Winner of the 2004 Mary Shelley Award for Outstanding Fictional Work
Nominated for the 2004 Arthur C. Clarke Award
New York Times Notable Book ~ 2003
Los Angeles Times “Best of the Best” ~ 2003
Economist Best Book of the Year ~ 2003
Newsday Favorite Book of the Year ~ 2003
William Gibson is a very important writer; he is a pioneer of contemporary sci-fi sub-genres steampunk and cyber-punk, he has coined many terms in popular culture – most notably “cyberspace”, and he was one of the first writers to really integrate our current techno-society into science-fiction, if not fiction in general. Gibson immigrated to Canada in his youth to avoid the Vietnam War draft, although he admits it had more to do with living the 60s counter-culture lifestyle as he wasn’t actually drafted. Gibson is one of those writers who is required reading for those interested in variety of literary topics: sci-fi, contemporary CanLit, and the literature of draft-dodgers. Pattern Recognition is my first William Gibson novel and it was also his first novel to gain mainstream attention and climb up the big bestseller lists. This particular title landed on my shelf because it was on the longlist for Canada Reads 2011.
This is the story of Cayce Pollard, a marketing consultant with an unusual sensitivity to trademarks and logos. She removes all labels and identifying corporate symbols from her clothes and avoids direct contact with them. As the novel progresses, we are drawn into her hunt for the “footage,” a series of mysterious film clips posted online that represent the absolute pinnacle of artistic beauty. Cayce’s employer, Hubertus Bigend, offers her the full use of his company’s unlimited resources to find the “maker” of these clips for an unspecified purpose. This journey takes her and the supporting cast to London, Paris, Tokyo, Russia and, most importantly, deep into the online world.
Pattern Recognition is not a sci-fi novel per se, but it certainly has a sci-fi feel to it. The movement of the story, tone, and characters are very reminiscent of sci-fi, but, really, there is nothing in this book that is implausible for its time. I would argue though, that this is sci-fi, but it is soft, rather than hard sci-fi. It’s steeped in the social sciences rather than hard sciences like physics and engineering. This story plays with psychology, psychiatry, human behavior, sociology, and even criminology.
It’s been two days since I’ve finished this novel and I still can’t really give a definitive answer as to what I thought of it. There were parts and elements that I greatly enjoyed and others that almost made me put the book away. The quality of writing is very literary and the characters are well developed; as I thought about it, I would have to say pacing was the biggest frustration. I have the pocket paperback edition and it clocks in at 367 pages – so it is not a huge book. As I read it though I would alternate feeling like the book was way too long and other points where I felt too much was happening too fast and details were being lost. This is very apparent in the last 15% or so of the novel; it felt like Gibson was about to default on his deadline and needed to wrap things up quick. The book’s concluding chapters left you felling like you had just spent the last week trying to untangle a ball of yarn, then you got frustrated and asked your wife to do it, she then untangles it in about 10 seconds and says “you saw how I did that right?.” The last 35 pages were way too much story in too short a time.
Pattern Recognition, despite my criticisms, was an interesting read. It’s ahead of its time (2003) in many ways by looking at the concept of viral videos, exploring living in a post-9/11 world, examining online personas and virtual lives, and the seemingly never ending push of global corporatism. Overall though, Pattern Recognition just gets a “meh.”
Leonard Cohen recently released his 13th studio album, Popular Problems, his best release since Various Positions in my humble opinion. So, needless to say, I have been listening to lots of Cohen’s music lately, reconnecting with old favorites and grooving to his hearty baritone rhythms. Obviously I decided it was a good time to read some Cohen. His bibliography is quite extensive, likely more so than most CanLit fans realize: eight original books of poetry, two novels, one collection of selected poems (for which he won, and subsequently refused, the 1968 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry), and one anthology of selected poetry, songs and prose. I haven’t actually read a lot of Cohen’s works; other than a few selected poems in Canadian literature classes, I’ve only read two of his books – his debut collection Let Us Compare Mythologies and, about 10 years, his infamous novel Beautiful Losers. I was up for a challenge this week, so I chose the 1984 book Book of Mercy.
Book of Mercy is collection of prose poems that take the form of devotional “contemporary psalms.” I have always struggled with prose poems and even more so with deeply religious writing, so I knew going into this collection that it would be a tough read. This collection, while frustratingly difficult, was an enjoyable and interesting read. If you’re familiar with either Cohen’s writing or music, you will recognize many of the themes and motifs present in almost all of the poems, especially if you imagine Cohen himself reciting them to you with his haunting deep voice.
