227)
  • Christina wore a tartan flannel shirt, baggy grey workout trousers, and running shoes. Stranahan worse jeans, sneakers, and a University of Miami sweatshirt. (p.248)
  • Rudy Graveline was wearing a tan sports jacket and dark, loose-fitting pants and a brown striped necktie (p.278).
  • [Marie Nordstrom] wore electric-blue Lycra body tights, and her ash-blond hair was pulled back in a girlish ponytail. (p.310)
  • [Rudy] was wearing Topsiders, tan cotton pants, and a Bean crewneck pullover. (p.351)
  • [Stranahan] wore blue jeans, deck shoes, a pale yellow cotton shirt and a poplin windbreaker. (p.353)

Odd that so many modern American writers are so obsessively precise about clothes and brands and so utterly indifferent to the value of human life.

Anti-Florida

Amazing that a man with such a bilious view of his own home state could keep a job on its premiere newspaper and in some sense become its literary representative, despite the outrageous examples of corruption he chronicles in his novels, and the throwaway references to the ubiquity of corruption and graft at every level of Florida life.

One of the wondrous things about Florida, Rudy Graveline thought as he chewed on a jumbo shrimp, was the climate of unabashed corruption; there was absolutely no trouble from which money could not extricate you. (p.108)

When some of his maltreated patients organise a suit against Graveline, he simply buys the hearing officer a shiny new Volvo station wagon and all charges are dropped. Not only that, but:

The board immediately reinstated Rudy’s licence and sealed all the records from the public and the press – thus honouring the long-held philosophy of Florida’s medical establishment that the last persons who need to know about a doctor’s incompetence are his patients. (p.109)

All the commissioners have off-the-record accounts in the Cayman Islands to stash the earnings they make through corruption and graft (p.110).

Commissioner Roberto Pepsical… found himself surrounded by ruthless and untrustworthy people – nobody played a straight game any more. In Miami corruption had become a sport for the masses. (p.228)

Miami, home of corruption and coke dealers.

Half the new Miami skyscrapers had been built with coke money and existed largely as an inside joke, a mirage to please the banks and the Internal Revenue Service and the chamber of commerce. Everyone liked to say that the skyline was a tribute to local prosperity but Stranahan recognised it as a tribute to the anonymous genius of Latin American money launderers. (p.316)

And crooked lawyers:

‘But lawyers aren’t supposed to solicit.’
‘Al, this is Miami.’ (p.324)

And all-purpose criminals:

‘Neighbourhoods like this are hard to find, Mick. You know, we’ve only been burglarised twice in  four years. That’s not bad for Miami.’ (p. 322)

Hiaasen does have a few good characters: Luis Córdova, a young marine patrolman who regularly calls by Stranahan’s house, in his boat, warns him if trouble is coming. The old black guy, Cartwright, who Stranahan helped in a battle with crooked property developers back in the day (is there any other kind?).

And he creates a heavily symbolic figure, Timmy Gavigan, a retired cop who is lying in a hospital bed far gone with terminal cancer. He’s an old friend of Stranahan’s who visits him several times during the course of the novel, as does the TV producer Christina Marks as part of her investigations.

Gavigan is pretty obviously designed as a symbol of old-school Integrity and so it is no accident that he’s wasting away and dying, symbol of an old world of integrity and decency being drowned in a sea of scumbags.

There’s a scene where Gavigan is in bed, barely able to breathe, being visited by compassionate Christina, when the two piggish and corrupt cops, Joe Salazar and John Murdock, barge in and try to bully Gavigan into incriminating Stranahan, while she tries to moderate their behaviour. Worthy old symbol of honour harassed to the grave by swinish corruption.

Against this one good man is set a panorama of everyday corruption at every level and in every area of Florida life. And the terrible thing about corruption is it’s so dynamic, it has so much energy.

The county had hired [George Graveline, Rudy’s tree-trimming brother] to rip out the old trees to make space for some tennis courts. Before long a restaurant would spring up next to the tennis courts and, after that, a major resort hotel. The people who would run the restaurant and the hotel would receive the use of the public property for practically nothing, thanks to their pals on the county commission. In return, the commissioners would receive a certain secret percentage of the refreshment concessions. And the voters would have brand-new tennis courts, whether they wanted them or not. (p.275)

Anti-American

From time to time, Hiaasen suggests it’s not just Florida, that the vista of unreasoned violence and chaos which he so furiously depicts extends out across the entire United States. For example, he jokily refers to the occurrence of the ‘regular’ mass shooting in Oklahoma as if mass shootings are now a boringly familiar occurrence; or jokes that a shootout and fight at Chemo’s New York apartment (when Chemo finds Stranahan has broken in and is going through his things) barely even makes the papers in that ultra-violent city (p.223).

There are numerous other minor, casual incidents which highlight the casual sexism, violence and cynicism of American culture. At the start of the novel Mick boats it back to the house on stilts to discover that while he’s away a speedboat of young people has deposited their young women to sunbathe (nude) on his decking while the guys goof around and waterski on the boat.

Mick is polite to the women, who quickly cover up and is only a little disconcerted when one of them, Tina, strolls into his shack and asks him to assess her naked body. Why? Because she wants to have plastic surgery to perfect it.

But the point of the story is that when the young men return to the shack, Tina’s boyfriend, Richie, is jealous when he sees her walking out of the shack naked and accompanied by Mick. Mick courteously ferries the girls out to their boyfriends’ boat and has turned and is making away, when he hears and sees Tina’s boyfriend start badmouthing her and then smacking her. Mick turns his skiff round, jumps onto the speedboat and beats the crap out of the boyfriend.

I take the point that Mick is a beacon of chivalry in a sleazy shitty world but… not really. He himself is liable to violent rages and violent attacks. Everyone is. It comes over as a very, very violent place.

Even without the corruption, violence and killing, Hiaasen often appears to simply not like Americans, especially the chavvy scum he sees visiting the Sunshine State.

[Maggie and Chemo] got in line at the Pan Am counter, surrounded by a typical Miami-bound contingent – old geezers with tubas for sinuses; shiny young hustlers in thin gold chains; huge hollow-eyes families that looked like they’d staggered out of a Sally Struthers telethon. (p.221)

Bands

An entertainingly comic thread running through the book is the way that Chemo, in between his jaunts as a hit man, has a crappy job as a bouncer at a low-rent venue called the Gay Bidet, which hosts a succession of ‘punk’ rock bands, such as the Fudge Packers (p.163), Cathy and the Catheters, Queen of Slut Rock (p.236) or the Fabulous Foreskins (p.302).

I found these band names, and the fights which generally break out at the gigs between neo-Nazis and rednecks or rival gangs of skinheads, much more realistic and fun than any of the laboured, would-be ‘cool’ band references in the rock-obsessed novels of William Gibson.

Mind you, Hiaasen’s rock references are nearly as dated as Gibson’s. As a test to see whether they’re going to be compatible, Stranahan routinely asks his girlfriends to name the Beatles. Most fail. After sleeping with young Tina (who he rescued from her violent boyfriend and who, later, comes back to see him alone) a couple of times, Mick realises she’s far too young for him and, when she fails to name all the members of the Beatles, gives that as a reason for dumping her.

Whereas when he eases into an affair with the investigative TV producer, Christina Marks, taking her nude swimming at midnight etc, the fact that she not only names all four members of the Beatles but throws in early member Pete Best, jokily cements the affair (p.248). 1989 it was published, nearly 20 years after the Beatles split up. Hiaasen comes over as a textbook example of ageing Dad Rock.

Human relationships

I know it’s meant to be grotesquely extreme and fiercely satirical, but Hiaasen’s novels confirm the sense I get whenever I watch modern American TV or read about American novels or movies, which is that – Americans have stopped being able to relate to each other as decent human beings.

Everyone in Hiaasen’s fiction uses everyone else instrumentally, as tools to an end: the bad guys egregiously so, but even the good guys like Brian Keyes or R.J. Decker (in the previous two novels) or Mick Stranahan in this one, they also manipulate and use the other human beings around them, lying, deceiving and manipulating as necessary to achieve their goals.

There’s no-one in these novels who isn’t a crook or a user, in the sense of someone who takes advantage of or exploits others. The relentlessly bilious cynicism can, eventually, become a little wearing. And so, despite the presence of many comical and farcical moments, the book somehow lacks the joi de satiriser of the first two novels, the sprezzatura. The portrait of a society mired in corruption and casual violence is too persuasive and too depressing.

The name’s Bond

In my reviews of William Gibson’s novels I pointed out the slight but detectable ‘anxiety of influence’ they evince, the text’s feeling that, at key moments, it is veering very close to James Bond territory (Machiavellian mastermind, handsome omni-competent hero, dishy woman, state-of-the-art gadgets) and how Gibson tries to address and defuse the perception with a couple of jokey references to Bond movies or villains.

Interestingly, Hiaasen does the same. Sooner or later one or other of the characters realises the all-action adventure they’re in is coming perilously close to Bond territory, and Hiaasen anticipates the reader twigging this by making his own jokey reference. In the previous novel the slippery vamp, Lanie, tells the hero that her favourite Bond is Sean Connery. Here, the reference comes when Mick’s ex-wife Chloe is goading Chemo:

‘Have you got your plan?’ Chloe asked
‘The less you know, the better.’
‘Oh, pardon me,’ she said caustically. ‘Pardon me, Mr James Fucking Bond.’ (p.95)

Soon afterwards Chemo chucks the anchor at Chloe which drags her to the bottom of the lagoon and drowns her. Don’t mention Bond. That said the book contains more references to the TV series Miami Vice which was undergoing an explosion of popularity at the time and, maybe, threatened to steal Hiaasen’s thunder. In America, competition, for everything, is always fierce (pages 307, 348).

Recurring characters

Mick Stranahan returns to feature in Hiaasen’s 2004 novel Skinny Dip.

Chemo returns in the 2010 novel, Star Island.


Credit

Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1989. All references are to the 1991 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen (1987)

Decker said, ‘May I assume we won’t be alerting the authorities?’
‘You learn fast,’ Skink said.
(Double Whammy, page 115)

Carl Hiaasen, born in Florida in 1953, is one of America’s premiere writers of comedy thrillers, and by  the the rather bland word ‘comedy’ what we’re referring to is savage, bitterly satirical and often very violent farce.

Tourist Season

Hiaasen started out as a journalist and by the mid-1980s was writing a regular column for the Miami Herald. By then he had co-written a couple of novels with a fellow journalist, before launching out on his own with his first solo novel, Tourist Season, a violently satirical portrait of a half-assed gang of would-be eco-terrorists who mount a doomed attempt to try and scare away Florida’s never-ending flood of incoming retirees and tourists (by kidnapping random middle-aged tourists and feeding them to a tame crocodile) in a forlorn attempt to save Florida’s last surviving areas of wilderness.

Everyone in the book comes in for satirical blasting – the journalists on the fictional paper covering the events and whose star columnist turns out to be the wild-eyed leader of the revolutionaries; the disgruntled black, Hispanic and Native Indian losers he recruits to the cause; the redneck white cops and the one, good, Hispanic cop who they patronise; the corrupt and cowardly Chamber of Commerce; along with excoriating satire of the fake razzamatazz of city parades and the hypocritical lechery of beauty pageants – no topic is too sacred to be roasted, no profession goes unmocked (‘Decker didn’t see much  difference between the mob and an insurance company’), no situation is left unmined for brutal and macabre situations, and Florida, Hiaasen’s home state, comes in for unremitting, blistering criticism:

Every pillhead fugitive felon in America winds up in Florida eventually. The Human Sludge Factor – it all drips to the South. (p.202)

Along with repeated caricatures of the white racist rednecks who overflow the state and are also referred to as ‘crackers’:

To a man they were rural Southerners, with names like Jerry and Larry, Chet and Greg, Jeb and Jimmy. When they talked it was bubba-this and brother-that, between spits of chaw. (p.165)

Double Whammy

I thought Tourist Season was great, but Double Whammy is even better. The central subject matter is, improbably enough, the burgeoning sport of largemouth bass fishing. Hiaasen gives us plenty of well-researched background into the rise of national competitions to catch largemouth bass, details about fishing rods and baits and boats. (The ‘double whammy’ of the book’s title is a kind of bait or lure, ‘the hottest lure on the pro bass circuit,’ p.23.)

The point of all this is that there’s big money at stake, and the fishing competition at the centre of the story ties into bitter rivalries, fierce fights over ratings and TV sponsorship, competition for national sales of fishing products, with the result that people are cheating, really cheating, cheating bad enough to make it worth while to murder anyone who finds out.

Enter R.J. Decker, one-time fashion photographer, who switched to newspaper photography – less money but easier work – until one day found himself photographing the rotted corpse of a women journalist he’d worked alongside in the newsroom who’d been abducted, raped and murdered, and realising he couldn’t do it any more (p.44).

His wife, Catherine, divorced him and, two weeks later married a well-off timeshare-salesman-turned-chiropractor. On the day of their wedding Decker caught a black guy stealing the expensive cameras from his car boot, gave chase, tackled the guy and beat him to a pulp (p.42).

Which was a mistake, as the thief turned out to be the nephew of powerful people, who got Decker arrested and sent to Apalachee prison for 10 months for assault, his newspaper sacked him, and so there he was ten months later, an unemployed, divorced ex-con. No wonder his ex-wife Catherine’s nickname for him is ‘Rage’ (p.97). At a loss for anything better to do, Decker sets himself up as a private detective, paid to trail adulterous husbands or employees faking ill health to claim the insurance, and take incriminating photos to be used against them in court.

R.J. Decker is the ‘hero’ of the book and the story kicks off as he is hired by largemouth bass fishing fanatic Dennis Gault to investigate corruption on the largemouth bass fishing circuit. At first Decker thinks it’s a joke (as might the reader) so Gault is used as the main mouthpiece to explain the rise of largemouth bass fishing, the spread of state and national competitions, and the significant sums to be won in the endless series of competitions held across the USA (hundreds of thousands of dollars prize money) plus all the sponsorship, TV advertising and so on which comes with it.

We learn that one of the big names in the sport is Dickie Lockhart, who hosts his own carefully doctored TV show about catching big fish, and rakes in big money from sponsorship and ads.

The actual narrative starts with a run-of-the-mill fisherman named Robert Clinch, getting up in the middle of the night, driving to a fishing lake, launching his dinghy and poking about in the depths. We never find out why, for he never returns to his nagging wife and, a few days later, his corpse is dragged out of the lake. When Gault calls in Decker it is to explain that he (Gault) had hired Clinch to look into fishing skullduggery, and that someone had obviously bumped him off. Gault wants Decker to investigate Clinch’s murder.

From that moment we are on a rollercoaster ride of outrageous plot developments, grotesque caricatures, off-the-scale cynicism and corruption, all retailed in short snappy chapters which each move the plot along with brisk efficiency, all retailed in slick, über-articulate prose. We meet:

Characters

Ott Pickney A feeble old acquaintance of Decker’s from his newspaper days, who is eking out his time on the local newspaper of the remote, rural Harney County where Clinch was bumped off. Decker encounters him Ott when he starts investigating Clinch’s death, which prompts Pickney to do a bit of poking around himself, which is unfortunate. He has barely discovered that Clinch’s boat was tampered with to make his death look like an accident before he himself is bumped off by local toughs who are clearly behind Clinch’s murder.

The world at large learns that Pickney has gone missing from the characteristically bizarro fact that Pickney is not only a poorly-paid hack for a remote rural newspaper, but doubles as ‘Davey Dillo’, the mascot for the local Harney High School football team, the Armadillos. People know something’s wrong when he doesn’t turn up for that night’s football game to perform his clumsy stunts dressed as an armadillo on a skateboard (!).

Elaine ‘Lanie’ Gault Ex-model, terrific figure, Lanie is sister of Dennis Gault and sent by him to spy on Decker. Decker encounters her at the large funeral for Clinch, where he learns she was (rather improbably) the dead man’s mistress, and she crops up regularly after that, generally scantily clad, fragrant and very seductive. Turns out she and Decker met some years earlier, when she was a model on a fashion shoot with Decker. In fact it later turns out it was at her suggestion that Dennis hired R.J. in the first place.

Dickie Lockhart is the desperate fraud who fronts the smash-hit TV show, Fast Fish, all about largemouth bass fishing, but only maintains the show and his reputation at competitions by having paid associates pre-capture large fish and secure them in places they’ll be easy for him to uncage and claim as his own.

The Reverend Charles Weeb is president, general manager and spiritual commander of the Outdoor Christian Network (p.52) and front man for its hit show, Jesus In Your Living Room (p.194). He is everything you’d expect in an American TV evangelist, i.e. he’s a foul-mouthed, money-mad hypocrite who preaches to the faithful during the day and has sex with multiple hookers by night, something caught in the following sentences which are typical of the way Hiaasen casually states the most breath-taking hypocrisies and immoralities.

Weeb was wide awake now. He paid off the hookers and sat down to write his Sunday sermon. (p.198)

We later find out that Weeb is also, in a move clearly designed to make him as cynical a character as possible, Jewish! (p.193). It is typical of the novel’s hilariously foul-mouthed profanity, that Weeb thinks of Lockhart, his premiere TV star, as ‘a shiftless pellet-brained cocksucker’ (p.257).

Weeb also performs ‘miracle cures’ and there is a rich comic sub-plot in which his fixer, Deacon Johnson, has to go out and find children, preferably blonde to appeal to his redneck audience, who can be made to look halt or lame and then undergo a ‘miracle’ transformation i.e. be paid to pretend to be halt or lame then stand up and walk on cue.

R.J’s ex-wife is Catherine, beautiful and soulful and still half in love with him, as is demonstrated by the number of times she not only kisses but they have full-blown sex, despite the fact that she is married to her second husband, creepy but successful chiropractor, James. At the climax of the novel Decker saves her life, which often helps to rejuvenate a relationship.

Then there’s the retarded red-neck brothers Culver and Ozzie Rundell who run a bait shop and are involved in some of the early murders. Ozzie is a hilarious portrait of a mumbling, drooling moron with the comic habit of answering the questions he’s asked out of order. Ozzie was:

one of the most witless and jumble-headed crackers that Jim Tile had ever met. (p.251)

Slowly the reader realises that it is Gault, who ostensibly hired Decker to find who murdered Clinch, who is himself behind the murder, using his hired killer, Thomas Curl, a low-grade thug who Gault has hired to look after his interests and investments and bump off anyone who threatens them. When Thomas and his brother Lemus trail Skink and Decker into the backwoods and start shooting at them, Skink hides, doubles back and shoots Lemus neatly through the forehead – which doesn’t improve his brother, Thomas’s, attitude one little bit.

But the most important character in the book, and Hiaasen’s greatest fictional creation, is Skink, a huge dirty, demented environmentalist-cum-hobo, who wears dayglo jackets and a flower-patterned plastic shower cap, who lives in a shack way out in the boondocks and eats roadkill scraped off the state’s blacktop roads (p.32).

In chapter 9 we learn that Skink was once Clinton Tyree, 6 foot 6 ex-college football star and Vietnam vet, who successfully ran to become Florida state governor but wasn’t prepared for the rampant corruption and sleaze involved. When he refused kickbacks to allow commercial developments to go ahead, and in fact tape recorded the incriminating conversations and set the police onto the corrupt corporations, the powers that really run Florida – big business, banks, finance houses, property developers, holiday companies – decided Tyree had to go.

