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

Burning Chrome by William Gibson (1986)

So I went out into the night and the neon and let the crowd pull me along, walking blind, willing myself to be just a segment of that mass organism, just one more drifting chip of consciousness under the geodesics.
(Burning Chrome page 218)

Burning Chrome is a collection of ten short stories by William Gibson. They include his first published work, Fragments of a Hologram Rose, published in 1977, and then all the stories he wrote up till 1986.

In 1984 Gibson had published his debut novel, Neuromancer, set in a future world dominated by digital techologies, in which he made great use of the ideas of cyberspace and the matrix of digital information. What made it really distinctive, though, was how all this was viewed filtered through a film noir, street level culture which mixed the tough guy crime stories of Raymond Chandler with 1980s punk culture – in which this brave future was not supervised by Arthur C. Clarke-style, clean-suited technocrats, but was at the mercy of international corporations, Japanese yakuza gangs, ninja assassins, dealers selling all manner of futuristic drugs, holograms used for viewing savage knife fights or holoporn showing the obvious – in other words, a future seen from a street-level view of crime and rackets and dealers and pimps and whores, all summed up in the word, ‘the biz’. And all conveyed in an amphetamine-driven, drug-crazed, super-charged prose, dense with a dizzy combination of street slang and tech terms.

Neuromancer was followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive which, together, are now said to comprise Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy, so-called because in this America of the future, the entire East Coast has become one vast, continuous urban sprawl.

The stories in this collection include several which share the Sprawl world, including one which actually features the female protagonist from Neuromancer, Molly (and where we learn her surname is the rather cartoonish Million – Molly Millions).

And then there are ‘the rest’, a miscellany of non-Sprawl science fiction stories, most of them set in the future, or a future, just not necessarily the Sprawl future.


Sprawl stories

Fragments of a Hologram Rose (1977) first published work

It’s very short (7 pages) and it is very fragmentary. We get the protagonist’s back story in scattered fragments. We have Hints of the Damaged Future, hints that Japanese business and culture was taking over America – the kit Parker uses to get into ASP is made by Japanese corporation, Sendai; more importantly, when a teenager his parents indenture him to a the US branch of a Japanese corporation, with its barracks and corporate hymns. He runs away. He flees to a California which has declared itself independent of the USA, under a chaotic ‘New Secessionist’ movement. Up to a point these can maybe be seen as extrapolations of trends Gibson saw in his own time.

The story already contains key themes, namely the protagonist, Parker, works on Apparent Sensory Perception (ASP) programmes. As in the Sprawl stories, you plug your brain into the player, play the tapes and you are there: the recording completely floods your sensorium.

And also, what I by now realise is another major theme, which is a surprisingly sentimental lost-love trope. The girls in Gibson (well, young women) are always slender as gazelles and tough as silicon razor nails. Sex is an olympic workout. His women can hold their own against gangsters and dealers. BUT, beneath this leather-jacketed veneer of modernity, the men are always loving and losing them, in a sentimental ‘I’m not going to cry’ tough guy way descended from Hemingway and Chandler.

Parker has woken at 3 in the morning (that’s another trope: it’s always the middle of the night, or the darkest hour before dawn) and is rummaging through her belongings and his memories. He finds the hologram of a rose which he unsentimentally flushes into the waste disposal unit. His last memory is watching her going off in a taxi leaving him standing there in the pouring rain. Sob.

Johnny Mnemonic (1981)

Super cool and fast moving, this concerns Johnny Mnemonic, so-named because memory banks (a hard drive) has been neurally inserted into his brain, so that he can store vast amounts of data which a) he doesn’t understand b) he cannot himself access.

The stored data are fed in through a modified series of microsurgical contraautism prostheses.’ (p.22)

Only clients with the password can access it. He is a storage facility or, as he himself puts it: ‘a nice meatball chock-full of implants.’

As so often the story features a meeting with a drug dealer, Ralfi, in a lowlife café. The dealer has brought a neural disruptor so, although Johnny has packed a sawnoff shotgun in an adidas bag, he is paralysed, while the dealer indicates that the hired muscle he’s brought, Lewis, is going to hurt him.

Enter a typically lean, mean, streetwise chick, who identifies herself as Molly Millions (‘She was wearing leather jeans the colour of dried blood’) and, as Lewis leans forward to hurt Johnny, flips her hand past his, somehow lacerating his wrist down to the artery. Lewis clutches it and runs off. We later learn Molly has four-centimetre-long razor retractable blades installed under her fingernails. (She has also had her eyballs replaced with digital lenses.) The neural disruptor goes off and Johnny is free.

Molly grabs his hand and runs him along to her hiding place, a disused part of the lofty ceiling of a vast mall made of geodesic domes, overseen by an outlandish gang named the Lo Teks who dance and perform on a high-wire dance floor they call the Killing Floor.

In case this is all too mundane, Gibson throws in the participation of a cybernetic dolphin, a relic from the war (you know, that war) which is kept in a rundown zoo, but features, among its other hi-tech devices, a SQUID, being a Superconducting Quantum Interference Detector, which they use to extract the data in Johnny’s head which caused Ralfi to come after him. They reward the dolphin, whose rather dull name is Jones, by shooting him up with heroin, yes, this cybernetic dolphin is a junkie.

