This Week's Reads

William Gibson, Peter Ward, Merlin Holland, Walter Williams, and Maggie Balistreri.

 

Vancouver, B.C.'s Gibson.

(Karen Moskowitz) PATTERN RECOGNITION

By William Gibson (Berkley, $14) From the start of William Gibson's latest novel (new in paper), his heroine, Cayce Pollard, finds herself in a 21st-century version of The Crying of Lot 49. Full of portent, information-era philosophy, and the kind of coincidences that suggest a global cabal is at work, Recognition has the international sweep of a James Bond movie. But Gibson's brainy interrogation of media culture promises much more than a sexy spy story. Fashion diviner Cayce is a "cool hunter" dressed in brand-erased CPUs ("Cayce Pollard Units"), whose allergy to derivative images has made her one of the most sought-after advertising consultants in the global economy. She's been called to London by the Blue Ant agency to review logo proposals for a major athletic-shoe company, but her attention is soon diverted by the release of a new fragment of "the footage," numbered 135. The footage is a series of short film clips of high quality and indeterminate origin emerging on the Internet. When Blue Ant offers to bankroll an investigation, Cayce, a footage junkie, wants to resist putting a narrative to the fragments. Like all mystery heroines, of course, she can't escape the temptation to find "the maker" and solve the puzzle. In Recognition, Gibson succeeds most when he refuses to simplify the semiotic mystery that the footage presents (it's a signifier that deliberately resists signification). Yet, as the owner of Blue Ant concludes, it's also "the single most effective piece of guerrilla marketing ever." Readers, however, will be left unsatisfied with the tidiness of Gibson's finale. While it is comforting to see the pieces finally assembled, Recognition is surprisingly more of a traditional whodunit than Gibson's earlier dialectics suggest. In the end, it becomes an entertaining mystery novel with a philosophical depth that shames the Matrix franchise but falls short of its Pynchon-esque potential. PATRICK O'KELLEY William Gibson will appear at UW Kane Hall, Room 130 (free tickets required in advance from University Book Store, 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Tues., Feb. 3.  

The gorgon!

photo: viking GORGON: PALEONTOLOGY, OBSESSION, AND THE GREATEST CATASTROPHE IN EARTH'S HISTORY

By Peter Ward (Viking, $27.95) Yes, it's bad form to launch into reviewing a book on evolution and extinction with a riff on Genesis. But I sometimes suspect that the serpent didn't tempt Eve by promising that she'd be as a god and know good and evil. He snared her with these words: "Wanna write a memoir?" I know the temptation, and so, I fear, do all too many writers and scientists who have plenty to say about the wider world but bog down in personal reminiscences. Take Peter Ward. As a UW geologist and zoologist, he does interesting work on eons-old topics with real topical urgency: mass extinctions and their causes, how complex organisms and living systems evolve and go poof, and the prospects that they will go poof (likely) and evolve (unlikely) again. As a writer, he bites off topics that are both novel and important. He synthesizes a rare range of specialtiesfrom plate tectonics to the anachronistic biology of the chambered nautilus. When he sticks to the science, he's illuminating. When he speaks, he's engaging. So why does Ward, like so many others, have to spoil all this by trying to write like a novelist about personal travails that are not the stuff of great fiction? The serpent strikes again. Ward's subject this time is, as usual, a juicy onethough it went extinct, along with most of its contemporaries, 250 million years ago. The gorgon was a big-headed, saber-toothed, "mammallike" reptile that had dominion over the Earth before dinosaurs arrived, then vanished in an elusive, long-misunderstood catastrophe. It's also Ward's strained "metaphor for the great Permian extinction," the catastrophe in question (though you wouldn't guess if he didn't announce it on page 233). En route, Ward takes a long slog into the Karoo, a bleak but fossil-rich basin in South Africa that has provided gorgon remains and invaluable clues to the Permian mystery. His ostensible intent is to share the painstaking and unglamorous experience of field paleontology, which would be fine; the actual detective work, the searching and drilling and sifting and speculating, is fascinating. But he buries it in long recitations of the familiar horrors of apartheid and agonies of fieldwork. Chilly nights! Scorching days! Wretched motels! What will they sacrifice for science next? Occasionally, he even lapses into Heart of Darkness soliloquies: "Everything was dusty, and it might just as well have been from the crematorium. I was getting to know Africa; I was breathing Africa." A Bruce Chatwin or Paul Theroux (speaking of dark hearts) might knit an elegiac meditation on mortality, personal and global, from such stuff. But it's not Ward's m鴩er, and it leaves too little space for what is. Four compressed final chapters update his previous account of the Permian extinction (in Rivers in Time), tie in other strands of Permian research, and propose a new explanation for a catastrophe that may come again. I craved more of this stuff, particularly after Gorgon's tantalizing anticlimax: After all the caroming around the Karoo, it's a student's chance remark on dinosaur lungs that lights Ward's bulb and suggests a breakthrough. It may be worth wading through the travelogue to reach Gorgon's provocative final speculations. Otherwise, I expect Ward will return to the subject, but he might want to get his memoirs out of the way first. ERIC SCIGLIANO Peter Ward will appear at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Wed., Feb. 4.  

Wilde in his pretrial prime.