They suborned all the other state officials so that Tyree lost every important vote in the state senate. Then when the corrupt property developers came to trial they were all let off and, as fate would have it, on the very same day, an important wildlife preserve (the ‘Sparrowbeach Wildlife Preserve’, p.119) was sold off to more developers. (A lot later on we learn that Catherine’s salesman husband was involved in selling timeshares at the destroyed wildlife preserve, p.227.)

Depressed and disillusioned by this double blow (a double whammy), Governor Tyree gave up. He had his limousine drive him to a Greyhound bus terminal in Orlando, got on a bus to Tallahassee, but never arrived. Somewhere en route, at a gas stop, he slipped off the bus and was never seen again. It now turns out that he chose the little parish of Harney to hide out in because it is, politically and culturally, the most backwards county in all Florida (p.121), in fact it is:

the most backward-thinking and racist county in the state. (p.241)

Thus the backstory of ‘Skink’, the man Ott Pinkney introduces Decker to (before the former’s unfortunate demise). Pinkney drives Decker out to Skink’s remote shack and from that point onwards the two come to form a very unlikely double act as they delve deeper into the murky waters of Florida’s crooked largemouth bass world. We come to like the way Skink refers to Decker as ‘Miami’ throughout the novel.

Except it isn’t a duo, it’s a trio. Skink has a trusty assistant or compadre, Jim Tile, a black state trooper. Hiaasen goes out of his way to emphasise the entrenched racism of the Florida authorities, and pauses the narrative on a number of occasions to give ample accounts of the racist attitudes and professional obstacles placed in the way of Jim Tile, who is one of the few black troopers working in Florida’s highway patrol. When Tile announced his ambition to one day be in charge of Florida highway patrol, the white authorities promptly exiled him to the most remote dirt-bucket country in the state, Harney County in order to quash his ambition (chapter 11).

It was here, back when Skink was running for governor, that Tile was assigned the job of protecting the then-unelected gubernatorial candidate, Clinton Tyree, as he made a swing through Harney county on the campaign trail. Over the course of the day they spent together Tyree came to appreciate Tile’s honesty and steadiness and, when he unexpectedly won the governorship, he ordered Tile assigned to his personal detail in Tallahassee (which is the state capital of Florida).

So they got to know and trust each other more. When Tyree walked away from the corruption a few years later, Tile was immediately sent by the anti-black authorities back to Harney County, where Skink had, as it happened, decided to hole up, the pair remained in touch, and Jim emerges as a key figure in the novel.

Al García About half-way through the novel (page 206) we are surprised at the arrival of Al García as the detective sent up from Miami to investigate the murders in Harney County. Surprised, because García was a fairly central character in the predecessor novel, Tourist Season. Towards the end of that book García had been shot and badly wounded in the shoulder by the feverish screw-up of a would-be terrorist, Jésus Bernal, just before the novel’s ‘hero’, Brian Keyes, himself shoots Bernal dead. In this novel, there is no reference to any of those events, although there are references to the fact that Al’s shoulder still hurts and he needs painkillers (p.212).

Hiaasen’s prose

It’s a well-established principle that thrillers, especially American thrillers, foreground (generally male) characters who are super-competent, who can drive any vehicle, fly any plane, handle any gun, know how to fight, know how to work the system, know to schmooze journalists or cops or whoever necessary, are men of the world in the fullest sense. (It is revealing that Hiaasen, like William Gibson, is aware that the king of this trope is James Bond and so makes an explicit reference to Bond on page 126, where Lanie is watching an old 007 movie and tells Decker she thinks Connery was the best Bond.)

But in Hiaasen it’s the third-person narrator himself who is astonishingly knowledgeable and confident. To open up a Hiaasen novel is to be immediately in the company of a breezily confident dude who knows all the names for all the angles, all the lingo for all the kit, all the slang for every scam and racket in town and reels off highly informed factual sentences with wonderful brio and verve. Here’s TV host Dickie up in New Orleans for an out-of-state largemouth bass tournament.

On the night of January 15, Dickie Lockhart got dog-sucking drunk on Bourbon Street and was booted out of a topless joint for tossing rubber nightcrawlers on the dancers. (p.148)

There’s at least two levels of pleasure in that one sentence. Number one, it makes the (probably male) reader feel as if they also live in a world which is this rangy, open and confident, New Orleans, jazz bars, strip joints, wow! In reality, despite having knocked about a bit, I don’t think I have ever actually been to a ‘topless joint’ and never will. But for half a page I felt like I was at one.

The second level is the breezy confidence of the prose, which itself can probably be broken down into two levels. First, the grammatical clarity of the sentence. Hiaasen wasn’t an experienced journalist for nothing. Instead of showing off its oblique and angled surfaces like a William Gibson sentence, Hiaasen’s periods get on and tell you what happened, in no-nonsense, no stuffiness, unpretentious, rangy prose. When you come to visualise it, you realise an entire scene is captured in just that one sentence.

Secondly, the narrator shows boundless confidence with terminology, whether it’s street slang or specialised terms. Thus I think I’ve heard lots of synonyms for ‘getting drunk’ but never ‘dog-sucking drunk’ before. Always a pleasure to encounter a new word or phrase, specially if it’s a comically slangy one. And I had to look up ‘nightcrawlers’ to discover that they are, in line with the novel’s fishing theme, worms used as bait.

So it’s not Faulkner or Joyce, but sentence by sentence, Hiaasen gives a lot of pleasure just from his use of prose, its vim and energy, its confidence and its competence.

And this is before you get to any actual plot. The sentence quoted above marks the opening of chapter 12 which goes on to describe the ‘dog-sucking’ drunk Dickie getting thrown out the strip join and staggering over to the hotel where he knows his boss, the Reverend Charles Weeb, is staying, in order to confront him with the fact that he (Dickie) knows that he (Weeb) has been talking to Ed Spurling, another famous fisherman, with a view to sacking Dickie and replacing him with Ed as front man on the TV show Fish Fever.

It helps his case that Dickie discovers the Reverend Weeb in bed with two hookers, one wearing only thigh-length waders, the other riding Weeb’s manhood wearing ‘a Saints jersey, number 12’. Dickie threatens to blackmail Weeb. Weeb has to concede defeat. The reader has experienced a hilariously extreme satire on the nexus of Florida religion, TV business and the sex trade. Snappy stuff, designed to amuse, and it does amuse and entertain, and shock and amaze, very successfully.

Command of language

So many of the sentences stand out for their confidence. Rather than belabour the point they say what they want to say directly, with the minimum of fuss, but often with startling use of language.

  • Already one or two bass boats were out on the water; Decker could hear the big engines chewing up the darkness. (p.101)
  • A speeding motorist could see Skink a mile away. He looked like a neon yeti. (p.36)
  • It was only when he got to his feet that Decker saw what a diesel he truly was. (p.35)

With occasional bursts of real lyricism:

The Everglades night was glorious and immense, the sweep of the sky unlike anything he’d seen anywhere in the South; here the galaxy seemed to spill straight into the shimmering swamp. (p.383)

In addition to Hiaasen’s wonderfully casual fluency are the scores of new (to me) words, terms and phrases he lards the text with:

  • ‘a hundred large’ = hundred thousand dollars (p.97)
  • ‘hulking out’ = working out (p.96)
  • ‘the goldbrick fireman’, where ‘goldbrick’ = super-fit (p.97)
  • ‘it’s going gangbusters’ = the business is thriving (p.99)
  • ‘sportfucking’ = sleeping around (p.322)
  • ‘a through-and-through’ = a bullet wound where the bullet goes direct through soft muscle; Culver Rundell shoots Jim Tile through the thigh, before Tile disarms him, smashes his jaw and systematically breaks all his fingers (p.381)

And mystery words: there are loads of sentences which casually include a word I’ve never read before:

  • ‘I figure they’re poaching gators or jacklighting a deer that came down to drink.’ (p.104) ‘jacklighting’?
  • ‘What kind of work?’ Decker asked. ‘Scut work,’ Skink said. (p.107) ‘Scut work?’
  • ‘Only thing I could figure is that he’d gone out Saturday night and tied one on.’ (p.134)

Occasionally this articulacy crystallises in memorable apothegms:

  • [García] hated trailer parks; trailer parks were the reason God invented tornadoes. (p.210)
  • Guns make people say the darnedest things. (p.404)

The second sentence would make a cracking TV show, a redneck version of ‘You’ve Been Framed’.

Omni-competence

The narrator has that thriller writer’s dazzling super-knowledge about every material aspect of American life, about its reams of products and brands. Thus every item of clothing that every character wears is described, as is the exact make of every car, boat, piece of fishing tackle, everything, is nailed and named:

Dennis Gault was holding a stack of VCR cassettes when he answered the door. He was wearing salmon shorts and a loose mesh top that looked like it would have made an excellent mullet seine. (p.86)

What is a loose mesh top? Is it like a string vest? What is a mullet seine? Is it a type of net?

  • Lanie was dressed in a red timber jacket, skintight Gore-Tex dungarees, and black riding boots. (p.390)
  • He put on his favourite desert-tan leisure suit, buffed his cream-colour shoes, and trimmed his nose hairs. (p.392)
  • [Weeb] wore a powder-blue pullover, white parachute pants, and a pair of black Nike running shoes. (p.304)

‘Timber jacket’, ‘leisure suit’, ‘parachute pants’? I don’t know what any of these are. And the author knows about lots of other stuff, about all aspects of everything. Here’s Skink explaining some background to the fishing:

‘Some of the guys fish the slough when the water’s up,’ Skink cut in. ‘You need a johnboat, and no outboard. Ten minutes from the highway and you’re into heavy bass cover.’ (p.103)

All the characters seem to be impressively knowledgeable about motorboats, possibly true of Florida as a whole, with its watery sports environment:

The boat was an eighteen-foot Aquasport with a two-hundred-horse Evinrude outboard; smooth trim, dry ride, very fast. (p.248)

Everyone is articulate, everything has a name and everyone knows the names of everything. There’s very little doubt or indeterminacy. I’ve just read Samuel Beckett’s complete works and his prose, in particular, is about the impossibility of knowing anything and, for that reason, of ever managing to properly express anything.

Hiaasen’s brazen American confidence is at the extreme opposite end of the psychological and literary spectrum. In Hiaasen’s world everything, absolutely everything, can be known and named and understood.

Decker nodded. ‘Sounds like a Ruger Mini-14’. Very popular with the Porsche-and-powder set in Miami, but not the sort of bang-bang you expected upstate. (p.113)

‘Porsche-and-powder set’. ‘Bang-bang’.

Another running thread is the way everyone eats out and the names of each restaurant or chain and the dishes ordered are specified. I never eat out. I can’t afford it. All the characters in all of Hiaasen’s novels eat out all the time.

  • They sat in a corner table at Middendorf’s
  • They went to the Acme for raw oysters and beer. (p.188)
  • Just what I need is that asshole jetting up for brunch at Brennan’s, thought Decker. (p.199)
  • They went to a Denny’s on Biscayne Boulevard. (p.214)
  • ‘We hit Mister Donut on the way in,’ Decker said (p.347).

Same goes for human behaviour, it is supremely knowable and therefore predicatable. Routinely, characters expect the other person to say or do this or that, and that is exactly what they then do. This notion, that people are predictable robots with set repertoires is the basis of much humour, as pointed out by Henri Bergson a century ago. A good example comes on page 98 where R.J. is chatting to his ex-wife Catherine, and he can tell she’s about to go into her ‘You’re wasting your life’ routine and, sure enough, she does, much to the reader’s amusement.

Of course the weakness of this approach is that, if everything is already known and named and identified, both the plot and the characters risk realising that they are in a thriller, conforming to thriller stereotypes. It’s interesting how often thrillers themselves raise this issue, presumably hoping to allay the reader’s suspicions, but on the whole serving only to highlight their own secondariness, their ‘already-read’ nature.

Thus when Lanie visits Decker in his motel bedroom in the second half of the novel and bursts into tears, he knows by this stage that she’s a lying actor, knows it’s all an act, but nonetheless finds himself moving to the bed to hold her and comfort her, painfully aware how clichéd the whole scene is.

Of course then the tears came, and the next thing Decker knew he had moved to the bed and put his arms around Lanie and told her to knock off the crying. Please. In his mind’s eye he could see himself in this cheesy scene out of a cheap detective movie; acting like the gruff cad, awkwardly consoling the weepy long-legged knockout. (p.129)

‘Knockout’, the thing that’s often missed about tough-guy, hard-boiled prose is that it’s often funny, it’s knowingness is a fundamentally comic attitude. One way to avoid accusations of over-familiarity and stereotype, to decisively step out of the deep shadows of Fleming or Chandler, is to outgross and outgrotesque all your predecessors, and this Hiaasen very successfully manages to do.

Evermore grotesque

There’s a lot more plot, a plot which gets steadily more convoluted and farcical, but it is a savage farce in which people get beaten up, tied up, shot and gruesomely murdered. For example: Lanie, sent to seduce and spy on Decker, gets kidnapped, stripped naked and tied up in hundreds of yards of tough fishing twine; slick Dickie Lockhart gets hit in the head and drowned; and Dennis Gault is, eventually, revealed as the bad guy behind almost all the murders, and meets a sticky end when he catches a monster bass which pulls him by his rod and line backwards over the stern of a shiny new fishing boat where is instantly shredded by its state-of-the-art high speed propeller.

Probably the funniest element of the novel (or the sickest, depending on how squeamish you are) is that the hired hitman of the book, the thug Thomas Curl, is trying to break into Decker’s trailer when he is attacked by one of the chavvy neighbours’ pitbull terriers. The beast jumps up and bites him in the arm and, although Curl then stabs and kills it with a screwdriver, the pitbull refuses to let go.

In fact so tightly are the animal’s jaws clamped on his forearm that even after Curl’s sawed the head clean off, the dog won’t let go. And so killer Curl goes through the last third of the novel with a dead pitbull head clamped to his arm. Inevitably, the thing begins to rot and fester and the infection gets into Curl’s bloodstream, making him increasingly delirious and feverish.

Thus when he kidnaps the lovely Catherine, Decker’s ex-wife, she is terrified to realise that Curl is talking to the dead dog’s head as if it were a friendly pet. It’s a very funny moment when Catherine realises that, to stay on his good side, she’d better play along too, and so she starts to make doggy barking noises behind her hand, which Curl, in his hallucinatory state, takes to be the yapping of his nice doggy which he has, by this time, named Lucas.

The hallucinating killer with a rotting dog’s head clamped to his arm is one of Hiaasen’s most vivid and fabulously grotesque creations.

The climax

Tourist Season led up to a ghastly climax during the half-time entertainment of the big local football game, when the would-be environmental terrorists, led by renegade journalist Skip Wiley, kidnap the local beauty queen in front of not only a live audience but a stunned national TV audience.

Something similar happens here, for the ever-accelerating plot leading up to a climax set in the biggest richest largemouth bass fishing competition in the country, set up by the Reverend Weeb in order to promote the fishing ‘lakes’ created next to the building development he’s invested all his money in. For, deep down, the ultimate motor of the plot is not the fishing competitions as such, but Hiaasen’s deepest and most consistent enemy, illegal, corrupt and environmentally devastating property developments.

Weeb has invested a lot of time and money setting up this competition, offering the biggest prize money and invited all America’s top fishermen to ensure maximum coverage for his new housing development and scenic fishing lakes, and which he intends to preface with an extra special edition of his TV evangelism show, Jesus in Your Living Room.

As you might imagine, the religious show and the televised fishing competition which follow it turn into a chaotic fiasco with half a dozen plotlines all converging to create maximum havoc, not least the fact that the entire development that Weeb has invested millions in turns out to have been built on an old landfill site so that, in scooping out the supposed ‘lakes’ the developers created vast pools of toxic liquid not that dissimilar from battery acid, in which no fish – let alone the thousands of largemouth bass the Reverend has had carefully and expensively bussed in to stock the water and provide telegenic catches – can survive for even a day.

Another comic aspect of the climactic scenes is the way the black man Jim Tile and the Hispanic Al García enter this super-fishing competition a) thus outraging all the other whiter-than-white contestants, and the Reverend Weeb, but also b) taking the mickey out of their racist opponents by speaking each other’s idiolect, so that Tile speaks bad Spanish and García speaks street jivetalk. It is preposterous, absurd and very funny.

So the fishing competition turns into a catastrophic disaster with not one fish being pulled out of the so-called ‘lakes’ alive, but it is matched for farce by the TV evangelism strand in which the Reverend Weeb was meant to perform a miracle cure of a poor sinner, which leads to his poor assistant scouring the streets and towns near to the lake development to find a tramp or hobo, or preferably a kid from an orphanage who can be paid to play lame or blind or paralysed and then, at the climax of the Revere and Weeb’s prayers and performance, miraculously rise and see and speak. Except that the assistant, running out of time and getting desperate, chooses none other than Skink, sitting alone and derelict looking in a bus shelter and wearing sunglasses, who immediately twigs what is going on, and plays along pretending to be blind, right up till the moment the reverend claims to cure him when, of course, he reveals his true character and delivers a grotesque rant to the live TV audience with, as they say, hilarious consequences.

There’s a huge amount more plot and detail to this riotous book, multiple other plotlines which are laid out and drawn together with brilliant precision and comic timing, and all lead up to this savage, satirical, violent and riotous climax. Double Whammy is a brilliantly shocking, scandalously entertaining and hilarious novel.


Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen (1986)

Reading the final novel in William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy was like having my teeth pulled out one by one. It was a gruelling slog. Several times, as I forced myself to crawl on across the shiny, beautifully engineered desert of Gibson’s prose, I caught a glimpse of a pile of old Carl Hiaasen paperbacks I bought in the 1990s lying around by my shelves, and began to fantasise about escaping from Gibson’s pretentious, globe-trotting, expense account narratives, with their exhaustive descriptions of every item of clothing every character is wearing, and the expensive cars they drive and the pretentious gadgets they use, and Gibson’s eerie absence of plot and disappointing denouements, for something simpler and funnier from a simpler, funnier time.

Hiaasen’s books, by contrast, are quick and hilarious. Instead of Gibson’s laboured, carefully-wrought, burnished chrome sentences, Hiaasen just tells it quick and dirty.

‘Look at that crybaby,’ Jesús Bernal said, scowling at the heartsick Indian. ‘Somebody shot his pet lizard.’
‘You shut up,’ Viceroy Wilson hissed at the Cuban, ‘or I’ll nail your nuts to your nose.’ (p.218)

Hiaasen’s plots are outrageous and farcically convoluted (as opposed to Gibson’s plots which are contorted and obscure yet consistently disappointing). Hiaasen’s characters are varied, over the top and grotesquely colourful, unlike Gibson’s monotonously soundalike ‘cool’ characters who display as much personality as shop window mannequins.