They use Jones’s skills to extract and place the data in a construct which they leave on a shelf in the backroom of a gift shop.

And here is another classic element of the Sprawl world: the power of multinational corporations, the real rulers of the world, controllers of entire economies, and that most of these multinational corporations are Japanese.

The Yakuza is a true multinational, like ITT and Ono-Sendai. Fifty years before I was born the Yakuza had already absorbed the Triads, the Mafia, the Union Corse. (p.22)

Burning Chrome (1982)

A seminal story for several reasons.

  1. It has all the familiar ingredients: Automatic Jack and Bobby Quine are two ex-soldiers (fought at the Battle of Kiev in the same failed war against Russia mentioned in Neuromancer). Jack, the narrator, is injured/wounded – his arm was lasered off while flying a microlight. Future technology gives him a replacement cybernetic arm, powered by nerves.
  2. There’s a sexy chick, Rikki, who within a sentence of appearing in the story, is pulling a ‘frayed khaki cotton shirt’ over her pert, twenty-something breasts. Jack falls in love with her, then loses her.
  3. Jack and Bobby are criminals who hack into business information in cyberspace for gain.

In terms of storytelling technique, it is classic Gibson in the way it’s based in a ‘present’, after the bank job, the heist, the caper – in which the narrator a) looks back on everything that’s happened b) dwells on falling in love with the woman and losing her – and intersperses this with chunks of exposition, which tell the actual story i.e. how Jack and Bobby enter cyberspace to break into the highly defended vaults of ‘Chrome’, a terrifyingly violent criminal who launders money for organised crime, as well as running a bar-cum-brothel, the House of Blue Lights.

Chrome: her pretty childface smooth as steel, with eyes that would have been at home on the bottom of some deep Atlantic trench, cold grey eyes that lived under terrible pressure. They said she cooked her own cancers for people who crossed her, rococo custom variations that took years to kill you. (p.196)

Same technique is used in New Rose Hotel, where the narrator is in a ‘present’, after a big criminal caper has taken place – looking back at both the build-up to the crime, and lamenting his abandonment by a sexy, feisty woman (Sandii). (She took the money and went off to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a ‘simstim’ star.)

But the most important aspect is that, by way of describing how Jack and Bobby steal all Chrome’s assets in cyberspace, it gives extended (and useful) explanations of key concepts in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe – cyberspace, the matrix and ice.

Bobby was a cowboy, and ice was the nature of his game, ice from ICE, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics. The matrix is an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems. Legitimate programmers jack into their employers’ sector of the matrix and find themselves surrounded by bright geometries representing corporate data.

Towers and fields of it ranged in the colourless nonspace of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data. Legitimate programmers never see the walls of ice they operate behind, the walls of shadow that screen their operations from others, from industrial-espionage artists and hustlers like Bobby Quine.

And I can’t resist quoting the final paragraph in this sequence because it’s a classic example of how Gibson’s mastery of a certain type of speed-fuelled prose can turn what is, basically, the boring reality of criminals hacking into computers, into soaring prose poetry.

Bobby was a cowboy. Bobby was a cracksman, a burglar, casing mankind’s extended electronic nervous system, rustling data and credit in the crowded matrix, monochrome nonspace where the only stars are dense concentrations of information, and high above it all burn corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems. (p.197)

A bit later, the narrator tells us there are some 15 million legitimate console operators around the world, doing the daily trudgework of maintaining these vast castles of data. But we never meet them in Gibson’s stories. We only meet the lowlife, edgy, drug-fuelled hackers and hustlers.

On one level, Gibson is just the latest in a long line of American noir writers who make crime sound impossibly glamorous.

P.S.

Automatic Jack is referenced in the second of the Sprawl trilogy, Count Zero. In that novel Bobby the hacker has ended up in the 14th-floor nightclub owned by a dude named Jammer, and can’t take his eyes of the man’s cool new cyberspace deck, so Jammer hands Bobby a set of trodes:

He stood up, grabbed the handles on either side of the black console, and spun it round so it faced Bobby. ‘Go on. You’ll cream your jeans. Things ten years old and it’ll still wipe as son most anything. Guy name of Automatic Jack built it straight from scratch. He was Bobby Quine’s hardware artist once. The two of ’em burnt the Blue Lights together, but that was probably before you were born…’ (Count Zero, p.230)


Other stories

The Gernsback Continuum (1981)

The first-person narrator is hired to take photographs for a book of photo-journalism documenting the futuristic buildings of the 1930s, what the woman consultant to the project calls ‘American Streamlined Moderne’, what the publisher calls ‘raygun Gothic’, the book to be titled, The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was.

To cut a long story short, on his cruises round provincial America looking for these architectural indicators of a future which never happened, he starts to hallucinate himself into the alternative future where they were built, soaring domes, spires and arcologies linked by high-level walkways, the sky full of flying silver vehicles, and on the ground around him tough-guy blonde 1930s men named Chuck, their arms around wasp-waisted plastic women of the future, both out of the old movies Metropolis and Shape of Things To Come.