THE REAL TRIAL OF OSCAR WILDE

Edited by Merlin Holland (Fourth Estate, $27.95) Oscar Wilde endured three trials in the spring of 1895. In the third, he was convicted of acts of "gross indecency" and sentenced to two years at hard labor. The second had ended with a hung jury. But in the first, Wilde had been the prosecutor. The borderline-psychotic Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde's paramour, Lord Alfred Douglas, had left at Wilde's club a card with the inscription (complete with aristocratic errors of grammar and spelling) "For Oscar Wilde posing as Somdomite." Out of hatred for his father, Douglas hounded Wilde into catastrophically suing the Marquess for libel. Now, thanks to Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, we have The First Uncensored Transcript of the Trial of Oscar Wilde vs. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry, 1895)as the book's full subtitle states. Probably anticipating that Wilde would take him to court, Queensberry had been fiendishly careful in his choice of words, accusing Wilde merely of "posing"not only in that infamous card, but in letters to his own family and to Wilde's face: "I don't say that you are it, but you look it, and you pose as it, which is just as bad." For this, there was plenty of justification. What this new account brings home is the brilliant performance of Sir Edward Carson, Queensberry's defense counsel for the two-and-a-half day trial. On Wednesday, Carson cross-examined Wilde not only about his own "immoral" work (primarily The Picture of Dorian Gray), but about less ambiguously homoerotic work by others in magazines in which Wilde had also had pieces published (including a sonnet by Douglas that ended with the line, "I am the Love that dare not speak its name"). It was guilt by literary association. On Thursday, Carson played the class card, grilling Wilde relentlessly about the parade of rent boys that Queensberry's detectives had dug up: Why would a man of Wilde's station and education associate with valets and newspaper boys; why would he buy them dinner, give them money and gifts, address them on a first-name basisif not as a prelude to sex? On the subject of literature, Wilde could not be cornered, but these dalliances were much harder to explain away. On Friday, sensing defeat, Wilde's counsel withdrew the prosecution, and Queensberry was found not guilty. The overwhelming question left unanswered hereindeed, the great mystery of Wilde's lifeis why he took that suicidal action against Queensberry. Had Wilde simply ignored the Marquess' card (as everyone but Douglas strongly encouraged), both literary history and gay history would have taken less tragic paths. GAVIN BORCHERT   REAGANISM AND THE DEATH OF REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY

By Walter Williams (Georgetown University Press, $26.95) In the hands of a left-wing polemicist, this could be a teeth-grinding exercise: yet another reasoned yet manic screed on Reagan and how he has poisoned the magic political well of America, and hence the world. But this is not Noam Chomsky. It's Walter Williams, professor emeritus in political science at the UW's Daniel Evans School of Public Policy. And a man who's spent his life in academia is prone to writing like, well, an academic. As such, a notion like "Under Reaganism, the widening income gap has hurt government" becomes: "In the reign of Reaganism, no joint product of economic and political factors may have been more important in the deterioration of the federal institutions of governance than the phenomenal growth of the maldistribution of income and wealth." Form equals function: In Williams' New Deal prose, there's a subjunctive clause in every pot. Yet, for the genre, Williams is relatively readable, and it helps that what he has to say is worth reading. He's no wild-eyed liberalthe very essence of Reaganism is a plea for greater bipartisanship and a government that makes decisions based on what's best for all its citizens, not simply the self-interest of politicians and their wealthiest supporters. Williams argues, rigorously, that American democracy is brokenparalyzed by its very institution of checks and balances, by enormously expensive campaigns, and by spin-doctor misinformation and a generation of corrosive antigovernment rhetoric. He notes that for 200 years, no other country has adopted the American model of democracybecause it's not working. Then he explains why. And what might help fix it. Williams is passionatebut less in the Chomskian attack mode than out of a deep belief that Americans deserve better than we're getting. That passion makes Reaganism valuable for readers of any political stripe. Ultimately, we're all in the same boatand it's sinking. GEOV PARRISH THE EVASION-ENGLISH DICTIONARY

By Maggie Balistreri (Melville House, $12.95) Making a name for yourself as a stickler requires unusual styleor uncommon restraint. Miss Manners would be nothing but an irritating nag without her legendary wit; Randy Cohen of The New York Times "Ethicist" column might seem a condescending prig without his unwavering neutrality. Avenging grammarian Maggie Balistreri is hardly short on style, but I'm not sure I'd call her Dictionary restrained. At least her scolding rests on the soundest of ideaslike Orwell, Balistreri contends that the decline of language degrades us. "Change your words, I believe, and you change your deeds," she declares. An example: Saying "I feel unproductive" constitutes passive whining, whereas "I am unproductive" acknowledges behavior that needs to be remedied. Amidst the mealy-mouthed verbiage she terms "evasion English," Balistreri reveals a multitude of other sins that also need correcting. For instance, here's how she parses this (seemingly) simple sentence: "I couldn't stop crying but I had a really good support system of friends who sat with me and listened without judging." "Judge" has become a dirty word, Balistreri claims, because "weighing both sides of an issue" (its actual denotation) has been supplanted by an accusatory, negative connotation. In the same way, "support system" puts a positive spin on codependent behaviorwhat used to be called "neediness" or "clinging" before evasion English came to the rescue. As a result, Balistreri suggests, one finally ought to substitute "because" for "but"your friends are implicitly encouraging your tears, with nary a blunt "Snap out of it!" to be found. Dictionary is a slim work of sociolinguistic muckrakinga leaner, meaner iteration of the Deborah Tannen line of self-help books. There's something noble in Balistreri's attempt to confront us with our everyday evasions, and her taxonomies of "like" and "whatever"each of which has, like, 13 different usages these daysare good, haughty fun for the well-spoken reader. Case in point: Among the many misuses of "like," Balistreri translates one as: "Sorry, I'm inarticulate" (e.g., "I was like, wow"). No doubt Nabokov is, like, rolling in his grave. Or whatever. NEAL SCHINDLER

 
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