January 2012

Benjamin Taylor

nonfiction

Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson

Though known primarily for his groundbreaking speculative fiction -- having mapped the contours of our digital present and its likely future course in celebrated novels such as NeuromancerAll Tomorrow's Parties, Pattern Recognition, and others -- William Gibson has carved out a position as an essayist and nonfiction writer ("journalist" would be neither quite accurate nor agreeable to Gibson, who insists he is nothing of the sort) capable of uniting the novelist's insatiable curiosity, the travel writer's ability to sniff out the weird and wonderful, and the future theorist's speculative insights.

Distrust That Particular Flavor gathers more than twenty of Gibson's nonfiction pieces published between 1989 and 2008 in forums from Wired to Time to Forbes ASAP. The collection -- the first of Gibson's nonfiction -- includes as well several speeches he delivered at various events and a new original introduction. That Gibson manages to do the above in prose that crackles with wit, dark humor, and an air of hip jadedness is a testament to his considerable talent as a writer.

The pieces are first and foremost a pleasure to read, whether Gibson is reminiscing about early encounters with the work of H.G. Wells or crossing paths with Michael Stipe amid the neon frenzy of a Shinjuku night. Those familiar with his fiction will certainly recognize Gibson's style, though the nonfictions collected here reveal, paradoxically or not, far more of Gibson's inner workings than his fiction does, dispensing aperçus with an irreverence and acerbic, almost snarky tone less readily apparent in his fiction. To use an imperfect analogy, reading Distrust That Particular Flavor is a bit like watching Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations after reading Kitchen Confidential -- all of the trademark verve but with a hint less self-consciousness.

Purely in terms of prose, Gibson is at his best when writing about place. In an essay written in the immediate aftermath of September 11, he addresses the tragedy through a loving description of the "glorious peculiarity and Borgesian potency" of the display window of an antiques dealer in lower Manhattan whose shop is never open, ending by imagining "the dust [as] a final collage element, the shadowbox made mortuary." In another essay, Gibson recounts a trip to Singapore, "a relentlessly G-rated experience, micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation," where he is vaguely pleased to find none of his own books in the anodyne science fiction section of a large bookstore. Unable to encounter any local flavor of the more X-rated variety (concluding finally that there either is none or would take more time than he cares to spend in Singapore to unearth), he resigns himself to imagining the glory days of "Bugis Street, once famous for its transvestite prostitutes -- the sort of place where one could have imagined meeting Noël Coward, ripped on opium, cocaine, and the local tailoring, just off in his rickshaw for a night of high buggery." Indeed.

Geographically speaking, Gibson is drawn again and again to Tokyo, the sleepless city in which his conception of the future has been hurtling forward for decades now. Anyone familiar with Gibson's fiction is well aware of his predilection for Japan and Tokyo specifically, but the essays that address Tokyo in Distrust lend a deeply personal angle to Gibson's Japanophilia. For the Gibson fan, the glimpses into Gibson's creative process and his relationship to his influences is alone worth the price of entry.

The primary interest of these pieces, however, will certainly be in gauging the uncanny degree of Gibson's prescience vis-à-vis the technologically and socially transformative nature of ever more ubiquitous digitality and interconnectedness via the Internet. Whether writing in 1993 of the inevitable propagation of Singapore's panoptic security apparatus, in 2000 of remote-piloted drones fighting wars in distant lands or "smart" refrigerators, or even in 2001 of the shift from cultural creation to curation, Gibson demonstrates repeatedly what he's done so consistently in his fiction -- show the reader that this guy has a damn good understanding of the world we live in and how the murky forces we're unwittingly releasing in that world are shaping the future one.

And from a retrospective sense, that's all quite admirable. It hardly needs to be said in this foul year of our San Cupertino lords that Gibson divined our present future as far back as 1981, when he coined the term "cyberspace." Individually, each of the works collected in Distrust That Particular Flavor is a gem and illuminates a vivid imagination and a great writer. As a collection, however, Distrust reads like a Festschrift, a "greatest hits" compilation of singles many of which shattered boundaries and reconfigured paradigms when originally published. Encountering them now, particularly in a format with so little new (re)assessment by the author, diminishes their individual impact and relevance.

All in all, Distrust That Particular Flavor is worth reading in a manner analogous to a copy of say The Best American Nonrequired Reading from several years ago -- to appreciate ecstatic and brilliant writing on a panoply of topics, but absent the sense of urgency that attended initial publication.

Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson
Putnam
ISBN: 978-0399158438
272 pages