Obviously – inevitably – this being Gibson, the narrator is popping various types of drug all the time and at first dismisses the visions as ‘amphetamine psychosis’. If this were J.G. Ballard the narrator’s mind would eventually disappear into this alternative universe, while their body remained here, catatonic.

But, throughout the story, he has been anchored in reality by constant phone calls to a colleague who spends his life writing up the weird beliefs of Americans – Elvis is alive on Mars, UFOs took my husband – and who is totally blasé about the narrator’s visions and, indeed, the opening sentence tells us that it was all an ‘episode’ which is now fading.

In other words, it doesn’t go for the full-on psychosis and so comes over as rather a conventional 1950s-type story.

The Belonging Kind (with John Shirley, 1981)

I wonder what collaboration brings for Gibson. He collaborates quite a lot. In this case the setting is very Gibson – a perpetual night-time of clubs and bars, back alleyways, littered with broken glass and graffiti, the shabby single room of a low-paid single man.

Coretti is a shabby, badly dressed ungainly loner. He goes to a bar. A notably attractive woman (they generally are: Gibson’s stories froth over with femmes fatales) lets him chat her up. When she leaves, he follows her and is thunderstruck when, half way across a night-time road, she changes shape: her dress changes, her hair changes, the shape of her body subtly alters. She becomes a different woman.

From a distance he watches her visit other bars, chatting friendly to other strange men, echoing their conversation, fitting right in. He becomes obsessed. He loses his day job, takes a cheaper labouring job, loses that, doesn’t eat, lives only to track her down.

Finally, in the early hours (the characteristic Gibson time of day) he finds her in a bar, chatting in her easygoing manner to a man. They leave and get into a cab, at the last minute Coretti flings himself inside, but the other two don’t even notice. And when she goes to pay the river Corettit is stunned to see her reach inside her own body, through a pink slit like a fish’s gill, to bring out wet notes which dry as she hands them over.

Coretti follows the couple up to a hotel room in which he is not that surprised to discover a dozen or so other people perching on beds, sofas, chairs. Motionless, their eyes covered by a thin filament of flesh. They are, he realises, roosting. They are some kind of alien life form which lives to blend in. Maybe they started off feeling normal, eating and drinking like other folk. Then got to realise they feel restless, outside, different. Stop eating. Exist off alcohol metabolised at bars, maybe…

He realises he is one of them. The story ends with Coretti, also, pulling wet money out of his gill, paying for whatever he needs, sitting passively in bars wearing whatever is required, whatever is required to fit right in.

Hinterlands (1981)

A strange and disturbing story about a strange and disturbing phenomenon. At some in our future a Russian spaceship, an Alyut 6, en route to Mars, simply disappears. Two years later it reappears, its pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Olga Tovyevski, out of her mind. Several other ships disappear at the same location. It becomes clear it’s the departure point of some kind of Highway, which is what Americans call it, while the French call it the subway and the Russians the river.

Over the years an entire space station is set up to a) despatch probes and individuals through the Highway b) ready to receive them back. The success rate is low. Of those who return 20% are dead on arrival, 70% are mad, gone, lost – only 10% or so alive and capable of speech or communication, although often badly damaged.

Why keep on doing it? Because the second or third returnee came back with metal into which was coded information including a cure for cancer. After that humanity had to continue sending people into this…. thing… junkyard? curio shop, whatever it is.

The narrative follows the protagonist, Toby, preparing to greet a new returnee, Leni Hofmannstahl. The space station has an entire area nicknamed ‘Heaven’, which is full of grass and plants and the sound of trickling water, built on the advice of psychotherapists to provide the most calming environment possible for returnees, though it rarely works.

And, being Gibson, there is a psychic element, an interference with minds, which is that the greeter (himself) mind melds with a ‘controller’, becoming one via a device nicknamed a ‘bone-phone’ i.e. an implant in his brain.

Toby’s controller, Hiro, has genned up on Leni’s entire profile, knows her inside out, while Toby is carrying the entire arsenal of drugs know to humans to try and calm Leni. But when he enters the probe, now safely docked in ‘Heaven’, Toby immediately sees that she is ‘gone’. And in a very florid way. She is pinned in her pilot’s chair and, somehow, has persuaded the ship’s onboard medical unit to flay her right arm and pin it to the plastic work surface, skin unwrapped, nerves and tendons revealed, expertly dissected. She bled to death.

That night Toby is in bed with his squeeze, Charmian. We learn that they have been recruited from the ‘rejects’, the astronauts who bob around in a probe in the right area but, for reasons unknown, are not chosen, are not taken, who feel the crushing weight of rejection, often try to commit suicide, their brains are rewritten, ‘kinked’, adjusted, and then they are used as ‘surrogates’, almost-rans, half way towards the returnees, who an operator using the ‘bone-phone’ can meld and control. The price they pay. Clutching his woman in the dark, crying, empty drug wrappers clenched in his fist.

Red Star, Winter Orbit (co-written with Bruce Sterling, 1983)

A Russian space station – Kosmograd – has been orbiting earth for decades (since the turn of the century, apparently). It is armed, so there’s a squad of six soldiers and a KGB officer aboard.

