Has Gibson Lost Ability to Terrify Us?

rosenblum containerports1h Has Gibson Lost Ability to Terrify Us?SPOOK COUNTRY
By William Gibson
Putnam, 371 pages, $25.95

By setting his new novel in the recent past—just as he did in Pattern Recognition (2003)—William Gibson once again suggests that post-9/11 international intrigue has become more bizarre than any futuristic world his famed sci-fi imagination might invent. Spook Country begins in early 2006 and presents the entire globe as a playground for agents with unknown loyalties who operate beyond legal accountability.

Mr. Gibson makes pointed use of the roughly $12 billion in cash (estimated weight: 363 tons) that the U.S. government airlifted to sticky-fingered officials in Iraq between 2003 and 2004, and for which it still cannot properly account. Three groups of Manhattan- and L.A.-based characters converge on the trail of a mysterious shipping container—contents unknown—that C.I.A.-controlled pirates have intercepted and then lost. This frothy brew leads to all the pleasures of a politically charged thriller, including geek-pleasing feats of technological prowess and an ending that neatly ties up all loose ends.

But Mr. Gibson loses touch with his loftier political themes. He becomes engrossed, instead, in recounting the glories of cool hotels, consumer electronics and awesome cars. For example, the mystical Cuban operative Tito, adept in systema, the Russian martial art, is ordered to stage an information delivery in Union Square—after which he’s to “Run for the W, the hotel on the corner of Park and Seventeenth.” After all, what martial artist worth his Adidas GSG9s would be caught dead escaping through the kitchen of the Union Square McDonald’s?

Similarly, the rock star-turned-journalist Hollis Henry cruises with her associates through Hollywood in a Brabus Maybach; they stay in hotels like the Mondrian and the Chateau Marmont, and meet for drinks at the Skybar (accurately presented as passé). Luxury certainly provides a colorful background for intrigue, as countless thriller writers from Ian Fleming on have observed. It’s just that in Spook Country, the background too often obscures the foreground: Mr. Gibson sometimes seems like he would be happier guest-editing GQ than contemplating the ruthlessness of war profiteers driven mad by greed and paranoia.

The one gritty exception to the ceaseless stream of brand-spouting comes in the relationship between the painkiller-addicted translator Milgrim and his captor, a sadistic military contractor, who are holed up together in the New Yorker Hotel and occasionally venture out to Gray’s Papaya to muse darkly about the Frankfurt School over hot dogs. (Milgrim does manage to steal a stylish coat—a Paul Stuart). Though intended to demonstrate the ruthlessness of freelance mercenaries, their story comes off as a bit PG-13, particularly in comparison with the horrific fate of many real-life military contractors in Iraq.

Spook Country is exciting and occasionally quite funny; most thriller writers would be proud to have written it. But from someone as talented as the author of Neuromancer (1984)—in which he imagined our panoptic, cyber-pharmacological present—this vision of war profiteering isn’t quite frightening enough. It’s as if William Gibson couldn’t get his Maybach out of fourth gear.

Andrew Rosenblum’s writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Slate and Los Angeles magazine.