All 50 of these prose poems are steeped in Judeo-Christian imagery and Biblical references – to the extent that someone unfamiliar with the basics of the Old Testament would likely be lost. Frankly, if you were to present these to a quality 4th year literature major, they would likely think these are translated 14th century Middle English devotions, not poems from a Jewish Canadian written in 1984. Overall, I would use one word to describe Book of Mercy: sad. The speaker is writing from a place of pain, spiritual torture, and religious uncertainty. At various points, the writing is desperate, angry, dark, but it is always gripping and, above all, sincere. Leonard Cohen is an extreme example of poetry being inseparable from the poet and this particular collection is case-in-point why.
Book of Mercy is not for the casual reader of poetry. It is difficult, confusing, and filled with obscure references. I read more poetry than most, I have a degree in literature and I have studied English at the graduate level, and still, I struggled greatly with this book. But, that is not to say this is a title to be avoided. If you’re a fan of Leonard Cohen, it is a fantastic example of what makes him tick. Just know that you’re not alone when you shake your head and mutter “huh?”
Winner of the 2009-2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award
Combat Camera by A.J. Somerset from indie press Biblioasis was one of the novels that lit up the CanLit social media scene a few years ago. I bought it shortly after it came out, but it seemed to perpetually sit on my “to-read” list until I spotted it again while rearranging my bookshelf. This is the story of Lucas Zane, a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer currently working for a low-end online porn company. But, this is only one of Zane’s many problems, he obviously has PTSD, he has a drinking problem, he’s impotent, and, due to an injury, he can’t eat anything greasy and is essentially restricted to dry salad. The novel centers on Zane’s relationship with Melissa, a young stripper/porn star. Combat Camera is the author’s first book, but you could never tell. This is an astonishingly well written novel and one of the best books I have read in years; it has everything to make it a classic and stand-up against the test of time.
The unfolding of Zane’s story is told in two separate and distinct parts. Part One is a gritty urban portrayal of Zane and how his relationship begins with Melissa. Zane’s internal torment is laid bare for the reader using prose that would rival even the best writers of psychological fiction. We get snippets of his past, his current job at the studio, his troubles, and what makes him tick. In an attempt to regain some credibility as a serious photography, Zane decides to do a story on Melissa. But, after she is assaulted on-set by her co-star Bill, the pair of them decides to take off to Vancouver so that she can make a fresh break with her family. At this point in the novel, Part Two, we have what I think is the best road story in contemporary Canadian fiction. The misanthropic duo makes their way from Toronto to the west coast with the variety of trouble you would expect from two people like Zane and Melissa.
I was not expecting a road story when I began Combat Camera, but I was very satisfied with the results. The book is structured in almost a perfect V: a gradual descent to rock bottom for both Zane and Melissa and a gradual build-up back to some level of normalcy – in their world at least – while they head west (this of course is up-ended in the final few pages which I won’t spoil). Throughout both parts, Somerset seamlessly weaves in Zane’s wild back-story of his rise and fall as a respected photojournalist.
Combat Camera is a character driven novel. Somerset kept the cast small, and I think that in doing so he was able to make each one very memorable and three dimensional: Zane goes from the Scrooge-like shell of a man to a man with a very slight glimmer of hope who was once again able to feel a connection, albeit buried, to another human-being – for better or worse. And Melissa is very complex but ultimately never changes her spots so-to-speak as we see at the story’s conclusion. These are characters that you feel hopeful for, but at the same time are not overly likeable – it’s an interesting paradox that Somerset develops with his two protagonists. For me, the minor characters, particularly in Part One, were perhaps my favorite element of the novel – particularly Rich Barker. Rich is a peddler of low-budget and low-quality porn, but he is truly a very low-brow renaissance man with a highly intellectual opinion of what he has to offer the world. His sister and business partner, Jade, the grounded one, has a more bleak and Machiavellian personality and is equally as entertaining.
This book is also very funny. Somerset’s humour is not topical knee-slapping comedy; it is more of a dark sardonic wit. And finally, Combat Camera is also a fascinating look at the art of photography from a variety of angles. Somerset delves into themes of the role and existence of art, particularly in chaotic places and situations; while doing so, he presents a technical illustration of this craft in much the same way as John Irving did in The World According to Garp with fiction writing. You are not bored or lost in technical jargon; instead you are pulled even further into the world of Lucas Zane because to understand Zane, you must understand photography.
Combat Camera is an immensely enjoyable debut novel that I think will stand out as one of the best Canadian books to come out of the 2010s and could easily stand up to the critical rigors of any advanced university English seminar. It’s psychological, it’s a road story, the characters are memorable and highly complex, the prose is brilliant and written with pinpoint precision, it’s funny, and ultimately it leaves you pondering what’s next for Zane and Melissa.