The narrative describes the rebellion of the twenty or so civilian cosmonauts aboard the station, led by Korolev, himself badly injured in some kind of ‘blow-out’ twenty years previously, against the KGB man Yefremov, when they intercept Kremlin order that the station is to be abandoned and its orbit left to decay till it burns up in the earth’s atmosphere.

As so often, half the interest of the story is the ‘hints’ it drops of the fictional future. In this future the Russians have won. The Treaty of Vienna gave them control of the entire Earths oil supply, then there was some kind of nuclear meltdown in Kansas, with the result that, for three decades, America has been ‘gradually sliding into isolationism and industrial decline.’ (p.110) In some kind of attempt to gain extra power they have resorted to sending enormous balloons up into the outer atmosphere to collect energy.

And yet the story reveals that the Soviets themselves have failed. There was some kind of attempt to do mining on the moon, which failed. And we learn that Korolev, the protagonist – Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev – had been the first man on Mars, back in the day. Now, as the KGB try to organise abandoning the Kosmograd, he is set to become the last man in space. Gloomily, Yefremov tells Korolev that the entire human endeavour to ‘escape’ into space has failed.

Kosmograd was a dream, Colonel. A dream that failed. Like space. We have no need to be here. We have an entire world to put in order. (p.107)

New Rose Hotel (1984)

In the early hours it starts to rain and the protagonist lies in bed in his cheap hotel going back over recent events trying to figure out where it all went wrong and how the chick he thought he’d clicked with, got away. That’s the classic shape of a Gibson Sprawl story.

This one is interesting because it expands on the basic Gibson idea that the future will be controlled by vast multinational conglomerates, and competition won’t be so much for resources as for knowledge.

Although the protagonist takes his time piecing together the sequence of events which brought him to this cheap hotel, by the end of the story the plot is clear.

The narrator is an expert at kidnapping the scientists whose inventions fuel the vast multinationals. He is hired by a man named Fox (‘point man in the skull wars, a middleman for corporate crossovers’) to work alongside another freelancer named Sandii to kidnap a genius named Hiroshi Yomuri from Maas Biolabs GmbH who had him, and hand him over to another corporate client, Hosaka.

Imagine an alien, Fox once said, who’s come here to identify the planet’s dominant for of intelligence. The alien has a look, then chooses. What do you think he picks? I probably shrugged. The zaibatsus, Fox said, the multinationals. The blood of a zaibatsu is information, not people. The structure is independent of the individual lives that comprise it. Corporation as life form. (p.129)

Anyway, Sandii, the narrator and Fox put together the kidnap and, sure enough, Yomuri disappears from a street in Vienna, popping up again in the secure facility the narrator has arranged for him in Marrakesh. Our chaps notice a number of other top Hosaka scientists flying in to confer with him. Then – disaster.

Sandii has double crossed them. She was paid by Mass to carry out the kidnapping, but had installed a diskette at the new hideaway which released some kind of Meningococcal infection. It killed Hiroshi and all the other Hosaka researchers. Score Maas. Hosaka’s anger knows no limits. He and Fox immediately go on the run, but he sees Fox get thrown off the balcony of a shopping mall, falling to the ground and breaking his back.

Now the narrator is holed up in the cheapest, obscurest hotel he can find, trying to cover his tracks, knowing assassins are on his trail and going over it all in his mind, wishing Sandii was still with him, wishing she still loved him, wishing she was holding his hand.

The Winter Market (1986)

The narrator, Casey, is another young buck at home in the louche worlds of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. He goes on eight-hour-long bender when he learns that a recording star he’s been working for has died. But this is more complex than it seems.

We are in the future and people can record and edit other people’s experiences using ‘neuroelectronics’ – accessing and experiencing levels of consciousness which most people can only access in dreams, dream experiences. These can then be edited to create what are in effects ‘albums’, full of ‘tracks’, which recreate – which let you experience – other people’s lives, thoughts and feelings.

The narrator is a kind of ‘record producer’ of this kind of content, and the story looks back, soulfully and sadly, on his working relationship with a particularly fucked-up woman he met in a bar, Lise, who is only able to move because her withered body is fitted into a carbon exo-skeleton.

She is an epitome of the doomed artist, but in a leather jacket and addicted to speed (or ‘wizz’, as Gibson calls it.) Breaking his own rule, Casey, shares a circuit with her i.e. jacks into her consciousness, and emerges seconds later weeping with shock at the huge awesome night-time infinitely sad depths of it.

So he uses some studio downtime to make a rough recording of her, plays it to his boss who is stunned, who passes it up to a record company who snap it up and send out smooth-talking, suited PR people (all a riff on a 1980s view of the record biz), give her a contract, Casey is given a promotion and bonus to edit her stuff together into the classic album which becomes known as Kings of Sleep.

But she is a doomed artist, doomed, man, too sensitive for this world and so we learn that she has ‘crossed over’, used neuroelectronics to transfer her entire mental activity into a construct, an AI, a ROM stored in some corporate headquarters. Her body is cremated. Casey is gutted.

His story is told via conversations with his good friend Rubin, an internationally famous artist who makes art works out of the sea of junk by then surrounding 21st century society.

there’s drugs, there’s heavy drinking, there’s finding yourself in no-hope bars in the early hours, watching the other losers, there’s future tech – it’s a whole world, a Gestalt, the Sprawl scenario.