Potted biography

Hiaasen was born in 1953 in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He graduated with a degree in journalism and, by 1976, was writing for the Miami Herald where he worked for the city desk, Sunday magazine and award-winning investigative team. In 1985 he became a thrice-weekly columnist for the paper. Meanwhile, the ambitious author had already published his first novel, Powder Burn, co-written with friend and fellow journalist William Montalbano, in 1981, followed by Trap Line 1982.

In 1986 came his first solo novel, Tourist Season. It’s a rip-roaring comedy crime thriller, by turns breath-takingly violent and gut-wrenchingly funny. The plot makes sense, albeit in a savagely satirical manner, and the characters are immediately colourful and entertaining.

The setup

The lead writer and columnist for the fictional newspaper the Miami Sun, ‘Skip’ Wiley, who had been writing increasingly savage satirical pieces against the ruination of Florida by mass immigration from other parts of the US of fat philistine retirees, finally goes postal and sets up a half-assed band of environmental ‘revolutionaries’, dedicated to acts of terror designed to wreck Florida’s reputation as a haven for the old and tasteless. They call themselves Las Noches de Diciembre and consist of Skip himself (aged 37) and:

  • Daniel ‘Viceroy’ Wilson (black, 36), previously a star fullback for the Miami Dolphins football team who, after being dropped from the sport, spent some time as a drug addict and a petty criminal, before reading up on history and realising how his people had been exploited, cleaning himself up and dedicating himself to the fight against the white-dominated Florida establishment
  • Jesús Bernal (Cuban, late 20s), a shifty, sneaky Hispanic, formerly a member of an anti-Castro group named the First Weekend in July Movement, who was their lead bomb-maker and letter-writer, but was kicked out for his farcically inept attempts at making and planting bombs (they’re always going off too soon or he blows up the wrong people) and in any case, his revolutionary politics are a pose, since he was born and raised in New Jersey, graduated from posh Dartmouth College, and has never been to Cuba in his life
  • Tommy Tigertail (mid-20s), a cool, looming, unspeaking member of the Seminole Nation who, in one of the novel’s thousands of ironies, are allowed to run gambling operations and so have made a fortune by catering to the infatuation of white retirees for bingo – like the others he is motivated by anger at white men’s over-development of Florida’s natural habitat, and also whitey’s victories over his forebears

Tommy keeps a ‘tame’ crocodile named Pavlov and in the early phase of the ‘revolution’, the Noches kidnap random tourists and feed them to the crocodile, starting with a blameless middle-aged tourist visiting Florida on a convention of Shriners, Theodore Bellamy, whose fez washes up on a Miami beach. The Noches crank things up a notch when they kidnap president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce, B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, dress him in Bellamy’s garish tourist outfit then have the crocodile tear him in half and stuff the remains in a tourist suitcase for the cops to find, with a a toy rubber alligator lodged in his throat.

So the novel is, in part, a satire on a terrorist group made up of cranks and, to some extent, ethnic stereotypes; but mostly a fierce satire on the tackiness of northern tourists in Florida, and the desperate and destructive commercialisation of the state and its fragile environment.

There are two other groups of characters, namely the cops and Wiley’s fellow journalists. Chief among the cops is Al García, Detective Sergeant for the Metro-Dade Police Homicide unit, who we see being routinely patronised by his predominantly Anglo colleagues and by the decidedly white, middle-aged men of the Chamber of Commerce. García is appointed head of a task force to catch the terrorists.

As to the journalists, at the Miami Sun were are introduced to two main characters, the paper’s long-suffering managing editor, Cab Mulcahy, and Ricky Bloodworth, a wet-behind-the-ears reporter. Energetic and ambitious, Bloodworth yearns for success in journalism, but lacks all the qualities necessary for a good reporter, including sensitivity, tact, and even basic writing skills. It is a running gag that Skip reads the articles about him and the Noches in the Sun and is professionally insulted when they fall below his own high standards and rings up the paper’d editor to shout down the phone at him. He is especially enraged when Bloodworth rewrites some of the copy he himself has submitted.

The joke being an ironic one about journalists as a profession, that Skip may have become a murdering fanatic but he still gets incandescent at poor writing style.

(It’s also a running gag that most of the white cops and journalists find it hard to pronounce Las Noches and don’t know what it means, finding it much easier to refer to the nachos, much to Skip’s exasperation.)

Sitting mid-way between these groups, and overlapping all of them is probably the central character of the book, Brian Keyes (32), a former reporter for the Sun and now a private detective, who gets caught up in the increasingly psychotic behaviour of Skip’s ramshackle band of would-be terrorists.

The victims

  • Theodore Bellamy, shriner
  • B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce
  • Renee LeVoux, tourist from Montreal
  • Ida Kimmelman, retiree
  • Dr. Remond Courtney, shill psychiatrist
  • Pavlov: a giant American crocodile
  • Jenna: Skip’s girlfriend, Brian’s ex-girlfriend

Plot developments

Keyes is hired by the widow of Theodore Bellamy to find out what happened to him. Slowly it becomes clear the Noches, led by his old friend and star newspaper reporter Skip Wiley, murdered him. In her meeting with the widow, she introduces him to two burley Shriners, colleagues of Theodore, who volunteer to help him.

Keyes goes out into the Everglades in search of Las Noches and finds a derelict cabin on stilts. He’s captured by Las Noches and forced to watch the ritual killing of tourist Ida Kimmelman, as Viceroy and Tiger throw her to the crocodile, Pavlov. Brian tries to stop them but sneaky little creep Bernal stabs him in the back. The Noches motorboat Brian back to the mainland, dumping him on a highway, where he flags down a car and is taken to hospital to be treated.

Skip’s girlfriend is the flakey Jenna, who Brian used to go out with, so there is an immense tangle of emotions and relationship damage, particularly since her loyalties seem to waver between the two men.

Keyes tails Jenna from her apartment to the airport, where he discovers that two Shriners have been tailing him. With commendable professionalism, the Shriners identify that Jenna has caught a plane to Grand Bahama, and all three catch the next one.

Here Keyes tracks Wiley down to a beach where he is sunning himself and confronts him with his deeds. He tries to reason with him, but Wiley puts his side of the argument: 1,000 new Northerners arrive every day to foul up Florida’s beautiful countryside, the only way to protect it is to terrify them away.

Keyes seriously contemplates killing Skip there and then to prevent any more innocent civilians being kidnapped and murdered. But while he’s still figuring out the possibilities, Skip blows a whistle and a bunch of compliant Bahamian cops come running, arrest Keyes and the Shriners and deport them. Skip has lavishly bribed the local authorities.

Just before he blew the whistle, Skip portentously announced to Keyes that he is planning the biggest spectacular so far, and mysteriously announces he is going to defile the most famous virgin in Florida. Keyes spends the plane journey home wondering what this can possibly mean and, by the time he has another meeting with Cab Mulcahy, has come to the conclusion that Skip and Las Noches are going to disrupt the annual beauty pageant and parade which leads up to the climax of the state football season.

One of the consistent characteristics of Hiaasen’s novels is their artful construction, whereby he creates about 4 or 5 sets of characters and then stages their increasingly convoluted and frantic interactions with masterful skill. That and a steady stream of outlandish and grotesque incidents.

Ricky Bloodworth and the bomb

A good example is the bomb. Jesús Bernal is a short weedy guy who feels jealous of the tall manliness of the others in the Noches and is continually trying to prove what a real man and real terrorist he is. Inevitably each attempt is even more of a fuck-up than its predecessor.

This Bernal has the bright idea of posting a parcel bomb to Detective Al García who is doing a good job tracking down Los Noches. But unfortunately the parcel arrives on García’s desk at the police station as ambitious young journalist Ricky Bloodworth is hanging round waiting for a scoop. In García’s absence and convinced the package contains vital information, Bloodworth swipes it and nips down to the station toilets to open it. It is perched on his lap when he opens it and triggers the bomb, which explodes, blowing his fingertips off and scorching his penis. See what I mean by outlandish and grotesque.

The kidnap of Detective García

When he reconvenes with the other Noches Bernal is ridiculed for his abject failure and for  so he ups his ambitions and kidnaps García, driving him out to an isolated lake where he tries to get him to sign a document admitting he is a traitor to the cause of Cuban Liberation, the cause García kids himself he is a leading light in. The scene builds up to a gruesome climax when Jesús shoots Al in the shoulder with a shotgun and his body falls into the lake, but we have been following Brian Keyes as he tailed the car out to this isolated spot and now Keyes shoots Bernal dead.

The cruise ship full of snakes

Next evening Skip pulls off another of his anti-tourist stunts. He hires a helicopter and flies low over a cruise ship full of fat tourists, abruptly throwing from the chopper loads of shopping bags. Initially the tourists think it’s some kind of marketing game until the bags land and out of them slither thousands of swamp snakes. Panicking passengers dive off the ship which radios for the Coast Guard but as it begins to fly in in pursuit, there’s a big surprise for the reader as Skip’s helicopter unexpectedly crashes at sea before it reaches land. There’s realistic wreckage and no bodies are found.

The Orange Bowl Parade

Throughout the second half of the novel the city authorities, the cops and Brian had been assuming that Skip’s threat had meant he was going to attack the annual Orange Bowl parade. Central feature of this is the presence of the winner of the annual beauty pageant., so this prompts a lot of satire about the utterly impure and often seedy motivation of all concerned behind such parades.

At the final pageant the young woman chosen to be beauty queen is Kara Lynn Shivers who has only entered the pageant to please her father. The authorities had been thinking the Noches were going to  attack the parade and seize the queen, but they didn’t want to ruin it and wreck the start of the tourist season by either calling it off or stuffing it with heavy-handed cops. Instead Garcia suggested a compromise which is to hire Brian Keyes as personal bodyguard to Shivers. Initially wary of him, Shivers begins to appreciate his honesty and valour and the pair, unexpectedly, fall in love.

Although Skip’s helicopter appears to have crashed and the Noches been wiped out, the authorities take no chances and Brian’s personal protection of Shiver is accompanied by a strong undercover police presence, and the Orange Bowl Parade itself is described in great detail and the reader is genuinely on tenterhooks about whether something very bad will happen. But it doesn’t. The entire thing passes off without a hitch and there is a sense of anti-climax among all concerned.

The big game

It is only after the parade is over, Kara has gone home and Brian has gone off duty that it dawns on him that on the following evening Kara will make a brief appearance during half time at the big annual football game. He buys a ticket and goes along, but is helpless when the Noches do appear, outrageously and flamboyantly, using an airboat to skid across the football pitch and scoop Kara from the half time podium.

The black ex-football player ‘Viceroy’ Wilson had bribed one of the players to lend him his kit so that he can take part in the kidnap, scooping Kara off the podium and then helping her into the airboat, but Kara fiercely resists. The airboat is followed by none other than the two dogged Shriners we met right back at the start of the novel and, at the moment when Viceroy finally throws the squealing Kara into the airboat and turns and gives a black power salute, one of the Shriners shoots Viceroy dead.

Tommy Tigertail is piloting the airboat out of the stadium and hands Kara over to Skip waiting in a fast car, which roars off down the road before the stadium cops can catch up. Tigertail turns in the other direction and heads off to hole up with his uncle somewhere in the swamps, hoping to never see a white man again. (Note that Tommy makes a cameo appearance in Hiaasen’s 2006 novel, Nature Girl, which features his mixed-race nephew, Sammy Tigertail, as a lead character.)

In a fury Brian descends on Jenna’s flat. Up to now she has limply defended Skip’s actions and Brian has given her the benefit of the doubt because he still holds a candle for her. But now he is furious. One of Skip’s foibles was keeping all his cuttings in a real wooden coffin. Brian rips it open and leafs through all his cuttings.

Confrontation on Osprey Island

One of them gives a clue that he has taken Kara Lynn to a remote place called Osprey Island, a small nature preserve in the middle of Biscayne Bay.

Cut to Skip on the island with Kara Lynn who he has tied and gagged. He explains that a massive new condominium development has been planned for the island which is going to be ploughed flat. Step one was the developers have comprehensively mined the island with dynamite set to be exploded at dawn.

Now Skip explains to Kara Lynn that he is going to leave her here to be blown up along with the rest of the island’s wildlife and when her death is discovered it will cause such a stink that it will send a ‘revolutionary’ message to Florida’s greedy developers. As he explains all this Skip is impressed by the way Kara Lynn keeps her head and tries to reason with him. He begins to regret his plan, certainly taking her gag off and listening to her. Shame. She seems like a sweet kid.

He’s still talking to her when Brian arrives and shoots Skip in the leg. Brian tells him the boat he came is out of fuel, they need his one to escape in. Initially Skip refuses to tell Brian where he has anchored his boat and is ready for the dynamite to kill all three of them till Brian reveals that he brought Jenna along too. At which point Skip caves in, tells him where his boat is moored but, to Brian’s surprise, refuses to come along. He will see his crusade out to the bitter end.

Kara, Jenna and Brian run to Skip’s boat, fire it up and are motoring away as the seconds count down. As they come out into clear water they all see the Skip is climbing a tree because a bald eagle nesting there has returned to its roost and Skip is desperately trying to scare it away.

After so much comic mayhem the novel ends on a surprisingly moving note, just as the ‘all clear’ signal for the detonation sounds, with Jenna, Brian and Kara all praying for the eagle, a powerful symbol of the dignity of the Florida environment, to fly away and be safe.

Nostalgia

Ah the good old days, before the internet, before smartphone, before social media. When the only phones were in offices, private homes or payphone boxes on the street. When the height of digital technology was sending a fax. When there were computer monitors and keyboards on desks but only so you could send documents through internal systems, such as journalists sending their copy to the printing section of the Miami Sun. None of them were connected to the wider world. Nobody had heard of the internet let alone smartphones and social media. People were just as corrupt and violent but the technology they were corrupt and violent with was easier to understand.

Also, no mention of climate change. Hiaasen was writing from a time when green and environmental issues really were for a tiny minority of fruit loops and eccentrics. What everyone now knows about global warming and systematic environmental degradation (death of the corals, seas full of plastic) has tipped the balance in Skip’s favour. Doesn’t seem so mad now. This novel feels like a message from much simpler times.

Florida’s environment

In 1986, when this novel was published and Hiaasen was raving against the overpopulation and resulting environmental destruction of the state, Florida’s population was 12 million. Today it is 21 million. People means pollution, means degradation of the environment, destruction of habitats, obliteration of other life forms. Thus:

Sprawling development has carved wildlife habitat into smaller and smaller pieces, divided by highways or paved over altogether for shopping malls and office parks — threatening state symbols such as the Florida panther and the Florida black bear. Many of Florida’s coastal marshes and barrier islands — home to endangered wildlife such as manatees, wood storks and loggerhead sea turtles — have been transformed into marinas and condominiums. The Everglades, a unique ecosystem that is home to 68 federally endangered or threatened plant and animal species, has already lost half of its area to agricultural and urban development and continues to face pressure from South Florida’s booming development. (Floridian nature)

I wonder whether anything Hiaasen has written has had any impact at all in slowing the destruction of Florida’s environment. (If you read his most recent novel, Squeeze Me, his explicit reply is No. Squeeze Me explicitly despairs of saving the Florida environment, which he now [2020] sees as irreparably ruined.)


Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Science fiction blog posts

A chronological list of reviews of science fiction novels, short stories or other sci fi-related material which I have reviewed.

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000 to 1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment

1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen
1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting the resulting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating what is in effect a peaceful transition to a communitarian socialist society, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the events
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel against the system
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold
(1973) The Best of John Wyndham 1932-1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – having survived his journey to Mars, Ransom is now sent to Perelandra (aka Venus) to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s innocent young inhabitants to a new Fall
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of ‘the Party’, who are kept under unremitting surveillance by Big Brother

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – one night the sky is full of green flashing lights as the earth passes through the fragments of a comet and the next day the entire population awakes to find itself blinded, all except for a tiny handful of survivors who have to preserve human society while fighting off the growing numbers of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation, set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon, as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships, attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, the tale of a psychiatrist who projects the same romantic fantasy into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a dry run for The Chrysalids set in a post-disaster future
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by lingering radiation; but as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, and soon he and his mind-melding friends are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology, which together allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – the Chung-Li virus kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) leading to a global famine, so civil engineer John Custance has to lead his wife, two children and a small group of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism towards the farm owned by his brother David in a remote valley in Westmoreland, where they can grow root crops and defend themselves
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – ten stories of travel in time and space in which, despite the 1950s phrasing, women tend again and again to be presented as the stronger, more resourceful sex
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with eerily platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which almost immediately begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke –a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, millions of years ago, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The World in Winter by John Christopher – the amount of radiation/heat emitted by the sun declines, not totally but enough to plunge the temperate zones, specifically northern Europe, into a new ice age, and so all Europeans who are able to, flee to Africa, where the novel acquires black characters, who accompany the main protagonist on a colonising expedition back to frozen England – all intertwined with the tangled love affairs of two middle-class couples
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1965 A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher – more than a mere earthquake, a cataclysmic upheaval of the earth’s surface raises the English Channel so that it drains of water, destroys all human edifices, killing most people in their homes as they sleep, leaving a handful of survivors including Matthew Cotter, a Guernsey horticulturalist, who sets off on a long and gruelling quest across the ruined land- and seascape to find his daughter who had been at university in Sussex, accompanied by young Billy Tullis, as they encounter other survivors, decent, mad and psychotic
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quiet suburb.
1967 The White Mountains by John Christopher – It is a hundred years or more in the future and the tripods have conquered the earth, implanting humans with ‘caps’ at age 14, which render them docile and obedient; society has reverted to a medieval level of agriculture with lords of the manor, knights and jousting tournaments; 13-year-old Will Parker is looking forward to his own ‘capping’ ceremony till his eyes are opened by a wandering evangelist who persuades him to run away from home and undertake a gruelling journey south, to the White Mountains, where free men are planning resistance to their tripod overlords
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey – a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew, the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple, starts talking to a voice he hears in his head, who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is a real entity, a psychic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes, in the style of a scientific report or official inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and samples taken to a top secret US containment centre, where things go disastrously wrong
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces Vonnegut’s laconic catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough background radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe, in one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – in my opinion Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together the author’s key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1970 The Guardians by John Christopher – a young adult novel: it is 2052 and England is divided into two societies, the modern, overpopulated ‘Conurbs’ and the aristocratic and sparsely populated ‘County’, separated by the ‘Barrier’: 13-year-old Rob Randall lives in a block of flats in the Conurbs but, when his father dies, he is sent to a state boarding school where he is bullied, so makes the momentous decision to escape to the County; here he is taken up by a landed family and begins to settle into a new life until he stumbles across a conspiracy to overthrow the existing order
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the pornographic possibilities of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about environmentalism, sex, race, America, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in an event referred to as ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of an abandoned Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river, accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the ensuing chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former planet Jupiter, in a cheesy ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age – eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards in a entirely science fiction-free murder mystery thriller
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time ‘Count Zero’ from the previous book in the trilogy; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a leading character from the first in the series, Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction but some interesting formal experiments, like Answers To a Questionnaire where the reader has to deduce the questions and the context just from the answers to a questionnaire
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second of the Bridge Trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo to meet her pop hearth throb and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 John Christopher on the changing face of science fiction – namely how how the naive excitement about travel round the solar system, which characterised the 1930s, was slowly disillusioned, giving way to earth-bound stories of disaster
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency, Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru and heavy hitter Hubertus Bigend, joined by Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, as they both hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – Second in the so-called Blue Ant trilogy, named after the advertising agency run by advertising exec and new media guru Hubertus Bigend. Hollis Harris was a singer in a rock band, now she’s trying to make it as a journalist but a routine gig interviewing a Los Angeles ‘geospatial artist’ snags her into a complex conspiracy involving renegade security operatives who are working against each other in a hectic race to track down a shipping container full of illicit loot, involving a kidnapped drug addict and a family of spies from Cuba who use the pagan gods
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), sprinkles insightful comments about science fiction, but the book is dominated by moving expressions of love for his three children

2010s

2010 Zero History by William Gibson – third in the Blue Ant trilogy of novels, set mostly in London and featuring key characters from Spook Country, namely rock singer-turned journalist, Hollis Henry and reformed drug addict Milgrim, commissioned by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend to track down the mysterious designer of fashion brand Gabriel Hounds
2011 A Man of Parts by David Lodge – a long (560 page) novel describing H.G. Wells at the end of his life looking back over his long career and colourful sex life
2019 Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns – a really beautiful biography of a surprisingly sensitive, loving man who not only created 3 or 4 of the best British science fiction novels since the war but whose fictions also depict a series of strong independent women, who, Binns reveals, were all based on his lifelong partner Grace Wilson

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)

The human body is one of the dirtiest things in the known universe (p.116)

Michael Crichton

I’ve no idea what Crichton was like as a man but I admire his phenomenal success as a writer of popular techno-thrillers. If you’re going to entertain, then you might as well do it as effectively as possible. Ever since I learned about it years ago, I’ve been impressed by what will probably be a unique feat that no-one will ever match, namely that in 1994 Crichton was, simultaneously, the writer of America’s number one movie, Jurassic Park, was the creator and producer of America’s number one TV show, ER, and had a book at number one in the bestseller list, Disclosure.

