... Or why I should never try to read William Gibson on an airplane.
I'm traveling for work right now, and this trip has been more disorienting than any six-day trip has any right to be. I never really adjusted to east coast time, so my sleep cycles and stomach have been in limbo, crashing or clamoring at odd moments. Several times, Phil and I would be getting lunch at 2 p.m., as waitresses were washing down tables and wishing us gone, and I'd be thinking, "But it's not even lunchtime yet!" And several times, I'd try not to look at the clock while reading in the middle of the night; if I don't know it's 2:15 a.m., then I won't despair when I do the math and realize how little sleep I'm getting.
But one of the realities of being on a getaway-cum-business trip is that a substantial quantity of hours were freed because I am not chopping fruit for a school lunch, or playing the theme from Hair while trying to shampoo a three-year-old, or sliding my assorted responsibilities around my day like the tiles in a puzzle toy, trying to make all the pieces fit together in a harmonious picture.
(At left: A visual metaphor for how I reconcile my to-do list against the limits of 24 hours in a day.)
So I read. I read Overwhelmed -- about which I will be talking for a very long time, I think, both about what that book has to say and what it doesn't.
I read Nina Planck's Real Food, which seemed to me to be exactly the kind of book that someone who read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation or Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma or Mark Bittman's Food Matters would enjoy, mostly because it's many chapters of imploring people to maybe eat food that doesn't have a shelf life best described as "a presidential administration," and to pay attention to how that food is produced.
(One side effect: After the chapter on the merits of grass-fed animal products, I managed to talk Phil into agreeing that we're buying half a grass-fed cow and calling it a year on animal flesh. Between that and the fish CSA, we'll be good, I think.)
I read Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld book, Raising Steam, and thought about how sometimes old age makes one more reactionary, and sometimes it makes one embrace progressive ideas and the notion of rapidly accelerating change.
And tonight on the plane, I finally started William Gibson's Zero History.
Now, I love a lot of William Gibson's work. I can remember reading Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive through college and graduate school, and just thrilling to the details of the word Gibson built in the Sprawl, the teeming, seamy polyglot culture. What I particularly appreciated was the way Gibson used material goods as shorthand for the cultural milieu in which his characters lived. To describe one character's coat as being made of "tissue-thin leather" is to convey a wealth of inference and detail in one phrase.
(Later, when I read Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, I detected a lot of the same effect. Coupland would take a consumerist detail and turn it into a sestina on the nature of society.)
I was also fascinated by the future-casting that took place in Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties, mostly because I could see him warning about the radical wealth stratification that boxed in people and created tremendous waste ... and I worked with people who were like, "The technology he describes is cool and I want to live in those cool luxury billets." I read the Bridge Trilogy, as it's called, shortly after moving to California. In a desperate attempt to get my cultural footings so far from the east coast, I gobbled up the Armstead Maupin "Tales" books, the Bridge trilogy, and Christopher Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends. Maupin's work honestly felt the least realistic to me, and bear in mind, he was going up against vampires and pop stars who dated AIs.
But these later books ... I don't know. Part of my antipathy stems from my perception that Gibson's prose has become as precious and semiotically opaque as the art boxes one character makes in Count Zero. There are a lot of sentence fragments that could double as Tumblr copy if the Tumblr poster were obsessed with Rick Owens clothing and pictures of European manhole covers.
Part of it that Gibson is unnervingly good at pinning down a sense of disquieted isolation and keeping it wriggling beneath the surface of the story with little relief. There is a wonderful passage early in Pattern Recognition where he takes on the sheer weirdness of a trans-atlantic flight:
Her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.
And that's a wonderful description of business travel in a nutshell.
There's a Marriott commercial playing on a loop in this airplane, showing enormous uninhabited lobbies, and patios that open onto perfectly manicured lawns, tables that are set with white linens and a blue-tiled pool with one beautiful woman swimming in it. And I thought, The armies of silent people working to fill water pitchers, to make the beds, to buff the lobbies ... they're all I can see because I see their labor. The entire commercial is profoundly disconnecting the same way the notion of your self flying behind a plane is: The labor lags behind, but you know it's there because the absence of the laborer is noticeable.
So is it with the Blue Ant trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History) -- the characters move in their isolated bubbles and are coddled by armies of invisible laborers. And let me tell you: Sitting in a metal tube that goes 500 miles an hour, my soul presumably lagging behind on the eastern seaboard, doing my best to screen out a commercial that sells a fantasy of uninhabited cosseting ...
... Not the best place to read Zero History. It's doing a number on me right now and so, I think, I had better wait until I'm back on my porch (that needs a good scrubbing) and grabbing an hour to read before picking up my daughter or resuming work. I can't take reading about disconnected people when I'm so untethered myself.