The relentless leather jacket, rock chick, mainline drugs, 12 hour drinking binges, late-night bars, rock’n’roll  altered states milieu remind me of a favourite track by Jesus and Mary Chain, Coast to Coast from 1989.

Here I come, here I come
On a road
Under a sky
Coast to coast

Dogfight (co-written with Michael Swanwick, 1985)

Another lowlife on the run, this time it’s Deke, a career thief, caught and kicked out of Washington DC, put on a greyhound out of town, fantasises about travelling forever, maybe down to the warzone in Florida (sic) he gets out at a 20 minute stopover station, stumbles on gamers playing a 3-D fighter game based on First World War biplanes zapping each other – Fokkers & Spads – and is entranced.

He walks back to a shopping mall and steals the (commercially available) game and the kit to play it on, scams himself into a cheap hotel (ain’t no other kind in Gibsonland), unwraps, plugs in and plays it.

Bit later he tries to sell part of the kit to a girl down the hall, Nance Bettendorf, but she freaks him out with 3-D images she can project (in this case, of a rat). She has a ‘brainblock’ put on her by her parents who both work (which is, in this dystopian future, very ‘greedy’ of them) a chastity block, so no sex for Deke, then, although she wears skimpy clothes which ride up to show here crimson panties.

She’s a student (again, apparently, a rare thing in this future) and is completing a virtual reality assignment. Having rich parents, she can afford all the right kit:

‘Image facilitator. Here’s my fast-wipe module. This is a brainmap one-to-one function analyser.’ She sang off the names like a litany. ‘Quantum flicker stabiliser. Program splicer. An image assembler…’ (p.175)

These to oddballs, outsiders, loners, sort of knock up a rapport. Deke stays with her while he practices his skills at the game, his aim being to take on the dude he saw in the Greyhound station and make some money. When Nance tells him she has some ‘hype’, a mind-focusing drug, Deke has no scruples about attacking her to steal it – and seeing as she has panic attacks if anyone touches her, his assault-cum-rape is as cruel as can be.

Having prepared for weeks, Deke walks back into the Greyhound rest room ready to take on all the gamers, until the legendary Tiny Montgomery walks in. Well chugs in in his wheelchair. (Tiny Montgomery is, incidentally, a character in a song by Bob Dylan written in Woodstock and part of the Basement Tapes which, incidentally, came to mind when I reviewed the early work of New York photographer Diane Arbus.)

So the story climaxes in a 3-D battle of First World War planes controlled by the minds of the champion, Tiny, and the challenger, Deke. During the extended description of the interactions of synapse, drugs, nerves and technology, it becomes clear that both Deke and Tiny are drug-addled, screwed-up veterans of American wars in South America, Chile, Bolivia, both – seemingly – shot down and damaged, before ending up on the underside of Yank society, hanging round Greyhound stations with the other vets and losers.

As the first full flush of victory, and the drug, begins to wear off, Deke realises all the other liggers disapprove of the way he’s destroyed Tiny. Flying the digital planes was all Tiny had keeping him together. Having lost, he is crushed. Plus Deke remembers having ruined Nance’s life, to steal the drug which meant so much to him. The story ends in a mood of complete desolation.

Pattern recognition

The characteristic protagonists are men, young men – 22, 24, 28.

They take drugs – amphetamine, cocaine, and a variety of invented future drugs such as ‘hype’. A lot of the characters hang out in bars and drink to excess.

Old or young, they are often damaged – like Korosov with his shattered body, or Automatic Jack with his prosthetic arm, or Tiny Montgomery stuck in his wheelchair, or Lise with some degenerative disease which requires her to be supported by an exoskeleton. Or psychologically damaged like the receivers Toby and Charmian, or Deke and Tiny, the war veterans.

Most of the stories feature a young woman, generally thin, great figure, great boobs, but able to hold her own on the street, epitomised by Molly with the razor nails, or the mystery alien woman in The Belonging Kind, Sandii, and Rikki.

Generally, the young, lowlife, criminal male protagonist carries a torch for this cyberbabe. Generally, she leaves and breaks his heart and he spends a lot of time raking over the reasons why. Some of the stories are written more or less as letters, directly addressing this woman, who leaves, dumps, drops the writer: e.g. Rikki at the end of Burning Chrome, or Sandii in New Rose Hotel, or Lise in The Winter Market.

The male protagonists are generally criminals, most often computer hackers – Jack and Bobby the hackers in Chrome, Johnny Mnemonic who runs off with someone else’s data, Deke the thief, the kidnapping (corporate extraction) experts in New Rose Hotel – and the stories recurrent focus is on lowlife, criminal milieus, gangs, drug dealers, ninjas, assassins, all written up in fabulously street-smart, tech-savvy, turbo-charged prose.


Other William Gibson reviews

diane arbus: in the beginning @ Hayward Gallery

Diane Arbus was born in 1923 into a rich and cultured Jewish family in New York City. Her older brother, Howard, would go on to become the American poet laureate. She was sent to a series of private schools. In American terms, it would be difficult to be more privileged. But her father was rarely involved in her upbringing, absorbed in running the well-known Russek department store on Fifth Avenue, and her mother suffered from depression – so Diane and her siblings were raised by a succession of maids and governesses. It was a childhood of alienation and loneliness.