What an amazing achievement and indicator of the practical skills of a man who was not only an author and scriptwriter, but who produced and directed movies himself, as well as creating and exec producing hit TV series.

The Andromeda Strain

Right back at the start of his career, young Michael (born 1942), was 26 when he published this, the first novel to appear under his own name (a few had appeared under pseudonyms). It announces a major talent, not so much in the plot – space probe returns to earth carrying a deadly virus is the same as, say, The Quatermass Experiment – but in the thoroughness and the verisimilitude of the scientific and administrative framework he presents the story in.

The story begins by describing the arrival of a two-man recovery team (Lieutenant Shawn and Private Lewis Crane) to retrieve a space probe which has crash landed on the small town of Piedmont in Arizona (population 48). They’re in the middle of doing so when their radio message back to base is dramatically cut short. Alerts are transmitted up the chain of command until five scientists who have been kept on standby for just such an emergency are each visited at home in the middle of the night by dark-suited security officials, asked to accompany them immediately in unmarked cars to military airports and flown to the top secret biohazard unit in the Nevada desert which has been painstakingly constructed for just such an emergency, under the codename Project Wildfire.

The scientists are:

  • Dr. Jeremy Stone: Professor and chair of the bacteriology department at Stanford University, fictitiously the winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • Dr. Charles Burton, 54 (p.61) Professor of Pathology at the Baylor College of Medicine, ‘nervous, jumpy, petulant’, nicknamed the Stumbler (p.54)
  • Dr. Peter Leavitt ‘superb clinical bacteriologist’ (p.59) who suffers from epilepsy, ‘an irritating, grumbling, heavyset man’ (p.54)
  • Dr. Mark Hall, surgeon
  • Professor Christian Kirke, who never makes an appearance because he’s in hospital for appendicitis

The plot then follows the scientists’ race against time to identify the weird extra-terrestrial virus and try to find a cure. The breakneck plot builds up to a climax when there’s a breach in biosecurity at the Wildfire centre with the result so that the virus gets loose among our heroes, and there’s a race against time to prevent its spread… with a novel twist at the very end.

So much for the thrilling plot, but what really distinguishes the text, and makes Crichton’s debut stand out, is the enormous amount of scientific, technical and administrative content.

Organisations

For example, the book is packed with dense and authoritative-sounding explanations of the umpteen different branches of the US military, space agency and security services which were involved in the research, commissioning, financing and building of the biohazard centre, including:

  • Vandenberg Scoop Mission Control
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • the Wildfire facility is built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics
  • the Army Medical Corps, Chemical and Biological Warfare Division
  • the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee
  • the Goddard Spaceflight Centre
  • the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee

Official documentation

Lots of pages of the text consist of ‘copies’ or apparent photostats of official documents, procedures, maps, computer projections and so on, for example a photocopy of the original letter written by concerned scientists to the President of the United States suggesting the creation of a quarantined biohazard centre. It was here, right back at the start of the project, that the scientists included the controversial suggestion of having a small thermonuclear device onsite, which could be detonated if the infection gets out of control (under Directive 7-12, codename Cautery).

In fact soon after Stone and Burton have investigated the town (wearing tip-top latest biohazard suits) and discover an old man still alive and a screaming baby and retrieve them into a helicopter and take them back to the Wildfire centre, Piedmont is itself destroyed by a small nuclear weapon (p.114).

Scientific references

Then, complementing the detailed descriptions of security organisations there is the science itself. It includes references to:

  • a fictional study by J.J. Merrick an English biophysicist on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life and the probability of it being single-cell life
  • a study by the Hudson Institute on the likely outcome of various scenarios around an alien infection outbreak and the impact of detonating a nuclear weapon to obliterate it (p.87)
  • a two-page study complete with statistical analysis, of the Odd Man Out Hypothesis
  • a study by Rudolph Karp who established there are life forms on meteors and asteroids (p.130)
  • the Vector Three report which identified three possible sources for extra-terrestrial bacteria
  • the Messenger Theory of John R. Samuels i.e. that an intelligent civilisation on another planet might choose to communicate not by sending radio or TV signals but sending out tough microforms of life which can recombine if they ever arrive somewhere inhabitable (p.228)
  • a 274-page report on Project Wildfire, highlights of which Dr Hall has to read;  through to detailed descriptions of American military research into chemical and biological weaponry, with lists of the major research universities involved and some of the papers produced on the subject:

Few Americans, Stone knew, were aware of the magnitude of the US research into chemical and biological warfare.

History of the science into the 1960s

Crichton spends time giving us some background on the development of science up till the 1960s: in particular how before, during and after the war, most expensive research focused on physics, in particular nuclear physics. But how, with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, biology had exploded as a field of interest.

He gives us digressions on the nature of biology itself – ‘the only science which cannot define its subject matter’ because there is no agreed definition of LIFE. On the types of animals used in bio experiments – rats, monkeys, pigs – (p.146) or the large range of growth media used in laboratories (p.163). And an explanation for laymen of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the billions of bacteria we host, which leads on to a detailed explanation of the drawbacks which would occur if a wonderdrug were discovered which killed off all bacteria and viruses. In fact Crichton goes to the trouble of inventing a wonderdrug, Kalocin, for the purpose of the book which does just that – kills off all bacteria, viruses, fungi etc which inhabit the human body with the result that… all the human patients died (p.266). We need the bacteria which infest our bodies.

Man lives in a sea of bacteria (p.167)

Hard technology

And then there is the technology, which includes (obviously) the rocket technology used to launch the ill-fated space probe; NASA’s network of monitoring stations around the earth; and the technology used within the Wildfire biohazard installation, including state of the art sterilisation processes, spectrometers, amino-acid analysers, the microtome, the X-ray crystallographer, the electron microscope (a BVJ model JJ-42), Fourier electron-density scans and so on. He gives an explanation of why an electron microscope is better than a light one, as explained by one of its inventors (p.255).

Computers

Then there are computer diagnostics and computers in general. Crichton patiently explains to the 1969 reader that computers are capable of doing many tasks much faster than people! I’m always struck to be reminded just how long computers have been around and enthusiasts have been promising that they will change the world.

Commission of enquiry

All of this heavily factual material is organised as if in a report written up after the crisis was over and as the result of an inquiry into how it was handled. Thus the narrative itself contains mention of where the team made crucial mistakes.

  • It is a peculiarity of the Wildfire team that, despite the individual brilliance of the team members, the group grossly misjudged their information at several points. (p.243)
  • This was a most unfortunate decision, for had they examined the [growth] media, they would have seen that their thinking had already gone astray, and that they were on the wrong track. (p.250)

Scientific results

And the text includes numerous scientific illustrations, for example computer readouts of autopsies, chemical analyses of blood, a scanner printout from a ‘photoelectric eye’ that examined the growth media, an early sketch of the hexagonal structure of the Andromeda Strain, electron-density mapping of a sample of the strain – all carefully credited to Project Wildfire, as in a scientific paper.

The text is followed by four pages of finely printed references, mixing up genuine studies of extra-terrestrial life and biology with papers by the fictional characters in the novel.

Bureaucratic tone set in the preface

This approach, the pose that the entire text is an after-the-fact report, starts in the author’s preface, usually a place where the author is candid with the reader, but in this case Crichton presents himself as an investigator into the events surrounding the breakout, and gives copious thanks to numerous military officials who are entirely fictitious and are clearly part of the fictional cast, as if they were real figures.

The effect is partly to give the text verisimilitude but also allows him to do the standard thriller strategy of anticipating mistakes and accidents and disasters to come without going into detail and so making you impatient to read the full story itself.

Same happens when he describes the experiments the scientists carry out in the Wildfire lab and highlights their mistakes with phrases like ‘Only later would it become clear that…’ or ‘That was his first mistake…’, ‘It would be forty eight hours until he realised his error…’ (p.173)

Taken together, it’s all these tactics which give the novel its authoritative air and which, in turn makes the biological crisis all the more scary, and then the security breach at the centre all the more nailbiting.

Plot summary

By the end you realise that without all the images and diagrams and facts and figures in report format, and without the digressions about biology and computers, the book would have been significantly shorter, and the simpleness of the story much more apparent. Here is a barebones plot summary:

  • a space probe infected with alien life form crash lands near small town in Arizona, Piedmont
  • almost everyone in town dies almost immediately with weird symptoms, namely their blood congeals to powder
  • except two survivors, an old man and a screaming baby
  • they’re brought to a brand new hi-tech biohazard facility named after the project Wildfire where – after a thorough history of the thinking behind the centre, how it was researched, signed off, designed and built – the four scientists central to the story run a series of tests whose results are discussed at length, and engage in high-level speculations about the origin and form of the entity
  • there are several apparently unrelated incidents, mainly the crash of an air force jet which was flying high through airspace over Piedmont; crash investigators confirm the pilot’s last message which claimed that all the plane’s rubber hosing and casing was turning to powder
  • meanwhile the scientists have established that the Andromeda Strain, as it’s been named, consists of perfectly hexagonal crystals which replicate with amazing speed, and feed off pure energy, leaving no waste products
  • one of the scientists, the doctor, finally puts all the pieces of the jigsaw together and realises that the baby and the old man didn’t die because their blood PHs were abnormal, the old man because he was a diabetic, the baby because its continual crying acidated its blood – the Andromeda Strain only replicates within a narrow PH band
  • at just this moment the alarm goes off inside the bio centre indicating a seal has been broken sealing off the containment area, triggering the alarm and the countdown
  • countdown? yes, because throughout the novel we’ve been told that the Wildfire station has at its heart a thermonuclear device which will automatically detonate if there is a security leak – now the alarm bells go off, the red lights start flashing, all the big metal security doors slam shut and a nice lady’s voice starts counting down; they have three minutes before the bomb detonates!!
  • the thing is, it’s only been in the last hour or so that the scientists have realised that the strain feeds off pure light or energy – in other words, a nuclear explosion, far from wiping the virus out, will cause it to replicate a trillion-fold and spread all over America!!!
  • now, there is a failsafe, the nuclear countdown can be halted: the biohazard centre is dotted with light switch-sized sockets into which a metal key must be inserted to countermand the nuclear countdown, BUT the security doors clanging shut have sealed Dr Stone and Dr Hall off from any of these units – oops
  • which leads to the most famous passage in the book, and the movie based on it, when Dr Hall has to make his way through air ducts into the central circular core of the installation and climb up it to the next level, despite the fact that, given the security breach a) the central core is flooding with poison gas and b) remote control darts fire poisoned arrows at anything moving i.e. him
  • these last few pages are grippingly described as Hall tries to climb the ladder up inside the central shaft, despite becoming woozier and woozier, poisoned by the gas and hit by the poisoned darts, till he crashes through the door into the level above and staggers, almost unconscious to the nearest security point, inserts the key and turns it, then blacks out!!

Payoff

The virus mutates into a harmless form. Wind carries air from the now-leaking bio-hazard lab over Los Angeles but nothing at all happens. Lead scientist Stone speculates that a) it has mutated to a non-fatal form, as indicated by the way it had started eating rubber and plastic instead of human blood, and b) disliking oxygen rich environments (which earlier tests had established), it is likely to migrate upwards out of the atmosphere.

And that is the explanation for the brief two-page epilogue in which we learn that a recent manned space flight (Andros V) crash-lands killing all the crew. In an interview with journalists, the head of the program reveals the crash had something do with the failure of plastic safety shields. The journalists don’t know it, but we the readers know that this is proof that the Andromeda Strain has indeed gravitated away from the unfriendly oxygen-rich atmosphere of earth up to the troposphere – and the book ends with the threat that it might, possibly, remain there for ever, preventing the passage through it of any machines which contain rubber or plastic…

The IPCRESS connection

It’s fascinating to learn from Wikipedia that Crichton was heavily indebted to Len Deighton’s debut novel The IPCRESS File which was published in 1962 and which Crichton read on a visit to Britain.

The Deighton novel is also written in the style of an official report and recreates the often dull bureaucratic paperwork surrounding spying; the title itself indicates that the entire thing should be read as an official report.

Same with Andromeda which, on the pre-text pages, carries instructions as for an official file, which state: ‘THIS FILE IS CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET and that the ‘receiver’ of the file must first show his identity card to the courier.

All great boyish fun. I wonder if Crichton ever told Deighton about his indebtedness to him. I wonder what Deighton made of it.

Crystals

It’s interesting that the Andromeda Strain of virus turns out to be a perfect crystal and that one of the scientists is known for printing papers speculating that life on earth began as crystals (p.226). Because this is a genuine theory and is well expressed in the 1985 book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985), which I read and reviewed not too long ago.

The movie

In 1971 The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie directed by Robert Wise and starring Arthur Hill as Stone, James Olson as Hall, Kate Reid as Leavitt (changed to a female character, Ruth Leavitt), and David Wayne as Dutton (Burton in the novel). A lot of its appeal is due to the fact it was low budget and not dominated by well-known Hollywood names, lending it an extra soupcon of credibility. I saw it as a kid and loved it.


Credit

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was published Knopf in American in 1969. All references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

Zero History by William Gibson (2010)

Zero History is a 400-page novel about has-been rock stars and pretentious advertising executives in search of a reclusive designer of ‘really cool’ jeans and jackets. It is mind-bogglingly shallow, pretentious and boring.

Zero History is the third novel in William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant trilogy’, itself the third of Gibson’s three trilogies of novels. It’s even more disappointing than Spook Country and rotates round the same kind of lame ideas: the central figure is ex-rock singer Hollis Henry who’s continually interacting with her super ‘cool’ former bandmates. She gets paired up with Milgrim, the reformed drug addict who we met in the previous novel, both being sent on a wild goose chase to track down the creator of the mysterious ‘Gabriel Hounds’ brand of jeans by the ‘genius’ advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

We know Bigend is a genius because all the characters tell us so.

  • ‘His grasp of contradiction is brilliantly subversive.’ (p.269)
  • ‘He has a kind of dire gravity. You need to get further away.’ (p.337)
  • ‘He’s like some peculiar force of nature. Not a safe one to be around.’ (p.346)

Thus the text, despite its often zingy and effective prose style in details, overall consists of lots of lame references to the ‘cool’ rock world and the ‘cool’ world of fashion and stale clichés about advertising, all struggling to support a plot which goes beyond the disappointing denouements of the previous two novels into new realms of the genuinely asinine.

Half way through, Zero History gets bored of its own fatuous storyline and switches from being a ‘quest’ for the jeans designer to a hostage thriller. By the time the legendary jeans designer is, in fact, tracked down, in the final passages of the book, nobody cares because the novel has unexpectedly morphed into a Die Hard movie.

Advertising

The owner of the Blue Ant advertising agency, the preposterously named Hubertus Bigend, is treated as some kind of advertising / communications / sociology guru, despite the fact that, whenever we actually get to hear any of the Great Man’s thoughts, they amount to recycling tiresome ad-man bullshit. As he explains to ex-rock singer Hollis Henry, who he is giving another ‘mission’:

We aren’t just an advertising agency. I’m sure you know that. We do brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.’ (p.21)

Hmm. Just like every other modern advertising agency, then. He goes on to tell Hollis that he is always looking for the next big thing, that he is in quest of ‘the edge’, always trying to catch the next big wave (p.24). Well, no shit Sherlock; what corporation, bank, company, fashion house, publishing company, art gallery or music label in our rabidly consumerist society isn’t trying to do exactly the same thing? That’s not a bold vision, it’s the default setting of the entire world we live in.

This is all dressed up on page 177 as Bigend’s quest for the mysterious ‘order flow’, the flow of all the world’s information about everything, something which Bigend (megalomaniacally) wants to possess. In the end he’s just a reincarnation of Dr No or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, only not actually evil, barely even amoral. A neutered baddie. A tamed megalomaniac.

Rock band chic

As to rock band chic, it plays a central role in this novel, not because anyone makes any actual music, but because Gibson thinks it’s ‘cool’ to write about people who were in rock bands. He seems to be aiming the book at the kind of middle-aged dads who read Rolling Stone magazine or watch BBC4 documentaries about Classic Rock Albums. Ageing, would-be hipsters who still wear jeans and black leather jackets as they approach pension age. In their heads they’re still their speed-snorting, dope-smoking crazy selves from the 1970s and 80s but to everyone else they’re Derek the head of IT who really shouldn’t be wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt at his age. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

Thus the lead character is a young woman (as in so many of Gibson’s novels), Hollis Henry, who was lead singer in the now defunct rock band The Curfew. She’s turning 30 (i.e. half Gibson’s age when this book was published) and is now trying to make her way as a freelance journalist.

In the previous novel, Spook Country, Hollis was commissioned to write a piece about ‘locative art’ (3D holograms of dead rock stars which are located at strategic places around Los Angeles and can only be seen if you use a set of video headgear) for a magazine which turned out to be a front for Hubertus Bigend’s endless curiosity, a way for him to employ pretty young women to investigate subjects which take his fancy (bit creepy, eh?).

‘I’m a curious person,’ said Bigend, ‘and can afford to satisfy my curiosity.’ (p.67)

(Bigend’s super-PA and fixer is Pamela Mainwaring who is, according to the narrator, ‘a very tasteful pornographer’s idea of “mature”‘, p.40. That’s a bit creepy. And see the throwaway reveal at the very end of the story, below.)

