Gibson likes his stories to unfold in environments like that, too — hermetic spaces, every element deeply conceived, exactingly controlled. Consider the quiet virtuosity of a passing detail like this, the stairs in a London boutique hotel: “marbled in shades of aged honey, petroleum jelly and nicotine.” Not on any color wheel you’ll find in the Lowe’s paint department, yet eerily perfect.
Zero History, the third novel in a trilogy* about the hidden structures of contemporary culture, follows roughly the same narrative arc as the other two, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country: Bigend, his seismos tuned to obscure flutters in the pop-culture marketplace, hires an unlikely surrogate to dig into some sub-underground phenomenon. In Pattern Recognition, it was snippets of enigmatic Internet film; in Spook Country, it was “locative art,” holograms you could only see at certain GPS coordinates and with the right equipment; this time, Hollis Henry (returning from Spook Country) reluctantly agrees to investigate a line of secretive clothing, Gabriel Hounds, so deeply recessed into anti-marketing philosophy that it doesn’t have a store, a catalog, a website — any kind of commercial presence. In each case, of course, something larger, more global and vastly more higher-stakes is going on.
For a thriller, there’s remarkably little action in Zero History. As with the others, there’s a little travel, some searching, a minor scrape or two, plenty of clipped conversations — Gibson’s characters speak with the condensed clarity, if not the comic zest, of the actors in His Gal Friday — in which the book’s ideas are nudged forward … and then, finally, a burst of violent action toward the end.
And yet, because of its squeaky-tight, Vegas-cube construction, Zero History maintains suspense. In such a rigorously controlled space, just fiddling with the mood lighting creates a rising sense of drama.
By chance, not long after I finished Zero History I belatedly read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and while there’s a limited value in playing a couple of random books off of each other, it still made for an interesting comparison. While Stieg Larsson infilled his story with plenty of context — extensive family backgrounds, historical summaries, lots of presumably character revealing actions unrelated to the plot (there’s a lot of eating and random smoking) — Zero History finally offers the more fully realized, lived-in world. Larsson smothers you in detail, and the problem isn’t so much that it all doesn’t advance the story — the color of the stairs doesn’t push Gibson’s story forward, either — it’s that a lot of these details don’t really do anything. They seem to be there out of a misguided sense of completeness, an unnecessary fully-roundedness. They’re there for the same reason a historian would put them in a nonfiction work. Inert, they’re just baggage. (And Larsson doesn’t give you passages like this one from Zero History, describing a woman “whose intelligence protruded through her beauty, Milgrim felt, like the outline of unforgiving machinery pressing against a taut silk scarf.” It’s a startling simile and one that feels intuitively right: I’ve met women like that.) But Gibson’s stair colors, and hundreds of similar offbeat details, force you not only into a cohesive fictional world that’s both familiar and slightly off-kilter, but (allow me to go meta for a sec) a reading headspace in which the familiar is continually being overlaid with new, slightly exoticized detail. There’s an alertness to the prose that spills into the reading experience. It’s a crackling, electric place to be, despite the hard-to-buy plot twist at the end — spoiler alert: Bigend + Iceland + voodoo math — and even if you don’t care about fashion.
(*You needn’t have read the first two to get Zero History, but there is one scene — which still makes perfect sense — that will be deepened a bit if you’ve read Pattern Recognition.)