Indeed, Arbus suffered depressive episodes throughout her life and in 1971, at the age of 48, she took her own life while living at an artists community in New York City, swallowing barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.

By that time she had established herself as one of the most influential, visionary and powerful photographers of the post-war period, and her reputation has grown steadily ever since.

The exhibition layout

This exhibition at the Hayward Gallery includes nearly 100 photographs taken during the first half (‘in the beginning’) of Arbus’s career, from 1956 to 1962, giving you a powerful sense of how she started out, of the incredible gift she began with, and how she developed and crafted it into something really distinctive.

All the photos are black and white, and consist of vintage prints from the Diane Arbus Archive at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. They are generally quite small, discreetly framed. The earlier ones are often dark and grainy in texture, shot on the hoof as she captures street scenes. By the early 60s this has changed a lot, the images gain clarity, the prints become larger, more lucid, the subjects more obviously posed and engaged, rather than caught on the fly.

But the first and most striking thing about the exhibition is how they’ve all been hung. The images are attached to the sides of square pillars which have arranged in a grid pattern in two big rooms.

The images are not in any particular chronological order, and so this ‘pillar layout’ allows you to wander past them in a number of directions: from front to back, or from side to side, diagonally, or to shimmy through the pillars in a random pattern.

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

If you saw them from above they would make a grid pattern and I suppose this could be said to echo the grid-like layout of the streets of her home town, Manhattan, the pillars representing city ‘blocks’.

Themes

The result of roaming freely through this forest of images is to make you notice recurring themes and subjects and thread them onto your own strings. Three large themes stick out:

  1. They’re all set in the city – urban scenes, streets and cars and shops, snack bars, inside people’s homes (generally shabby front rooms and cramped kitchens of cheap apartments) as well as various places of entertainment
  2. They’re all black and white, the earlier ones especially (i.e. mid-1950s) having a gritty, late-night film noir feel, almost like the crime scene photos and artless street scenes of someone like Weegee
  3. They’re almost all of people. Only three out of the hundred don’t feature people as their central focus, and in all three the absence of people is their main affect.

To be more specific, the images include the following recurring subjects:

  • night-time street scenes, people standing in the daytime street, taxi cabs, passersby
  • looking into shop windows, down a passage into a barber shop, an empty snack bar
  • scenes from films and shows broadcast on her television
  • circus performers
  • freaks: dwarves, giants, identical twins
  • a waxworks museum
  • Coney Island, famous for its entertainment and sideshows
  • the changing rooms of female impersonators
  • unnerving children
  • fathers holding babies
  • upper class women, in the street, in art galleries, in restaurants
Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Performers

The subjects most associated with Arbus are circus performers, midgets, giants, freaks and grotesques, transvestites and other ‘outsiders’ – so we have photos of ‘the human pin cushion’, of a circus strong man, a contortionist seen over the heads of a watching crowd. These might all come under the heading ‘Performers’, along with shots of:

  • Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Rotocheff doing his impression of Maurice Chevalier
  • the man who swallows razor blades
  • the Russian midget
  • The Jewish giant
  • the Mexican dwarf

Outsiders, people who perform exaggerate versions of themselves for entertainment.

Female impersonators

Another recurring subject is images of men who made a living as female impersonators in various states of undress in their backstage dressing rooms. I guess they have a combination of cheap glamour with pathos.

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Circus acts, sideshow entertainers, female impersonators. They are all people who dress up and perform versions of themselves, who create their identities.

That summary might give the impression Arbus is attracted by the glamour of show business, or be a relative of the countless photographers of Hollywood film stars or Broadway actors. Far from it.

Poor and shabby

Because what all these subjects have in common is that they are poor.

Arbus was born into a wealthy family with nannies and maids, but emotionally stifled, repressed, alienated. The photos indicate that she went out looking for trouble, for worlds which represented the opposite of her privileged, Upper East Side, private school bubble. Slumming down among the proles in their shabby bars, pool halls and bizarre Victorian entertainments.

It’s in this spirit that there’s a strong thread of grainy, gritty shots of ugly working class people snogging, getting drunk and generally being lowlives at the poor man’s seaside resort, Coney Island in Brooklyn. As distant in terms of class, culture and manners, as it was possible to get from her privileged Manhattan background.

Note the grainy, foggy quality of the images. There’s a good cross-section of her photos in this New York Times article.

The Macabre

Alongside the depictions of living freaks and performers, there are several images of the dead. For example, a handful of shots from a New York waxworks museum, including a really gruesome one of an elaborately staged crime scene with fake blood spattered over the waxwork figures (Wax Museum Axe Murder).

Nearby is a shot of a corpse at a mortuary, shot from behind the head and showing the rib cage broken open to perform an autopsy.

The Surreal

As a grace note to these images of the grotesque and morbid is a handful of images of the genuinely surreal. Thus she made a trip to Disneyland where she saw a number of stage set ‘rocks’ parked on the trailers or trolleys which were used to move them around.