The novel opens with Hollis staying in a fabulously retro hotel in London, but the point of the ‘rock’ connection is that almost immediately she is interacting with her old bandmates, short balding English guitarist Reg Inchmale, who is in Soho producing a new album by another fictional band, The Bollards, and the Curfew’s feisty, not to say pain-in-the-ass, former drummer, Heidi Hyde, ‘her hair dyed goth black’ (p.49), who swears all the time (‘You said he was bugfuck,’ p.136).

Not only this but Hollis hooks up with members of other rock bands she knew when she was part of the rock scene and they have conversations about being in a rock band and the rigours of touring, staying in a new hotel every night, the drugs, the band tensions, oh man, it’s so tough being a rock star. We hear about an Icelandic duo Eydis and Frederika Brandsdottir who make up the band The Dottirs. About another band named The Stokers (p.156).

The rock world ambience is enhanced by a steady drip of casual references which seem to go out of their way to refer to really ancient rock acts and the long-ago world of the late 1960s or 70s. Thus Heidi Hyde describes the wallpaper at her fancy London boutique hotel as like a pair of ‘Hendrix’s pants’. Later Fiona the motorbike courier defines a piece of music by explaining that its maker listened to Jimi as a boy (pages 305, 349). Now Jimi Hendrix, flourished 1967 to 1970. This book was published in 2010, 40 years later. Then we have the fact that one of the first pieces of ‘locative art’ was a 3D hologram of Jim Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, died in 1971. 50 years ago. Phil Spector is referred to (p.307), career peak 1960s and early 70s. On page 321 Voytek quotes Bob Dylan, but not 1990s Bob Dylan, instead the 1967  song ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’.

It’s this kind of thing which makes me think Gibson is aiming his novels at what you might call the American mainstream rock tradition, at ageing ‘hipsters’ who carry on writing and reading magazines like Rolling Stone, and who think writing or reading articles about Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and the Who is still ‘cool’.

What I don’t understand is that critics queue up on the covers of this book to describe Gibson as the master novelist we need now, describing him as a ‘prophet’, as capturing ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ (Cory Doctorow), as an ‘astounding architect of cool’ (The Spectator) and yet it is a plain fact that Gibson spends less time thinking about 9/11, Iraq or the Financial Crash, or anticipating the seismic changes which will be brought about by social media, than he does retailing crappy, second-hand ideas about advertising and making tiresome references to long-dead 1960s rock gods.

The Spectator thinks Gibson is the  ‘astounding architect of cool’. Think about that. The Spectator, the solidly right-wing mouthpiece of the Brexit-leading Conservative Party. The Spectator, whose editor was Boris Johnson from 1999 to 2005. Boris Johnson. Maybe the fact that Gibson is so gushingly praised by The Spectator crystallises all my misgivings about him and his later novels: William Gibson is Boris Johnson’s idea of ‘cool’, a 60-something white man in a black leather jacket making references to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Fashion

The fatuousness of Gibson’s attempts to make Hubertus Bigend some kind of communications guru, and the lameness of his dad rock references (Heidi Hyde wears an old Ramones t-shirt, p.59 – how cool!) are exacerbated by Gibson’s ongoing obsession with namechecking the brand names and designers of every conceivable product the characters come into contact with.

Thus we are told the precise brand of their cars and handbags and clothes, and my God, of their clothes, yes their clothes, every item of clothing that they wear, or look at, or think about.

We get itemised lists of their shoes and socks and jeans and shirts and t-shirts and jackets and shades. Roberto Cavalli, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, Jun Marukawa, Hackett – for all I care this might be a list of the administrative regions of Kazakhstan, but I appreciate that for tens of millions of people being able to distinguish Lauren from Lacoste is a matter of life or death, and these seem to be the people Gibson is catering to in this novel. Or satirising. Or both.

In the earlier novels this was merely an irritating symptom of the triumph of style over substance, but in Zero History the plot itself dives head-first into the empty-headed stupidity of the fashion world, as parodied in the movie Zoolander among many others. Once you enter this world of style and fashion, you check in your brain and never see it again.

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The plot

Hollis Henry

We first met Zero History‘s lead character, Hollis Henry, in the previous novel in the trilogy, Spook Country. She’s the former singer with rock band The Curfew who’s forging a new career as a journalist and writer. Her intellectual level can be measured by the fact that:

Hollis was a firm believer in the therapeutic power of the right haircut. (p.69)

In Spook Country Hollis had been researching ‘locative art’ for a magazine which turned out to be a thinly disguised front for advertising guru Hubertus Bigend. Well, she’s done a lot more work on ‘locative art’ since and has now turned it into a big coffee-table book, complete with images of what the art looks like. The book is titled Presences: Locative Art in America (p.97). The main example the book uses to explain locative art is a 3D hologram of soft porn female nudes done by Helmut Newton (1920 to 2004) which are now visible to anyone who can afford the headset required to see this ‘art’ at some French chateau.

Is this capturing ‘the futurist nature of the present day’? No, it isn’t. Referencing the soft porn, pervey nudes of a dead German photographer whose heyday was the 1980s does not feel like anybody’s future.

Hollis’s coffee table book is just being published when she is summoned to London to meet her sugar-daddy, er, I mean ‘Machiavellian advertising guru’ Hubertus Bigend, who has a new assignment for her.

The novel opens with Hollis having just flown in from New York and staying in a quaint London boutique hotel (‘Cabinet’) stuffed with dinky period pieces, not least a stuffed ferret and the steampunk elevator. She meets, has coffee and chats with Reg Inchmale, former guitarist with The Curfew who’s now producing another band, The Bollards, in a studio in Soho. Also putting in an appearance is Heidi Hyde, the tough, foul-mouthed drummer with The Curfew, who refers to her former boyfriend, at length and repeatedly, as ‘fuckstick’. So the band’s all here, trailing dated 1980s drug slang and rock clichés.

Milgrim

Bigend introduces Hollis to Milgrim, who’s just flown in from his clinic in Basel. Clinic? Yes. Like Hollis, Milgrim also first appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Spook Country. He is an educated young man with a college degree in Russian and was working as a translator when he slowly got hooked on prescription tranquilisers, eventually ending up an almost gibbering wreck, which is how he was found in the street by a shady, renegade intelligence operative named Brown, who ‘sort of’ abducted him, probably saving his life but keeping him under lock and key and feeding him pills in order to use Milgrim’s top translating skills in monitoring a family of what Brown takes to be Russian-backed spies. This is a key storyline in Spook Country.

Brown turned out to be completely wrong and Milgrim managed, at the end of Spook Country, to escape from his clutches. In the final pages he stumbles across Hollis’s handbag which she accidentally left in a deserted loft space and this, though the reader doesn’t know it at the time, is a crucial link, because it allows none other than Hubertus Bigend to phone Milgrim, using the phone he’d given Hollis and which was in her lost handbag. Being Bigend, he doesn’t get cross that someone’s stolen Hollis’s handbag and phone, but is intrigued by the sound of Milgrim, quizzes him, finds out about his background and…

Pays for him to be sent to a world-class detox clinic in Basel, Switzerland for eight months (chapter 4). There, Milgrim tells us, he had his entire body’s blood replaced with clean blood and underwent an extensive course of cognitive therapy. This complex background means that throughout this book Milgrim can conjure up either drug-addled streams of consciousness, odd and unexpected insights,  or sober advice his therapist gave him to manage unexpected situations. He is the peg for the kind of sentences Gibson excels at, which gesture to something just beyond perception, or slightly wrong, out of kilter and unnerving:

  • He struck her as being unused to inhabiting his own face, somehow. (p.44)
  • He felt as though something new and entirely too large was trying to fit within him. (p.92)
  • He seemed peeled, somehow, transparent, strangely free of underlying motive. (p.180)
  • Milgrim was having one of those experiences of feeling, as he’d explained to his therapist, that he was emulating a kind of social being that he fundamentally wasn’t. (p.174)

All these qualities make Milgrim the most interesting character in the book and, maybe, just about enough reason to read it. Not to buy it, though.

However, Milgrim isn’t totally free. His stay at the rehab clinic was managed by Oliver Sleight, on the face of it an employee of Bigend’s (p.85), but Sleight wants to keep tabs on Milgrim in a way which goes beyond Bigend’s needs. Sleight has given Milgrim a phone, a ‘Neo’, which only takes calls from him and which has GPS tracking so he can follow Milgrim’s movements at all times (p.124).

Why? ‘Fuck if I know’ as Heidi puts it in her charming way (p.202). As with most content in Gibson novels, this kind of thing is thrown in early on and then referred to at regular intervals almost entirely to keep you guessing.

Early on an apparently trivial incident occurs, which will become central to the plot. At one point Milgrim gets fed up of being trailed by Sleight all the time and gets into an elevator in a department store and, purely because the other people in it are speaking in Russian (which always wakens memories of his pre-drug existence), on an impulse Milgrim slips the Neo into the pram of one of the Russian women then watches the lift stop at the next floor, the doors open and the woman and pram exit and wander off who knows where. She seemed to have a couple of tough-looking minders in tow. Maybe she’s the wife or daughter of an oligarch, who cares. But it will turn out to matter, later.

Gabriel Hounds

So what’s Zero History actually about? Bigend has come across a brand of jacket and jeans named Gabriel Hounds (‘It’s a secretive jeans line’, p.72). They’re made by a secretive designer. Bigend wants to find out who. As Hollis explains:

‘Bigend’s hired me to look into Gabriel Hounds. He wants to know who designs it, how their antimarketing scheme works.’ (p163)

That, as far as I can tell, is it, at least to begin with. So Bigend introduces Hollis and Milgrim, tells them he wants to track down the designer of Gabriel Hounds jeans and jackets and pays for them to take the Eurostar to Paris, stay in a swanky hotel and visit a Vintage Clothes Fair (the Salon du Vintage) where, inevitably, they meet lots of other designers and models plus some of Hollis’s friends or contacts from the rock world. The level of humour is indicated by the character with the oh-so-funny name of Olduvai George, the ‘brilliant’ keyboardist with the Bollards. He is named Olduvai George because there’s a place  in Africa called Olduvai Gorge and Gorge sounds like George! Hence Olduvai George. Geddit!? They also meet ‘Clammy’ who dresses all in black, because dressing all in black is ‘cool’ (p.33 ).

In other words, the novel is marinaded in references to the international rock-fashion world. If you think that world is ‘cool’, you’ll love it; if, like me, you think it is all weirdly lame and dated, you won’t. Everyone wears black. Everyone is thin. Everyone is a design genius. Everyone has an ‘uncanny sense’ for the next best thing, everyone has a special feel for the Zeitgeist bah blah blah yaddah yaddah yaddah.

Anyway, Hollis talks to Clammy who knows Olduvai George who knows some clothes designer named Meredith Overton aka ‘Mere’ (p.115). (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and indicate just how much you grasp ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’.)

They all go out for a simply wonderful dinner at a restaurant where they bump into Bram, reluctant singer with the Stokers (geddit!?) who is having a meal the other side of the restaurant with one of the Icelandic pop duo, the Dottirs. Half way through the meal they have a big row and Bram storms out, only to be trapped by the legions of paparazzi waiting outside. It is so tiresome being a rock star, darling.

Anyway, that’s by way of being a distraction. The real outcome of the dinner is that Mere thinks she knew someone in fashion school who knew someone else in Chicago, who might be the designer of the Gabriel Hounds!!

Foley

Milgrim spots they’re being followed. To be precise, he had noticed a guy popping up several times in South Carolina where he had been hanging out after leaving the Basel clinic. Then Milgrim thinks he sees the same guy a few times in London. Now he’s certain he’s seen the same guy following him at the vintage clothes fair in Paris. He’s wearing foliage-green ‘pants’ so Milgrim quickly nicknames him ‘Foliage’ and then ‘Foley’. (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and also indicate just how much you grasp the blah blah.)

Milgrim is approached out of the blue in a cafe in London by a woman who flashes a badge and identifies herself as Winnie Tung Whitaker, Special Agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (p.108). I suppose we’re meant to take this seriously but it all reminded me a bit of Secret Squirrel.

(Actually, to my delight and coincidence, Secret Squirrel is actually namechecked later on in the text, page 309. Gibson feeling the anxiety of influence from the classics of the thriller genre, there.)

So Hollis is introduced to Mere at the vintage clothes fair in Paris who spouts a lot of garbage about the secretive designers of Gabriel Hound jeans. This personage is revered because he or she shuns the usual industry calendar of releasing new lines with each new ‘season’. This is because:

‘It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It’s about deeper code.’ (p.116)

If you think this twaddle is profound, this is the book for you.

Mere was a model before she became a designer, which allows her to reel off a description of the boring existence of a poverty-stricken model, rather as Hollis being an ex-rock singer allows Gibson to refer throughout to the sleazy-glamorous life of rock and roll stars. Mere escaped modelling to set up a business designing a new style of shoes, trying to sidestep fashion (there are some pages about the design and fabric of her shoes and she explains how so few people really got what she was trying to do with them (p.228); as if shoes are very puzzling and complex intellectual constructs). But Mere’s business flopped. Now all the stock is locked up in some warehouse in Tacoma, Seattle (p.164) and she’s back working in fashion retail.

Lots more labels

There are a lot more sentences in this 400-page novel but for quite a long time not a lot happens. The characters travel from London to Paris and back again, there are hyper-detailed descriptions of hotel foyers and receptionists and lifts and corridors and rooms and showers and beds, lots and lots of phone calls on nifty cell phones, a lot of messing about with AirMacs and passwords and dongles, a great deal of meetings in restaurants and cafes with a minute itemisation of what everybody ate (Milgrim has a salmon starter followed by pork tenderloin, chapter 32; the salmon is everso good. Bigend, counter-intuitively, or maybe inevitably, likes crude full English breakfasts, namely two fried eggs, black pudding, two slices of bacon, two slices of bread and a mug of tea. Of his favourite café he opines: ‘They get the black pudding right here.’ p.196.)

Maybe this is what the Spectator means by ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ – advertising execs, writers and rock musicians jet-setting between fashionable capitals, staying in swank hotels and eating out on bottomless expense accounts. Or maybe they’re referring to the future for the cosmopolitan urban elite like themselves, anyway.

I read this and think – this self-congratulatory cosmopolitan elite, sooo concerned with acquiring just the right patina on their jackets, desperately seeking the mysterious jeans designer – this entitled elite deserved their comeuppance in the form of moron Trump and dumb-bell Brexit. In their ways, both those votes were crude gestures of protest against the arrogance of the international art and fashion and media and style elite with its ill-concealed contempt for the chavs and proles who populate the countries they flit between, and who they sell their shitty films and TV and clothes and art to and patronise and lecture and exploit.

It’s about gear queer

What else happens? Well, Bigend explains they’re seeking the Gabriel Hounds designer because the latest thing is Gear Queer. According to Bigend, army veterans returning from Iraq have sparked a fashion among young men for an army surplus look (explained in chapter 41).

This just seemed patronising rubbish to me. If there’s been any fashion of the past few years it’s been the rise of the hipster – metrosexual, casual styling associated with full but coiffured beards. According to Wikipedia:

The term ‘hipster’ in its present usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the late 2000s and early 2010s

I.e. just as this book was being published.

It’s another indication of the way that, in fashion, in music, in sociology and in politics, Gibson strikes me as being plain wrong. Even in his specialist subject area of digital tech he completely failed to anticipate the revolutionary impact of smart phones and social media which began to take off just after this novel was published. And his books are utterly bereft of any real thinking about the important events of the day: 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism, or the impact of the great financial crash of 2008. Rather than being some kind of ‘prophet’ Gibson is in every way a highly misleading guide to his times.

OIiver Sleight defects to the enemy

Anyway, back to Bigend’s stupid name and ridiculous quest for ‘Gabriel Hounds’. Oliver Sleight was supervising Milgrim in South Carolina because that’s where a lot of the supply to the US military comes from and that’s where they found the pair of rogue Gabriel Hound jeans which confirmed ‘the Hound look’ as being possibly the next big thing which Bigend can a) sell to the military b) promote to young men round the world concerned with replicating the look and ‘semiotics’ of elite military forces. (At least in this utterly rubbish plot.)

As the story progresses Winnie Tung Whitaker meets Milgrim a couple of times (they’ve been staying in touch via a Twitter account she showed him how to set up). At their final meeting in a restaurant she explains who she’s after. It is one Michael Preston Gracie, 45 with a long career in the US military but then stepped sideways into private security work, and then military contracting, and then something to do with supplying uniforms to East Asian countries. Why is Winnie Ting Whitaker after this man? Because (exactly like ‘the old guy’ in Spook Country) it’s a gesture, nothing serious or significant is at stake: it’s just ‘a gesture in the face of the shitbird universe’ (p.225).

To be honest, everything this fiction Michael Gracie is doing sounds perfectly legal and enterprising. As this plot about a renegade military supplier emerged to become the focus of the novel, at every sentence I thought Gibson was utterly missing the real story here, which was the huge expansion in private contractors supplying military and security services in Afghanistan and Iraq – Blackwater, Dyncorp and so on – about the huge amounts of money which went from the American taxpayer straight into these organisations which, more often than not, had top US politicians on their payroll.

(Actually, the really big story which emerged from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was how astonishingly shit America turned out to be at understanding or managing the countries they’d conquered. How many American historians, commentators and novelists have I read casually castigating the mismanagement of the British Empire? So how did you do in Iraq, boys? Or Afghanistan? Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Ritual humiliation of prisoners. Over $6.4 trillion spent on the ‘War on Terror’. It’s a proud record.)

To recap:

‘Gracie’s an arms dealer. Bigend was spying on some business of his, in South Carolina.’ (p.295)

Remember Oliver Sleight who had been minding Milgrim? In the middle of the book, Bigend reveals that Sleight – who was in fact Bigend’s IT chief – has gone rogue, has been recruited by ‘the other side’, meaning the people round Gracie.

Why? If you think about it rationally, it’s not at all clear why Gracie and the tail who Milgrim calls Foley would give a stuff about Bigend poking about in the same market. It’s a very big market, and Gracie has a huge head-start, being ex-US Army with all kinds of contacts. Why should they care?

The enemy attack

Still, this idea of people within Blue Ant itself going over to ‘the enemy’ is whipped up into the pretext for a kind of gang war which breaks out.

Milgrim, Hollis and Heidi are being driven back to their hotel after meeting Bigend (a meeting at which he shows them his latest toy, the next generation of drones, which can be controlled from your phone which were, I guess, a whole new idea in 2010) when the vehicle they’re in is nearly rammed and forced into an alleyway somewhere in the City.

Once rammed into this alley, another car comes hurtling towards it to ram it, and Milgrim sees Foley in the front seat gesticulating at him. But the point is that the vehicle they’re in is a ‘cartel-grade’ Jankel-armoured, four-doored, short-bedded Toyota Hilux truck (p.36), driven by a no-nonsense Jamaican security guy named Aldous, and he himself rams the oncoming car and pushes it backwards all the way to the end of the alley, before reversing a bit and then further ramming into its bonnet, crushing the engine.