But this kind of deliberate and rather obvious surrealism was not her thing, not least because these are objects. Arbus is a people person: weird, disturbing and unsettling people, maybe, but it the strangeness of humanity is her subject, not the wide world of odd objects.

TV and film

Related to the idea of performance, and of the grotesque, is a whole series of black and white photos she took of films or TV shows. As far as I could tell a lot of these were shot directly off her TV while they were being broadcast, although some also seem to have been shot at the cinema, the camera pointing up at a distorted image on the screen.

Either way, these film still photos are clearly related to the themes discussed above in being hammy or kitsch. Thus we have:

  • Bela Lugosi playing Dracula
  • Man on Screen Being Choked,1958
  • a blonde woman on screen about to be kissed (and looking terrified)
  • a kiss for Baby Doll (from a movie)
  • a screaming woman with blood on her hands

As you can see, she’s chosen subjects which are cheap, melodramatic and pulpy. They should be funny except that something in Arbus’s framing, exposure and printing stops them being funny. Somehow they all suggest an imaginative world of genuine trauma, no matter how hokey its trappings.

Behind the cheap histrionics of Bela Lugosi or the woman screaming, behind the appalling bubblegum world of American culture, Arbus manages to identify something much deeper and genuinely disturbing.

How the weird infects the everyday

And this, I think, was the one big idea which gradually suggested itself as I circulated round the pillars and viewed and re-viewed this jungle of images: it dawned on me that Arbus took the same sensibility which had plumbed the depths of proley entertainment, which had faced the waxwork axe murders, which had tracked down ‘the human pin cushion’ and captured rough, deformed, chavvy working-class people about their entertainments in cheap funfairs and seedy pool halls, in smoke-filled cinemas, arguing and getting drunk and watching gimcrack performers, and…

… she then brought this feel for the weird and the strange and applied it to everyday life. She found herself able to detect the strange and unsettling quality of the sideshow contortionist in random passersby, the pathos of the fat lady in the passengers in a parked taxi cab, the mystery of the circus dwarf in a middle- aged woman on a bus, the glittery pathos of the transvestites in the face of a boy about to cross the road.

Somehow, what should be everyday people and banal scenes become charged, through her lens, with a tremendous sense of weirdness and strangeness.

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

It’s just a woman of a certain age in a fur coat on a bus, what’s so strange about that?

Well, in Diane Arbus’s hands, lots. Everything about this image has become strange and unsettling. It’s as if she had bottled the weird, edge-of-humanity vibe she had found down among the midnight sawdust and sweaty changing rooms of the circus midget and the transvestite performers, and then come back to the ordinary, everyday world of the bustling city and stealthily blown it onto passersby, transforming everyone she pointed her camera at into the stars of some obscure, unfathomable but deeply eerie storylines.

Through her lens they all become aliens caught in the act of… of doing something… of being something… strange and incommunicable.

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

A boy stepping off a kerb, what could be more mundane and boring, right? Except that in Arbus’s hands – through her eye – transmuted through her ability with camera and print – this kid seems to be a representative from another planet. Or to be hinting at strange unsuspected depths, of mysteries which can never be fathomed, right here, in this hectic, over-crowded city.

And so it is with a huge tranche of these images, even the most thoroughly ordinary – a girl with a pointy hood 1957, a woman with white gloves and a pocketbook 1956, a woman carrying a child in Central Park 1956 – all are super-charged with rare meaning and some kind of fraught but invisible symbolism, felt but not understood.

She was dead right when she said:

I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.

Very subtle, but very very powerful.

A box of ten photographs

She didn’t stop photographing the weird and the uncanny. Well into the 60s she was photographing giants and midgets and twins. But as the 1950s turns into the 1960s, you can watch how she perfected her ability to capture the ominous quality of people doomed to be outsiders, losing the grainy look of the 50s and producing images which are much clearer, starker, all the more moving for their bluntness – and at the same time more and more subtly injecting that freak quality into deceptively ‘ordinary’ scenes of everyday life.

In a change to the white pillar layout, a room to the side of the main exhibition is devoted to one of her last works, a limited edition portfolio containing just ten of her photographs which she considered her best. Beautifully printed and presented, the limited edition boxes were priced at a thousand dollars apiece!

All ten of the photos she selected are on display here, and include several of her greatest hits, such as the identical twins.

Also included are A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970, the Mexican dwarf, the King and Queen of a Senior Citizen dance, and the boater-wearing young man who is a supporter of the Vietnam war.

In just these ten shots you can see her major subjects recapitulated: circus freaks, grotesque chavs, transvestites (the guy with curlers in his hair), the everyday weirdness of the middle-aged nudist couple in their living room.

Posed weirdness against spontaneous unease

So far so obvious. But the image I liked most from the set was of the youngish couple lying on loungers in their big garden while junior plays with a paddling pool in the background.

The wall label tells us that her friend, the photographer Richard Avedon, bought two of the boxes, one for himself and one to give as a gift to the film director Mike Nichol.

Now Nichol has made a whole rack of excellent films, but that image of the couple on their loungers reminded me strongly of The Graduate from 1967, starring then unknown actor Dustin Hoffman, alongside Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross. The Graduate is set in wealthy suburbia, is a story about people with nice houses with big gardens and swimming pools, and powerfully conveys the smothering politeness of American middle-class life which you only had to scratch the surface of to reveal a seething underworld of jealousies and animosities, lusts and betrayals.

It’s a very uncharacteristic photo for Arbus. Not urban, city streets, not at night. A suburban garden. Yet somehow (to pursue my thesis of her ability to find the weird amid the banal) the couple’s awkward pose and their strange indifference to their rummaging child, conveys – to me, at any rate – just as much un-ease, as much edginess, as a photo of, say, the spooky twins, or another one nearby, the kid with the hand grenade.

This is a famous photo. It has its very own Wikipedia article. After getting talking to him in the park and getting his parents permission to photograph him, she circled him getting to adopt different faces and poses, before selecting the one where he’s pulling the funniest face and looking, well, weirdest.

In the later photos, the exhibition gives us an increasing sense of the photographer arranging, engaging with and posing her subjects like this, a change from the more casual, fly-on-the-wall street photography of the 50s. They become more clearly framed and shot. It’s after the period covered by the show, from 1962 onwards, that she produces the images she’s most famous for.

But this, I think, is why I like the couple in the garden – it’s obviously been set up but it’s not a pose, it’s one among, presumably, a set of shots, and yet it captures very well the quality I’m on about – the more subtle end of her work, the capturing of dis-ease in the midst of the what ought to be the everyday.

Only connect

There’s another aspect to the Child with a toy hand grenade photo. The boy’s name was Colin Wood. Years later he gave an interview to the Washington Post about the experience of being photographed by Diane Arbus.

My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like… commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.

It would be easy to take this testimony and what we know about her unhappy childhood, to conclude that alienation and disconnect is the single dominating and defining quality of her photos.

It’s a powerful interpretation because it does, in fact, eloquently express the look in the eyes of all those transvestites, midgets and so on, the taxi drivers, the woman with white gloves and a pocketbook standing marooned on the sidewalk – people who seem somehow abandoned in the middle of their own lives.

But I tend to shy away from interpretations of books or art which focus solely on the psychology of the creator. Obviously it’s important, often decisive, but it is never enough. For me the most important thing is the work itself, the book and the words or the art and the images. The interest for me is in deciphering how it works, why it moves and transports us, in analysing the choice of subject, the maker’s skill with composition, framing, lighting, with contrasting effects of graininess or smoothness and so on.

It may be that the haunted loneliness in Diane Arbus’s personality sought, drew out and depicted the fellow loneliness she found in the people she photographed. But this psychological sympathy isn’t a sufficient explanation for her achievement. The same, the ability to coax secrets from subjects, might be said of social workers or therapists.

Any full explanation of the photographs’ impact must not lose sight of the fact that she was a photographer of genius. It is because she was a superb technician that her personal vision of the world didn’t die with her but is preserved in literally thousands of haunting photographs (some 6,000 at the most recent count).

The rise of weirdness

Looking at all these images of shabby circus performers and seedy changing rooms suddenly made me think of the cover art of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan. In the same year as Arbus shot the Identical twins – 1967 – Dylan retired to Woodstock where he and the Band made home tape recordings of scores of songs which were later released on the album titled the Basement Tapes.

The album cover (in fact created a decade later) is an effort to depict the surreal cast of characters who wander through the forty or so songs Dylan wrote that summer, a deliberate invocation of the circus world of bizarre and offbeat performers – a ballerina, a strong man in a leopard skin, a harem odalisque, a fire-eater, a midget, a fat lady.

It feels as if the rich vein of American weirdness which Arbus mined in her very personal photos from the late 1950s onwards was somehow destined to become part of the pop mainstream less than a decade later.

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Arbus’s photos progress from a film noir and Naked City world of the late 1950s – distilled in her grainy shots of empty bars, barber shops, Coney island fairground lights and so on – to a much clearer, early-60s aesthetic which presents its subjects much more openly, candidly and vulnerably.

But I couldn’t help thinking that in both incarnations, she eerily anticipated what by the mid-1960s had become a very widespread interest in outsiders, freaks, the circus, transvestites and the rest of it.

In 1957 the word ‘freak’ meant someone suffering a deformity of body or mind, unacceptable to the average smartly-dressed, Middle American family. But just ten years later, the word ‘freak’ was being used to describe the pioneers of a new Zeitgeist, the trippy, zoned-out prophets of new ways of seeing and living. As soon as I hear the word ‘freak’ I think of the cartoon characters, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, who first appeared in 1971, and the whole freak aesthetic went on to have a long dwindling afterlife in the 1970s.

From what I read Arbus herself was never anything like a hippy or flower child – but she was certainly way ahead of the curve in her obsession with freaks and outsiders. And in her ability to find the freakish and the uncanny in the everyday, she had nailed and defined a whole thread of Americana before its emergence into broader pop culture a few years later.

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors (1967)

Not just illuminating ‘some slight corner on something about the quality of things’, Diane Arbus pioneered a whole way of seeing America, the world and modern urban life which shed light, not only on the obviously weird and bizarre (what she’s famous for), but also suffused countless banal and everyday scenes with wonderfully strange and ominous undertones.

What a great exhibition. What a brilliant photographer.


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