Aldous Calls up Fiona, the helmeted biker babe we’ve met a couple of times throughout the story, who turns up pronto, grabs Hollis onto her pillion and roars off, while Heidi drags meek Milgrim on foot along to the nearest Tube (Bank) and so back West towards their hotel, while Aldous waits in the Jankel for the cops to arrive and give his side of the story.

Now, as the second of the cars had hurtled towards them down the alleyway, Milgrim had seen Foley bright and clear, and seen that he had a bandage over his face and that he was brandishing the phone, the Neo which Sleight had given him. This a) confirms that Foley, Milgrim’s ‘tail, was indeed working with Sleight, and b) implies that Foley went to track down the phone and had an unfortunate encounter with some Russian mafia bodyguards.

In other words the entire incident of the car ram seems to stem from Milgrim’s momentary act of rebellion against being tracked in the department store, when he slipped the Neo into the pram of some random strangers. Seems that Foley was despatched to track down the phone and encountered the Russian oligarch’s security people who beat him up.

After the ramming, Bigend convenes yet another meeting with Hollis and Milgrim and explains the current situation. Sleight, his lead IT guy, has ‘gone over’ to ‘the enemy’ (remember, this is all about contracts for military uniforms). Sleight was monitoring Milgrim so closely because he was relaying Milgrim and Hollis’s discoveries back to his new boss, the renegade military contractor, Michael Gracie. Now Bigend tells them that other senior personnel within Blue Ant are also defecting. To some extent Bigend always expected this: he employs people on the ‘edge’, renegades and free thinkers, and always enjoys watching them mature and rebel – but this time there’s a bit more of a rebellion going on than he’s used to.

Thus Bigend has been forced to retreat from his London headquarters (probably bugged by Sleight) to the back room of a Japanese tailor down the road. This explains why a number of these meetings involve passing through the shop front of ‘Tanky and Tojo’, the name of the Japanese tailor, into the surprisingly spacious back room.

(I wonder about Gibson and his fetish for Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese imagery, style, design and steel-and-glass cityscapes seemed to be the future. But my understanding is that around 2000 Japan entered into a prolonged period of stagflation and in any case was being overtaken by China as the new military and cultural power in the East, a rise which continues to this day. Yet Gibson seems to be sticking with his dated Japan obsession. True, some Chinese crop up in his novels, but not as many as Japanese. Two of the three novels in the Bridge trilogy take place almost entirely in Japan, in Tokyo. It seems to me another token, along with the dated rock music and the lack of grasp of key geopolitical events of the early 2000s, of the way Gibson’s worldview seems dusty and dated.)

Voytek and Chombo

Remember Voytek? He’s the Polish immigrant who keeps a computer repair store in Camden, north London, and pops up throughout Pattern Recognition, the first novel in the trilogy. And remember Bobby Chombo, the tech genius who actually makes locative artists’ projects for 3D holographic art become a reality in Spook Country. Well, now we learn that Bigend had brought a reluctant and paranoid Chombo back from Vancouver (setting of the previous novel) and parked him with a reluctant Voytek to look after, who resentfully pronounces his name ‘Shombo’.

But we’ve barely learned all this (Milgrim sees Chombo in the backroom when he visits Voytek’s computer repair shop to get Hollis’s AirMac checked out for bugs) before Bigend tells the team that The Enemy have forced their way into Voytek’s place and kidnapped Chombo. Bigend has received a simple ultimatum: The Enemy want to make ‘a prisoner exchange’, return Chombo in exchange for Milgrim, with the implication that they will do very bad things to Milgrim for his various ‘betrayals’.

None of this is really intrinsic to the idea of a commercial rivalry between Gracie and Bigend, which itself isn’t really implicit in the situation. Why shouldn’t two (or three or four) companies operate in the market selling clothes to the US military? Likewise, the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Milgrim isn’t intrinsic to the situation, it just seems to derive from Milgrim’s arbitrary decision to drop his phone in a stranger’s pram. That one moment is the basis for the entire second half of the plot, and it is a slender and silly basis.

The return of Garreth

Now you need to know about an added complication. The first two-thirds of the narrative have been peppered with Hollis’s memories of her affair with Garreth. Garreth was the supremely competent handyman and security operative key to the plot of the previous novel, Spook Country. He was the right-hand man of ‘the old man’ who was running the scam at the centre of that story. Garreth is handy with guns and weapons and cars and planes. He is your basic, omni-competent thriller hero, good-looking and chivalrous into the bargain.

Doing very dangerous things was his avocation. (p.153)

(It’s interesting to consider how, despite Gibson’s best woke efforts to centre his narratives around female protagonists, the fact that he is writing thrillers means that a tough, strong, competent handsome man keeps ending up taking centre stage in the stories. Tough-but-sensitive security guard Berry Rydell in the Bridge trilogy, and tough-but-sensitive secret operative Garreth in this trilogy. The scenery may be modern but the fundamental mindset is deeply traditional. This helps to explain Gibson’s nervously jokey references to James Bond in both this and the previous novel. Gibson’s acolytes proclaim him the prophet of the future but he is, in essence, simply writing flashy gadget thrillers and he is uneasily aware that this entire genre can’t escape the shadow of 007, simply because Ian Fleming brought the formula to such a peak of perfection. In fact the comical similarity to Bond is explicitly acknowledged right at the end of the novel: ‘Fiona said that Bigend, with the Hermès ekranoplan, had gone totally Bond villain’, p.399)

Anyway, in this novel we learn that after she met him towards the end of the previous novel, Hollis is so dazzlingly original and independent that she fell in love with the tall, dark, handsome, supremely confident, tough but sensitive security dude, Garreth. (So much for futurity; feels very 1960s to me.) But that their affair only flourished because it fell in a lull between Garreth’s missions, and that when he was assigned a new one by the mysterious old man, Garreth melted out of her life and that they then definitely split up.

Until… Hollis is delivered the shock news that Garreth has been involved in an accident!! Among his many other heroic action-man attributes was that Garreth was a free jumper, one of the group of people who illegally scale enormous buildings and jump off them wearing mini-parachutes. Well, Garreth illegally made it to the top of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, jumped off, but his chute got snagged in unexpected construction cranes and/or he landed on what should have been a deserted freeways but was instead run over by a super-rich Arab in a sports car.

Hollis is distraught, realises that she loved him after all (how very Mills & Boon), phones him, gets no reply, is given emotional support by her band-mate Heidi etc, all this going on while the situation with Milgrim and Gracie and the Opposition is getting more and more intense.

And then, the evening after the traumatic car attack on our heroes in the City, there’s a knock on Hollis’s hotel room door and it is none other than Garreth! Admittedly, he’s been badly knocked about and is in a wheelchair. The doctors had to reconstruct his hip and most of his right leg. He can just about limp using a walking stick but the wheelchair is easier. Cue a tearful reunion, ‘I never stopped loving you,’ ‘Oh why did you do it?’ ‘Is it serious?’ etc etc. They embrace, they kiss, he spends the night on her bed. They nickname his partly reconstructed right leg Frank.

However, characteristically for Gibson, there is no hint of any sexual activity whatsoever. His characters are strictly neuter, with no sexual attributes or thoughts.

(Same happens in chapter 60 when foxy Fiona, a strong, independent motorbike courier, is stuck in the lockup with Milgrim, completes the assembly of a bit of kit, strips off her overclothes and gets into the one sleeping bag, then invites Milgrim to join her. He takes his trousers and socks off. This will be a first, the reader thinks. But Milgrim slips into the sleeping bag beside her, lies perfectly straight and still and… soon hears her snoring, p.299.)

The puzzling absence of sex as an activity or a motive or even a footnote to the relationships is one of the big limitations of Gibson’s novels and something which prevents them being any kind of serious investigation of human nature. Instead they feel more like the adventures of chrome-plated, cartoon cutouts.

Garreth’s plan

Anyway, Garreth’s appearance is very convenient for the plot for, the next morning, when Bigend invites himself to breakfast with Hollis at her boutique hotel, and is explaining that he’s made the decision to hand Milgrim over to the bad guys, Garreth, who was hiding behind a screen and overheard everything (like a character in an Elizabethan play) steps (well trundles in his wheelchair) forward and backs Hollis up in saying this unacceptable. They cannot possibly consider handing over poor Milgrim to the bad guys. No, instead he, Garreth, will use his super secret agent powers to devise a cunning plan.

And so it is that in the final quarter of the novel Garreth calls in lots of favours, assembles kit from all over, and puts together his plan, while the extended team of Good Guys assemble, as in every heist movie ever made. The good guys are: Hollis and crippled scam supremo Garreth, timid Milgrim and the biker babe Fiona, Benny the bike mechanic who makes important adjustments to Fiona’s bike and keeps the lockup mentioned above, and tough Polish immigrant and computer repairman, Voytek.

I forgot to mention that Heidi, a tall no-nonsense woman, had joined a gym in Hackney, where she’d discovered a cohort of blokes who like boxing, including an Asian guy named Ajay, who she brings back to Hollis’s hotel, and who is thrilled to meet the legendary singer of The Curfew. Well, Garreth ropes this Ajay into his quickly whipped-up scam, and he comes accompanied by his cousin, Asian beauty Chandra.

It’s a kind of multi-ethnic Ocean’s Eleven, or like the elaborate set-up scenes in The Italian Job (1969).

The mystery designer is Cayce Pollard

Remember how the whole narrative got rolling with Bigend apparently interested in finding the designer of a particularly funky pair of jeans and denim jacket. Well, Mere reappears at this juncture (from a narrative structure point of view, to take pressure off the buildup to Garreth’s Masterplan) and reveals to Hollis that the mystery designer is in London, and takes Hollis to see her. In a secret denim shop in Soho.

And, with a terrible sense that Gibson’s world is contracting and contracting until it’s the size of a microchip, the mystery designer who we all spent the first half of the novel obsessing about, turns out to be… none other than Cayce Pollard, the magically gifted ‘coolhunter’ who is the lead protagonist of Pattern Recognition!

Cayce explains that a) she became a designer because old clothes she bought in vintage fairs were just so much better made than even designer modern clothes, and b) that she shunned all logos because, as we know from Pattern Recognition, although it was her job to search out new patterns in the flow of design and clothing, actual logos gave her panic attacks. So, no logos. (Writing that reminds me of Naomi Klein’s 1999 book No Logos with its wholesale attack on the insanity of the fashion and branding industry, and makes me think, once again a) how very much behind the curve Gibson is and b) how shallow and superficial his ‘satire’ is next to a solid polemical book like Klein’s.)

So Cayce the designer insisted on no logos, absolutely no logos right up to the moment when her husband suggested they use a logo and… she agreed. There. That’s how brainless this book and its characters are. Cayce tells Hollis that she occasionally doodled dogs with human heads while designing and her husband spotted these and told her about the ‘legend’ of Gabriel Hounds. And thus this mysterious anti-brand was born. A logo which isn’t a logo. A brand which isn’t a brand.

The two women proceed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about Bigend. Yes, why are their lives both dominated by a big overbearing corporate capitalist, the reader asks himself? Sisters are doing it for themselves, or not, as the case may be. Cayce explains to Hollis that she doesn’t have fashion launches, doesn’t conform to usual fashion rhythms. She has special ‘drops’. So successful is her anti-fashion stance that Hollis sees the editor of French Vogue entering Cayce’s building as she leaves. She is so hot this season!!

I was left speechless by the illogical, inconsistent shallowness of this storyline.

Meanwhile, the Chinese agent Winnie Tung Whitaker contacts Milgrim again. He goes see her at Smithfield. She’s still after Gracie. Hollis wonders out loud to Garreth whether Bigend has for the first time lost it. Inchmale tells her that his wife (very well connected in the world of London PR and comms, darling) says the buzz is that something big is on.

You know the book is reaching its climax because everyone starts talking in italics because there is going to be some serious shit going down! Don’t let him fuck with you! I did not come to this country for motherfucker! How scary is that? Shit just got weirdLateral fucking move! Totally fucking next level! —

As if Americans can’t talk in a calm tone of voice. Or that the text itself is aware that the story is rather boring, doesn’t really make much sense, and so tries to get the characters to jazz it up by inserting lots of swearwords and random emphases.

Bigend had earlier on shown Hollis and and Heidi Milgrim some prototype drones you can operate from your iPhone. These become part of Garreth’s Cunning Plan to manage the prisoner exchange.

The prisoner exchange

Then it’s zero hour. Garreth texts everyone on the team that it’s time to rumble. Pack what you can carry, he tells Hollis, there may be running, we may not be able to come back to the hotel. It’s like a Bourne movie but without any of the actual tension or logic.

The exchange has been arranged for waste land near Wormwood Scrubs. It is, basically, a prisoner exchange as out of thousands of Cold War novels and movies, except with drones. The plan is pretty simple. Garreth has gotten the Asian martial arts guy, Ajay, to use makeup to look like Milgrim, and arranged for him to be accompanied to the drop place by an ex-Gurkha (it’s handy to know this kind of people if you’re in special ops).

The two Bad Guys approach with Chombo. When they’re close enough, Ajay simply leaps forward and decks Foley, grabs Chombo and runs off, while Charlie the Gurkha drops the other bad guy.

Over on the edge of things of the meeting ground both Fiona and Milgrim have been operating drones with cameras attached which Garreth can see from the control van packed with TV screens and phones, parked half a mile away. Also in the van are Hollis and Heidi who, we now learn, has bad claustrophobia.

From one of these drone cameras they spot Michael Gracie over to one side of the exchange zone, unpacking a Kalshnikov rifle with night sights. Uh-oh. Without prompting, Milgrim fires the taser on his drone which hits Gracie, who lies convulsed on the floor. Taser? Yes, it turns out Heidi packed a taser into her luggage when she drunkenly packed to come to Britain from the States weeks ago. Handy, eh. Gibson is just adding bits of plot to try and jazz up this rather lame prisoner exchange plot device.

So while Ajay and the Gurkha run away safely, the two bad guys – Foley and some guy with a mullet haircut – are slow to get off the floor, while Gracie has been badly shocked and staggers to his feet and away without the Kalashnikov.

Chombo tries to get away from Ajay but, as luck would have it, Heidi had exited the van a few minutes earlier due to her claustrophobia, saw him running off and, being the tall Amazonian type, had rugby tackled him and brought him back to Garreth’s van. Our boys pack up and drive away, mission accomplished.

Epilogue

Cut to some weeks later. Heidi and Ajay are touring Cornwall. They seem to be an item. Hollis is in a Paris hotel bedroom with Garreth, fixing up his leg. We learn that an obscure character named Pep, the Catalan car thief (p.306), the world’s best at getting into and out of locked cars (in thrillers everyone is ‘the world’s best’) had, while the baddies were walking Chombo towards the handover zone, broken into Gracie’s car and left some semtex and photos of mosques around the UK in it. Before the mission began, Garreth had called in some heavy-duty UK anti-terrorist police on a number given him by Winnie Tung Whitaker. These police found the bomb making equipment and Gracie is now in a world of trouble. (To be honest, I never really understood what he was doing which was so wrong. Selling uniforms to the US Army, does it deserve the treatment he got?)

Hollis tells Garreth that Bigend has paid her a lot of money. No surprise, says Garreth. It was Hollis who introduced Garreth to Bigend and Garreth made all Bigend’s problems go away. At which point… Garreth proposes marriage to Hollis!

And what of Bigend, conspicuous by his absence from the hostage exchange? We catch up with him on a flight to Iceland with the Dottir twins and on no ordinary plane but a sort of zeppelin balloon, or plane with little or no wing, designed by the Russians. Milgrim is aboard it with Fiona, the biker babe. There’s a cocktail party (the plane is that big) where Milgrim is informed that:

  • Blue Ant is over: anyone who was anyone in it is on the plane and they’re all relocating to Iceland
  • Bigend helped the Dottirs’ father in shady internet deals which have ended up with the pair, between them, owning most of Iceland (the vast effort everyone put into understanding the US military’s uniform contracts has completely vanished, like the MacGuffin it always was)
  • and, in nearly the final joke, we learn that winsome Fiona with whom Milgrim is now definitely an item, is none other than Bigend’s daughter by his uber-secretary, Pamela Mainwaring

This is one massive thing in Gibson’s favour, I think, that his novels include almost no violence. This is supposedly a thriller but nobody actually gets killed – unlike the scads of traditional American thrillers in which so many people get horribly butchered. Instead this novel ends with three couples happily paired off and a nice romantic wedding on the cards.

I found Zero History a long, hard, gruelling, pretentious and irritating slog, but ended it with a smile on my face. The best bit is the ending.

Zero history

To summarise, Zero History consists of 400 pages describing rock musicians, magazine journalists and fashion aristocracy jetting from New York to London to Paris, staying in fancy hotels, taking cabs to fancy restaurants, wittering on some stupid quest to track down the designer of some slightly quirky jeans, all paid for by an absurdly rich sugar-daddy, until right at the day it turns into a briefly gripping hommage to Cold War-era hostage exchange narratives, before ending with three happy relationships and a marriage, rather like a Shakespeare comedy.

The title is explained, sort of, on page 84. All it indicates is that Milgrim was such a social dropout during his addiction phase, during his ‘decade-long low-grade brown-out’, p.141, that he never had a regular job, paid taxes, social security etc, didn’t even have a credit card. And therefore, as far as ‘the grid’ is concerned, had ‘zero history’. So no deep meaning at all.

Despite being an astonishing architect of cool, Gibson’s favourite word (apart from black, and apart from his occasional deployment of media studies buzzwords like ‘semiotics’, pp.213, and ‘liminal’, pp.4, 94, 369) Gibson’s favourite word appears to be ‘peculiar’, which cropped up frequently enough for me to  count its appearances on pages 4, 6, 8, 111, 113, 135, 180, 268, 279, 318, 326, 335 and 346.

It’s an oddly cosy and very English word for such a self-conscious American hipster.


Credit

Zero History by William Gibson was published in the UK by Viking in 2010. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon which was a bad mistake because, as with the previous 10 Amazon purchases, it arrived creased, scuffed, bent and smeared.

Other William Gibson reviews

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (2003)

This is the first novel in what became known as the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy. I was wondering what Blue Ant would turn out to be, my mind alive with images of mutating insects, or maybe it was the nickname of some groovy digital weapon, or a piece of cyberspace code.

But no, my heart sank when I learned that Blue Ant just refers to a fictional advertising agency set in the contemporary world i.e. turn of the century New York and London and Tokyo. And that the lead figure in the book is a ‘brilliant’ young logo expert, 32-year-old (page 2) Cayce Pollard who is a freelance fashion spotter, ‘an actual on-the-street cool-hunter’ (page 32), ‘a very specialised piece of human litmus paper’ (page 13):

  • ‘What I do is pattern recognition. I try to recognise a pattern before anyone else does.’ (page 86)
  • All the time she’s spent on the world’s various streets, scouting cool for the commodifiers. (page 195)
  • ‘I find things, or styles, for other people, companies, to market. And I evaluate logos – trademark emblems.’ (page 231)

Just like the character Count Zero in the Neuromancer trilogy or Colin Laney in the Bridge trilogy had special, almost supernatural gifts for spotting trends, nodes and emerging meanings in the endless flow of data in cyberspace, so Cayce is credited with a special, almost supernatural gift to spot new fashion trends –

She’s met the very Mexican who first wore his baseball cap backwards, asking the next question. She’s that good! (page 32)

Except that Count Zero and Laney were dealing with the genuinely weird, visionary idea of dataflows, set in interesting futures, whereas Cayce has a special ability to spot… the latest trends in footwear. Or shirts. Or handbags. It feels like a crashing descent into the banal.

In the first 150 pages of this book the one piece of actual work which Cayce performs for the Blue Ant agency is they show her a new logo designed for a client which looks a bit like a sperm.

‘They wanted me here to tell them whether or not a new logo worked.’ (page 190)

She doesn’t like it so it’s sent back to the designer (Heinz) in Germany, who amends it to more of a squiggle – which she does like. That’s it. That’s how her supernatural abilities are put to use. Felt pathetic, to me.

The novel opens as Cayce arrives in London for a meeting with the Blue Ant advertising agency with a bad jet lag.

She’s here on Blue Ant’s ticket. Relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, more post-geographic than multinational, the agency has from the beginning billed itself as a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering carnivores. (page 6)

The prose from the get-go is whip-smart and street savvy and cool and all those other adjectives, but cannot conceal what for me, as a person completely indifferent to fashion, is the crushingly dull and vapidly narcissistic world of fashion and marketing. And this is the first novel in which the real thinness of Gibson’s plots became clear.

Characters

The book is cleverly constructed and has a number of strands. Cayce is staying at the flat of a mate of hers, Damian, who is off shooting a documentary in Russia. The Blue Ant agency was founded and is run by the preposterous Hubertus Bigend, who drives a fast car, wears a stetson hat, looks like Tom Cruise with big teeth, and has advanced views about how advertising bypasses the rational mind and goes straight for the primitive hippocampus, the basic mammalian stem of the brain (page 69). Just, in fact, like all the pretentious, high-talking heads of all advertising agencies are ‘visionaries’, ‘gurus’, ‘geniuses’, prophets, intellectuals, blah blah blah.

Hubertus Bigend and contempt for the reader

Calling his central character Hubertus Bigend struck me as being a gesture of contempt by Gibson. In the third of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, Hannibal (1999), written some time after the smash hit success of the Anthony Hopkins movie version of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Harris has a scene where the psychopath moves amid the crowd in the London Dungeon and freely expresses his loathing and contempt for the shallow philistines who love being titillated by gruesome murders. Peasants! Plebs! It seemed to me that Harris was deliberately gobbing in the face of the people who bought his books and paid to see the movies.

Something comparable struck me as happening here. It seems to me Gibson that is taunting his readers, saying if you can believe in a character I’ve named Hubertus Bigend, you’ll believe anything; if you swallow this stupid, insulting name, it just goes to prove what gullible mugs you are, falling over yourselves to associate yourself with my shimmering street-savvy prose, to slip on a leather jacket and shades and a ripped t-shirt and pretend to be in on the latest thing, in a pathetic attempt to hide from yourself how middle-aged and white and boring you are.

In fact it’s not only Hubertus Bigend who has a stupid name, they all do:

  • Cayce Pollard
  • Hubertus Bigend
  • Damian Pease (page 104)
  • Boone Chu (page 100)

In the Neuromancer trilogy Gibson really did feel like he was writing about gutter punks strung out on future drugs as they hacked in and out of cyberspace in gorgeously whip-sharp prose. You are totally in that world.

The Bridge trilogy which followed felt to me more contrived: its focus is on solidly lowlife types, or people bumping along the bottom of society – a security guard and ex-bike courier and rasta shopkeeper and a damaged teenager – giving the impression of a world which is fly and sharp and cool and street and happening, man. It’s only when the story refers to the authorities who actually run all the amenities of post-earthquake California – for example when the fire brigade gets called in to put out the climactic blaze on the Golden Gate bridge – that you realise that beyond Gibson’s handful of street types and scandi noir assassins, there is actually a great big world of grown-ups, where taxes are gathered to pay for schools and hospitals and police and fire brigade, where bureaucrats and businessmen commute to work every day and get things done. Where people aren’t lowlife drifters, living in cardboard boxers, mixing with cool assassins in long black coats.

Suddenly, the story felt…well… juvenile, wilfully focusing on a handful of rather pathetic outsiders with no particular redeeming qualities or features, certainly in no way representative of the wider world.

The Blue Ant novels feel like they continue this downward arc – that what began as something genuinely subversive and new in Neuromancer has metamorphosed into something shiny and empty and corrupt. The triumph of style over soul. It feels like he’s sold out. The Clash lyric, ‘Huh, you think it’s funny – turning rebellion into money’ kept coming to mind (The Clash are actually quoted on page 130 and the novel features Gibson’s usual clutch of supposed rock stars and fake rock bands).

When you’re a kid you think the music and look of your time is the big deal which is going to overthrow the corrupt old order. Then you watch as the record labels and promoters and stadium bookers and the TV pundits and fashion journalists and style gurus turn it into just another brand, and next thing you know it’s being sold back to you at extortionate prices, marketed and advertised by would-be cool, creepy, slimey, 40-something sell-outs in designer leather jackets.

That’s what this book felt like to me: a creepy exercise in cynical box-ticking set among a jet-setting international advertising and media elite who know all the right people and who are all so fabulous – fabulously well dressed, fabulously well connected, fabulously stylish, and so fabulously interesting, dahhhling, Hubertus has just got the most fabulously interesting theory of why advertising works, dahling, you must hear it, the man is a complete genius!

Absolutely fabulous characters

Cayce, as is repeatedly pointed out, is supernaturally gifted at spotting fashion trends, and this is one of the obvious examples of pattern recognition which crop up throughout the book. Her father was Win Pollard, a leading security expert who made American embassies round the world secure. He had many wise words and sayings like a good father should, well, certainly in an airport thriller.

He advised her to always ‘secure the perimeter’. He warned her against apophenia which is the tendency to perceive connections between unrelated things when there are none. It is a way of overdoing pattern recognition, a form of paranoia. (It crossed my mind, reading this, that creating patterns out of human activity is, in a broad sense, the core approach of all narratives.)

Cayce’s mother, Cynthia is equally as interesting and eccentric, a gen-you-ine Virginia eccentric (page 31) who lives in a nutty community who all believe in Electronic Voice Phenomena, a form of pattern recognition gone wrong (page 115).

Cayce had a therapist, Katherine McNally (page 253) (later this turns out to have been a string of therapists). She goes to a café in Camden and bumps into the famous Billy Prion, lead singer in the famous band, BSE. Her friend Damian is off in Russia making simply the most amazing documentaries ever.

In other words, her life is just so effortlessly glamorous, dahhling. It’s a Sunday Times Style supplement version of cool.

The shiny people in their black leather jackets, black Fruit of the Loom t-shirts, black skinny 501 jeans (page 2) and black shades, collars moodily turned up on their long black coats, or black leather and shiny nylon and squared-off shoes (page 153), smoking Gitanes like Albert Camus, drinking expensive Colombian coffee, hanging out in their cool redesigned interiors and stylish cars are like the pencil-thin, heroin-chic young things out of any number of indistinguishable fashion shoots from the last 30 years, or which populate hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cynical, smooth, stylish, utterly empty car ads.

An ex-boyfriend of Cayce’s (oh, dahhling, how many have there been?) once compared her to a Helmut Newton portrait of Jane Birkin. Well, of course he did. A character she knows looks like Michael Stipe on steroids – ‘Oh I simply love REM, don’t you!’ (page 21).

Later Boone’s luggage is described as ‘one of those Filson outfitter bags that look like L.L. Bean on steroids’, page 172. In other words Gibson is starting to write in clichés and to repeat those clichés.

Cayce’s New York apartment is painted a shade of blue she discovered in Northern Spain and had the paint people mix from a Polaroid she took of it, she’s that good!

The book keeps up a steady stream of name-dropping, trailing any number of undergraduate cultural references from Tarkovsky to Baudrillard (page 48) because the book has intellectual pretensions as well, in much the way that high-end fashion magazines and style outlets like to quote Deep Thinkers, or at least put their faces onto t-shirts, turning them into yet another kind of shiny surface reflecting the characters’ bottomless shallowness.

They’re just names on labels, like all the other brands the text carefully namechecks – Tommy Hilfiger, Levi 501, Volvo, Agnes B, Molton Brown, Burberry, Gucci (127), Prada (188), Gap, L.L. Bean, Louis Vuitton (188), suede boots from Parco, Armani, Versace (271), Cartier (309), Hermès (310).

Everyone is just so fabulously fabulous, thus:

  • Hubertus is a philosopher king who founded the coolest ad agency anywhere (‘He’s brilliant, isn’t he?’ gushes a member of his staff on page 87)
  • Cayce’s friend Margot is doing a course at NYU in disease-as-metaphor (‘Oh how wonderfully Susan Sontag of her!’), as it happens, she is a former girlfriend of Bigend’s – small world, when you’re this brilliant and that good !
  • the text drops key names from an undergraduate media studies course like car keys – Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Jameson, August Strindberg, Andrei Tarkovsky (at least three times pp.146), Truffault, Peckinpah, Apocalypse Now (180), William S. Burroughs (186), James Joyce and Tennessee Williams (286), it’s a shopping list of rather dated intellectual ‘cool’
  • characters wonder whether the director of the fragments is some kind of ‘Garage Kubrick’ (page 47)
  • film-makers are all auteurs
  • Cayce is stopped in the street by someone who thinks he saw her at a fabulous event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ (page 19)
  • not one but two of her former boyfriends were fans of Japanese actor Beat Takeshi, star of existential gangster films (page 167); of course they were, haven’t you heard of Beat Takeshi, oh dahling, where have you been hiding?
  • Cayce keeps bumping into rock singer Billy Prion, you all remember Billy Prion the famous rock singer, don’t you?

The text drops not only names but fashionable buzzwords, too, like a checklist from a student reading list of critical theory – liminal (54, 253), discourse, semiotics (‘semiotics of the marketplace’ 2, ‘a semiotic neutrality’ 89, ‘semiotic agoraphobia’ 264), hegemony, hermeneutics, God aren’t we clever and well-read.

As you can tell, I found Pattern Recognition unbearably pretentious, elitist and dull. It’s such a shame because in the Neuromancer novels Gibson seemed to have invented a dazzlingy jazzy, funky, street prose style to match the extraordinary goings-on in his digital future. But in a book like this, the style is broader, deeper and more accomplished, but now feels like it is dressing up distressingly lame, boring, fashion magazine material.

The McGuffin

All Gibson’s previous novels managed to cook up a sense of expectation and mild dread because they all contrived to have a Big Secret at their centre, a secret the characters slowly stumble across and which, in the case of the Neuromancer books, is genuinely mind-expanding (in the second novel a self-conscious, self-aware being emerges from the world’s data; in the third novel, it becomes aware that there are others like it out in space).

However, this entire Big Thing-at-the-heart-of-the-story strategy begins to run out of steam in the Bridge trilogy: in the last of those books we spend the entire narrative being promised that something big, really, really big is going to happen, something that is going to change the world forever, so we spend the entire novel on tenterhooks. And then… it doesn’t happen. Nothing happens at all. Well, the Golden Gate catches fire and then, er, is put out. That’s it.

The McGuffin in this novel is ‘the fragments’. Someone is releasing onto the internet brief fragments of what appear to be a movie. This cryptic procedure has spawned a community of obsessives around the world who have swiftly assigned themselves a ‘cool’ name, the ‘footageheads’, who have wasted vast amounts of time speculating what The Footage means, who took it and why and where it’s all going to end. Footageheads are obsessives and addicts. They think repeated watching of the various fragments, in various orders, gives them a sense of an opening into something, a universe, a narrative (page 109).

There are web communities devoted solely to analysing The Fragments, including one named F:F:F, which stands for Fetish: Footage: Forum, maintained by someone named Ivy, with about 20 regular posters including Parkaboy, La Anarchia, Maurice and Filmy, and where Cayce has been posting thoughts for some time.

As the novel begins and Cayce flies into London to undertake her brief job assessing the new logo for a Blue Ant client (why couldn’t the logo have been emailed or faxed or posted to her?) she is fussing and fretting over the release of the latest fragment, #135.

This silly idea really is the centre of this long novel, I kid you not. When, on the evening of her 1-minute logo-disapproving meeting, Cayce is invited out for dinner and then drinks with the swashbuckling Hubertus Bigend (‘Isn’t he brilliant?’), Hubertus takes Cayce to a cool designer bar in cool Clerkenwell (natch) where he springs on her the real reason he paid for her flight from New York — turns out Hubertus is a footagehead himself and is prepared to pay Cayce big bucks to find out who’s making The Fragments and why.

Before she knows what’s happening, Hubertus introduces her to a Chinese-American named Boone Chu. Cayce initially says no to the whole proposition, but, like Cayce herself, Boone is a genuine footagehead and his passion is contagious.

Tokyo

Cayce spends the first hundred and fifty pages mooching round the environs of her mate Damian’s flat in Camden i.e. up to the Lock, around the market, there are walks up Primrose Hill, she meets people in cafés, has a bizarre encounter in the street with three dudes who are buying and selling a suite of fake hand grenades which contain wind-up calculators (named Voytek and Ngemi), the nips over to Notting Hill and the Portobello Road. Then there’s all the taking of cabs to and from meetings at Blue Ant’s HQ in Soho. In other words, fashionable north and west London are given a good going over in Gibson’s slick stylish prose. Cool.

But via the community of footageheads Cayce has learned that there are various footage experts in Tokyo and so, once Boone Chu has helped persuade her to agree to Hubertus’s commission to track down the footage maker, she finds herself handed a Blue Ant Mac, ipad, mobile, credit card and plane tickets to Tokyo and whoosh! she’s aboard a British Airways flight to Japan. ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody’s talking ’bout… pop music!’

There’s quite a bit of reportage about what it’s like to arrive in Tokyo, deboard the plane, catch a cab into town, all the skyscrapers, the bombardment of foreign signs which every tourist since Roland Barthes has felt compelled to write a book about. The Blue Ant Tokyo office is terrifyingly prompt and efficient and, after she’s checked into a luxury hotel, arranges an hours-long pampering session with seaweed facials, wax and haircut. Then a new outfit, all in black, obvz.

Then, finally, we arrive at the point of the whole trip, which is some of her pals in F:F:F have identified a certain ‘Taki’, a Japanese footagehead, who claims to know of a ‘coven’ of other footageheads who have discovered a watermark on fragment #78.

Do you care? No, neither do I. Her friends then devise an elaborate scam which is to invent a horny, porny anime babe, call her Keiko, and persuade this Taki to a meeting on the promise that in exchange for his information, he’ll get a picture and contact details for this Keiko. I suppose they could have just rung him up and asked him or asked to meet for a coffee and asked him, But this way creates more cloak-and-dagger suspense.

So Cayce meets Taki in a seedy bar which he has chosen, he hands over the number he claims is in the watermark of fragment #78 and she hands over the bosomy photo of a made-up Japanese babe, goes for a pee and Taki is gone when she gets back.

Out in the dirty alley she is mugged by two guys dressed all in black (obvz) who seem to have Italian accents. But it turns out Cayce was trained in self-defence by her spy father (of course she was) and gives one of them a Glasgow Kiss before stamping on the other’s one’s shoe with her stilleto and running. At the end of the alleyway a lone figure on a moped is waiting, who lifts the visor of his helmet to reveal… it is Boone Chu! He flew out on the same plane as her and has been tailing her.

Long story short, he sweeps her off to a hotel, drinks and recovers and throws on new clothes (all black, natch), then a plane back to London.

Back in London

Boone and Cayce are collected by Hubertus in a cab, so he can debrief them about everything that happened. Boone does the talking and leaves out the mugging and his rescue of Cayce.

Back at Damian’s Cayce is disconcerted to discover Damian has returned to his flat from Russia, and brought along a moody sulky Russian girlfriend, Marina (dresses only in Prada, only in black, natch). Cayce crashes, the others go for meals, Camden is so cool.

Burglary I forgot to mention that after Cayce arrived in Damian’s flat she unpacked then went for a walk. When she came back she realised someone had been tampering with the laptop she uses i.e. had broken into the flat, but using the correct keys. This led to an outburst of paranoia which led her to barricade Damian’s door, then to get new locks.

Logophobia I also forgot to mention that Cayce has a severed phobia which is the other side of her having such a phenomenally good feel for fashion and logos, which is a phobia of logos. Thus a visit to Harvey Nichols upscale department store makes her nearly pass out, and conversation leads to the fact that the Michelin man, logo of Bibendum in Knightsbridge, gives her panic attacks. Thus it is no accident that when she gets back to Damian’s flat after some outing she finds a model of the Michelin man nailed to the door. She nearly throws up and has to detach it without looking directly at it.

Now, no sooner has she arrived back in London than she’s called to a meeting at Blue Ant with Hubertus. On the way in she almost collides with… the man who tried to mug her in Tokyo and is sporting a very broken nose. When she asks reception who he is, reception tells her that’s Dorotea’s driver, Franco (page 199).

Dorotea? Yes we met Dorotea Benedetti (page 9) in the early scenes. She is another freelance, this time an imposing executive, who had been liaising with the German designer about the sperm logo. Boone  explains that Dorotea was angling for a senior job at Big Ant and thought Hubertus had flown Cayce to London to consider her for the post i.e. to be a rival. And that’s why Dorotea commenced this barrage of psychological attacks against Cayce.

But in this new meeting at Blue Ant, also attended by Boone, Cayce now discovers that none of it was Dorotea’s idea, she was put up to it by a Russian who paid her, a tax lawyer based in Cyprus (described as being a centre of Russian money laundering, page 204). Not only did this Russian pay Dorotea to unsettle Cayce but someone passed on to her deeply personal information about Cayce’s logo phobia which she had only shared with her New York therapist. I.e. the Russians appear to have burgled Cayce’s therapist’s office.

So there’s some kind of deeper conspiracy against Cayce going on. When all this comes out in this boardroom meeting, Cayce is speechless with rage and calls Dorotea a ‘vicious lying cunt’ (page 203). But Hubertus stuns Cayce even more by announcing that he has hired Dorotea to Big Ant. Cayce reels out and goes to a Starbucks with Boone who explains that Hubertus doesn’t trust Dorotea but wants her on the inside of the tent pissing out.

Boone announces he’s flying to Columbus Ohio because that’s the location of a firm, Sigil, which specialises in watermarking movies. He thinks it might be them who placed the watermark on the fragment which they swindled out of Beat in Tokyo. So we’re back to The Footage, again, as providing the main narrative engine.

Bournemouth

Remember the oddballs Cayce walked past in Portobello Road, gathered round a car boot where she was astonished to see full of hand grenades till she went closer and discovered that they were only novelty calculators, one of the only hand-wound calculators in the world. To add a bit of grit, the story goes on to explain that they were designed by a Jewish designer Herzstark while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.

Now we learn that the two guys gathered round that boot were collectors and aficionados, being Voytek the Slav, Ngemi the black guy. They were waiting for a potential purchaser, Hobbs Baranov to show up. But he didn’t, so they packed up and left, disgruntled.

Well, Voytek gets hooked up with Damian somehow I can’t quite remember, and is part of the ‘Camden set’. Cayce sees him a few times in Camden cafés, even round Damian’s place. Conversation reveals that Baranov is well connected as well as being a fanatical collector. He’s the son of a Soviet defector from the 1950s, possibly recruited to American intelligence (page 242).

We are told that a rare and valuable artifact, a prototype Curta calculator, went at auction to a Bond Street dealer, Lucian Greenaway. Cayce finds out the black guy Ngemi is catching a train down to Bournemouth to see Baranov the purchaser and asks Voytek to ask Ngemi if she can accompany him.

Yes. So Cayce catches a cab to Waterloo (with comic descriptions of British Rail announcements, sandwiches and English tabloid newspapers. Yuk.) Train to Bournemouth, borrows a car, drives out to derelict Ministry of Defence test centre, a handful of pitiful caravans, this is where Hobbs Baranov lives. He is very unpleasant but a fanatical collector of early computers and calculators.

The T diagram The F:F:F people continue to dangle the bait of a made-up hot Japanese footagehead babe in front of Taki i.e. continue sending fake emails from her to him and, having been given the photo Cayce gave him, he more than ever believes she is real and big-breasted and gagging to meet her if only he will hand over Footagehead facts. So Taki excitedly emails Cayce a diagram. It is an image which shows a sort of T-shaped piece of geography and written all over it are numbers. One of them is the same as the number watermarked into fragment #78 as revealed by Taki. So presumably they’re all watermarks to do with the Footage.

Now Cayce has come all the way down to this dingy caravan outside Bournemouth to show it to the collector and expert in the arcane, Hobb. She shows the image to Hobbs and he nods knowingly. Cayce makes Hobbs a deal. She’ll buy the Bond Street piece for him in exchange for information: she wants the email address to which the particular encrypted number Taki gave her was sent.

Back at Waterloo Ngemi tells Cayce that Hobbs, before he became a shambling alcoholic recluse, was something to do with setting up Echelon, an American system that monitors the entire traffic on the web. As so often with Gibson, this snippet is heavy with implied meaning, but light on actual content.

So Ngemi and Cayce go to this Bond Street dealer who is the epitome of superior snobbishness but sells them the Curta calculator, which they promptly hand to Baranov who was waiting outside with the email address Cayce wanted (stellanor@armaz.ru).

Cayce goes sits in Kensington Gardens where, on her iBook, she writes an email to the address asking who he or she is and what they’re aiming to achieve with the footage. (Email is written as e-mail throughout the book.)

Throughout the book she’s plugging her phone into her I-book in order to receive emails. Maybe this was cutting edge in 2002 or 3 but quite obviously it was to be completely superseded with the advent of smartphones by 2007 or 8.

Anyway, Cayce investigates the domain name @armaz.ru and discovers it’s owned by an Andreas Polakov based in Cyprus. She phones Bigend, asks the name of the Cyprus-based Russian lawyer who paid Dorotea to frighten off Cayce and it is… Andreas Polokov (page 259). One and the same man: so, Is the man who appears to be disseminating The Footage the same one who paid Dorotea to put the frighteners on Cayce? And if so, Why?

The guy at the other end of the email replies within half an hour saying he’s in Moscow. Cayce immediately gets Blue Ant’s people to buy her an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

Moscow

There is the same kind of travelogue description of driving into the city from the airport which Gibson has already given us for London and Tokyo. ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody’s talking ’bout… pop music!’

The constant shifting of locale is like a James Bond movie and just like in the movies we get a lot of local colour and background information, almost like a tourist brochure.

We get descriptions of Moscow motorways, signage, the imposingly huge hotel (the President), the crappy hotel room, the poor cellphone reception, the rude staff, a couple of super-sexualised hookers hanging round in the lobby. It all sounds like notes Gibson has made on his travels promoting his earlier books.

Throughout the novel Cayce’s closest friend on the Fetish: Footage: Forum has been Parkaboy. He’s been avidly following her investigations into the source of the footage. Now in an email exchange he begs to be allowed to join her in Moscow.

Now, back when Hubertus originally hired Cayce to track down the Footage Maker, Hubertus said she could have anything she wanted, unlimited expenses, buy cars, take flights anywhere, stay in the best hotels etc. So Cayce now tells Parkaboy she’ll get him a plane ticket to Moscow, whereupon he tells her his name for the plane ticket, Peter Gilbert (page 278).

She gets another email from the footage guy telling her to meet him in a Moscow café. So she’s very surprised when the figure who weaves its way through the cafe to her turns out to be… a woman, introduces herself as Stella.

The big reveal

Stella explains everything, explaining the entire plot.

Stella was one of twin sisters, Stella and Nora born and bred in Russia. She and her sister were in a terrorist attack, a claymore mine stuck in a tree, which killed both their parents immediately, Nora was very badly injured with shrapnel lodged in her brain. She had been a film student in Paris. She had been working on several films which she cut shorter and shorter in line with her minimalist aesthetic.

After the injury she spoke only to Stella and only in the special private language which twins often develop. Stella and friends bring Nora her film equipment from Paris which is the only thing which perks her up. She resumes editing her film and paring it down till it ends up as just one shot.

Then they notice Nora staring at the monitor showing closed circuit TV footage of the reception area of the hotel. She is entranced by it. So, hoping to aid her cure, one of the doctors hooks Nora’s recording equipment to the CCTV camera, she begins recording it and editing it. And that, children, is the origin of The Footage which has been dazzling and puzzling the worldwide community of Footageheads. Bit disappointing, isn’t it.

They part, Cayce goes back to her hotel and sleeps, has calls with Boone, Hubertus, then receives a long email about his archaeology project from Damian. Then Stella’s car comes to collect Cayce and take her to an abandoned cinema, which became a squat in the chaotic 90s and is now where Nora sits in a shawl obsessively editing and re-editing fragments of her ‘film’. And where Stella sits for hours watching the genius of her sister, the Creator, the Maker.

Dorotea in Moscow

In the middle of all this, Cayce is astonished when Dorotea turns up in the Moscow hotel. Dorotea urgently takes Cayce for a drink, telling her that the twins (Stella and Nora’s) uncle, the one Stella says is rich and powerful and has been protecting them, well he’s not happy that Cayce has discovered who Nora is. She also casually reveals that she, Dorotea, knows all about The Footage, in fact is the most irritating member of the F:F:F, Madam Anarchia.

But even as she explains all this, Cayce realises Dorotea has drugged her Perrier water and she starts to pass out.

Cayce kidnapped

Cayce wakes up in what feels like a hospital ward, in a hospital ward, strapped to a bed. She dozes, wakes again, is no longer strapped down, climbs out of bed, finds her bag with her clothes stuffed in it underneath, gets into them, goes tentatively out into a corridor, walks towards a door showing daylight, out into the grounds and away from the nasty 1960s building before anyone notices, down rough paths, going down, then up and up and eventually coming to a wire fence topped with razor wire, which she gets over (at the price of ripping her precious Rickson’s leather jacket) and walks on across bare red soil till night begins to fall. She has no food, no water, no idea where she is and no idea where she’s headed.

Parkaboy

When out of nowhere a helicopter with a searchlight comes swooping overhead, lands, and a guy with night vision goggles walks up, oh my God is it Russian Security, the FSB, the Mafia? Is he going to shoot Cayce, take her back for torture and interrogation, is he…

No. As in any Hollywood action movie the dark, helmeted figure walks right up to her to create maximum threat and… introduces himself as Parkaboy! Her friend! From Chicago! Who she helped arrange the plan ticket for.

Parkaboy gives Cayce water then bundles her into the chopper taking them back to the facility while he explains everything (it’s lovely how people do that in thrillers, explain everything. I wish they’d do that in real life).

Back in the hotel bar Dorotea drugged Cayce with rohypnol. But as she went under, Cayce went postal and attacked Dorotea, giving her a bloody nose and black eye. Ambulance was called. All this just as Parkaboy walked into the hotel bar. In one of her last emails to him, Cayce had sent Parkaboy Stella’s contact details so Parkaboy rang rich, influential Stella and within minutes an expensive car with private goons turns up. Cayce was flown to the establishment where she woke up and which she’s just escaped from. Parkaboy explains it is an experimental private prison run by Stella and Nora’s super-rich uncle, really rich, maybe the richest man in Russia. Of course.

Prison? Yes and what are the inmates of this model prison being paid to do? To watermark every frame of the fragments of the movie which mad Nora is creating. Why?

Parkaboy now amazes Cayce by telling her that he was in the room when Volkov and Bigend first met. And talked. He says it was like watching spiders mate.

All this during the helicopter flight. Now the chopper lands. Cayce is cleaned and showered, her bleeding feet tended by a doctor, dressed and taken up to the tower overlooking the facility where she is dazed to meet Hubertus Bigend – he gets everywhere, but then he is a genius! – who suavely introduces her to the oligarch Andrei Volkov.

Over dinner everything is explained

Volkov looks like Adolf Eichman, a non-descript middle-aged man except with a chunk missing from his right ear (page 334). Through a translator he apologises to Cayce for the trouble she’s been through, shakes hands, says something in French to Bigend and departs with his three security guys, flying back to Moscow.

Cayce is introduced to Volkov’s Polish head of security, Wiktor Marchwynska-Wyrwal and Sergei Magomedov, as he, Bigend, Parkaboy and Cayce sit down at a cloth-laid table as an expensive dinner is brought to them and served up.

Marchwynska-Wyrwal takes up the explanation. Volkov is now the richest man in Russia. The claymore mine attack was an assassination attempt on him which failed but killed his brother, Nora and Stella’s father. From that point onwards, out of guilt for his dead brother, nothing was too good for his nieces, Nora in particular, and Volkov paid for an editing suite to be installed in her Swiss clinic.

As Nora created footage, her sister Stella wanted it to be conveyed to the world, but it was Sergei who developed the methodology of releasing it in numbered fragments, each containing watermarks, with a view to creating a cult following.

They monitored the various forums and chatrooms and groups which set themselves up as footageheads but it was a casual remark of Cayce’s, in her early days of posting, a casual throwaway remark that maybe the entire thing was the whim of a Russian mafiosi, which made all their security operations sit up.

Turns out Volkov had two security operations, a traditional KGB one and a web-based one. The traditionalists broke into Cayce’s flat and bugged all her devices. The less conventional ones hired Dorotea to sabotage Cayce’s career. Now, Volkov’s security guys already knew that Bigend had been making strides in discovering the footage creator, so when they learned that Cayce was going to join Bigend’s company the team went into overdrive and Dorotea was ordered to bug Cayce’s London base (Damian’s flat), then to try and mug her in Tokyo to get the watermark number which Taki had just given her.

All this is explained over this formal meal in a Russian prison-turned-hospital. As if all this wasn’t enough, Cayce’s father comes up in the conversation. For a moment I thought he was going to actually walk through a door and turn out to be a key player in this bonkers conspiracy to get a psychologically damaged young woman’s movie fragments out to a waiting world. But no. Volkov’s security people think Cayce’s father is dead, as she does. Nonetheless there is what is presumably meant to be a deliciously ironic toast to Wingard Pollard and men like him in the security services of the West who kept capitalism alive, for without him where would the oligarchs to today be? Lol.

Possibly this was wicked satire in 2003 but now it just reads like factual description of Vladimir Putin’s oligarch capitalism.

This bizarrely tranquil climax to the story prompts the thought that thrillers are ultimately comforting because, although a bunch of people might get shot or tortured along the way, things always turn out to be entirely comprehensible and loose ends are always neatly tied up like the ribbons tying up a fancy birthday gift.

It’s this childlike explanatoriness of thrillers, the neat tying up of loose ends, the complete explanations of the world, which makes them, ultimately, genre fiction and not literature.

Trouble is the explanations always happen right at the end of the text and are often contorted as hell in order to explain away the exciting but contrived scenes from earlier in the book, when it was still in ‘thrill mode’. As here. All those thrills and spills, burglaries and muggings and high-speed escapes, boil down to very little in the end.

Bigend walks Cayce to her room and explains that Dorotea was playing both sides. Only when Cayce used the .ru email address did Volkov’s security operation really leap into action, and Dorotea’s position become exposed. She flew to Moscow and was quizzing Cayce about the source of the email trying to identify who Cayce got that email address from (we know it was Hobbs) because Dorotea thought it would be a bargaining chip with Volkov’s people. But instead Volkov’s people arrived at the bar of the Hotel President to discover Dorotea assaulting the new best friend of Volkov’s nieces, so it was all up for her.

The long and the short of it is that nobody knows her current whereabouts. Best not to ask, Hubert advises. The implication is that Dorotea has been liquidated. Bigend bids Cayce goodnight, leading her to the small motel room she’s been assigned within the facility.

Immediately after dinner Wiktor Marchwynska-Wyrwal had given Cayce an envelope. Opening it she sees it’s a summary of Volkov’s security people’s extended efforts to track down her father. But no joy. Missing presumed dead in south Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. So, once again, what has been  trailed throughout the novel as an exciting and mysterious disappearance of her father the senior American security official turns out to be… a damp squib.

And Cayce was given another envelope. It contains a stylish handbag containing lots of fresh cash. Parkaboy drops by with bottled water. She tells him everything and starts to cry about her father. He gives her a hug and says, Well, at least they found the Maker.

Epilogue

The short final chapter ties up loose ends.

Cayce sends the money she was given to Voytek so he can stage some mad art exhibition involving lots of scaffolding.

Billy Prion the former rock star she kept bumping into in Camden is chosen as the face of some new yoghurt drink.

And she sends some cash to her mum, which helps pay the lawyers who are establishing her father’s legal status as deceased so as to free up his pension and insurance.

Her friend Margot writes to say she just saw Bigend on telly with some oligarch.

Damien writes to say he’s finished shooting his archaeology documentary about digging up a Stuka on some Second World War battlefield. Cayce had gone to visit him and ended up down in the digging trench, shovelling mud and crying helplessly. For her buried past. For her dead father.

Cayce’s therapist is pleased to hear that her panic attacks, her logophobia, her abreaction against all kinds of branded consumer goods, seem to have disappeared, but offers her a few slots in the autumn. Somehow this whole crazy experience has been therapeutic. Cayce is cured!

The book ends with her lying in bed in Paris, spooned up next to Parkaboy aka Peter Gilbert, who, we learn, is now her boyfriend. She’s in no rush to go back to work. Which must be nice. Nice swanning round the world on other people’s expense accounts. But then that’s the life which, ultimately, this book portrays.

New York, London, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, expense accounts, upscale therapists and cabs everywhere, Cayce is a perfect epitome of the globalised, international, jetsetting advertising and media élite.

If you want a more realistic account of London advertising agencies try this.


9/11

Early on Cayce describes how her dad, Wingard Pollard, was in New York on the morning the twin towers were blown up. His family doesn’t know why, he didn’t live in New York. He left his hotel in lower Manhattan on the fateful morning and was never seen again (pages 185 to 187). Cayce’s dad was a security expert. Security. 9/11. Russians. The reader suspects there might be connections. The reader hopes there might be interesting and mind-stretching connections. But no.

Cayce herself was also in Manhattan that morning and saw the attacks from the room of a business contact she’d gone to see.

She looks up, then, and sees, borealis-faint but sharp-edged and tall as heaven, twin towers of light. As her head goes back to find their tops a vertigo seizes her: They narrow up into nothing at all, a vanishing point, like railway tracks up into the desert of the sky. (page 227)

Great writer, isn’t he, Gibson? Great creator of snappy, vivid sentences, acute imagery. Shame his plots can’t quite match his prose style.

Looking back to 2003, we can assess how 9/11 seemed so important for a long time. For quite a few years afterwards, it felt like it had ushered in an entirely new era, one of perma-fear and anxiety, periodically stoked up by further terrorist atrocities in England and across Europe. I suppose the book was written in the immediate backwash of 9/11 and that including it as a thread lent the book a kind of hyper-charged paranoia, giving a dark halo to the story about mysteries, espionage and paranoia.

But one of Donald Trump’s many achievements has been to bring America to such a verge of social upheaval that 9/11 seems like a tea party now. Al-Qaeda never got to storm the Capitol. Feels like the real terrorists are all-American patriots and the next bloodbath / atrocity might be carried out by guys wearing baseball caps or the American police mowing down an apparently endless list of unarmed black men. 9/11 was eclipsed by the war in Afghanistan and then by the massive fiasco in Iraq. And then the near collapse of the entire financial system in 2008, and… so on and so on.

Reading the 9/11 passages in this novel made me realise it will have been 20 years ago this September. 20 years. It feels well settled in the past, now, superseded by many more recent events.

9/11 references pages: 136 to 137, 185 to 187, 232, 348 to 349.

Black

Gibson has a really tedious obsession with black, the teenage colour of cool. Black jeans, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black sunglasses. He is, as my last review suggested, the Lou Reed of science fiction, the man in black wearing a black leather jacket, ripped t-shirt and black shades.

Except that, with this book, Gibson abandons science fiction altogether. But not the obsession with black as the colour of cool. On every page someone’s clothes or car or room is black, it is so oppressively ubiquitous that way before page 100 I began to wonder whether he was sending himself up, or maybe his readers; maybe he’s parodying himself.

The hotel room in Japan has all-black furniture. The replacement keys Cayce gets for his flat are black. Cayce has a black Rickson’s jacket, which comes folded in black tissue. Boone wears an old black horsehair coat. On the plane back to London she wears a black blindfold. Damian’s girlfriend Marina only wears black Prada. Damian wears a black hooded sweatshirt. Cayce wears black Levi 501s, black t-shirt, black shoes. Hubertus’s associated Bernard wears a permanently rumpled black suit. To dress for a meeting Cayce wears a black t-shirt, a black skirt, black leggings, black Harajuku Japanese schoolgirl shoes, a black leather jacket and a black East German handbag. Ngemi wears a black faux leather jacket. He wears black 4-eyelet Doc Marten boots. The make figure in the fragments wears a black leather coat. In dreams she sees her father holding a black Curta calculator. The cases passengers are wheeling towards the Eurostar terminal are black. Dorotea wears an entirely black Armani outfit. The German designer from whose apartment she watches the World Trade Centre burn wears black glasses (136). Cayce’s Pedipole at the Pilates gym includes black foam stirrups (247). Cayce wears a black nylon flight jacket (249). When Cayce first saw the Albert Memorial it had been black (253). Stella’s drivers wear black leather jackets. They drive black Mercedes (290). Cayce wears a black cardigan (297). When Dorotea turns up in Moscow she is dressed all in black (312). When Parkaboy turns up he is wearing a heavy black shirt (326). After the scene in the hotel bar three dudes with black leather coats turn up (327). Cayce’s blistered feet are put into black felt house slippers (332). Cayce has a shower and changes into her black cardigan (332). Parkaboy has a shower and changes into new black jeans (333).

Men in Black. Back in Black. Paint it black. Gibson’s obsession with black could be interpreted psychologically, as a form of displacement activity. As his plots became more complex but more contrived and, in the end, more trivial, so Gibson upped his concern with style and surface, and the growing obsession with black clothes and shirts and boots and shades is a kind of compulsive attempt to make the characters ‘cool’ even as the plots become more complex and inconsequential.


Credit

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 2003. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

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