Book Review by Jonathan M. Sullivan
So you’re a hundred pages into All Tomorrow’s Parties and you’re thinking: “Okay. This is typical Gibson. It’s pungent with detail, brimming with flavor, palpable with grit. The new characters are razor-sharp, real. The old characters are here in force: the ne’er-do-well cop Rydell, the stolid and stoic Fontaine, level-headed Chevette, the cultural anthropologist Yamazaki, the virtual pop star Rei Toei. They’re familiar and almost comforting, like people I know and sometimes hate and sometimes love, breathing and alive and full of inconsistencies and paradoxical strength. Most familiar of all is Gibson’s remarkable prose, which etches his world into my senses. And after a hundred pages I still have no idea what this book is supposed to be about.”
There is something like a plot here: Laney, the 5-SB-enhanced netaholic with a penchant for synthesizing reams of data, lies dying in the bowels of a Tokyo subway, flat on his back in a cardboard box, drinking input from antiquated netphones and pissing into soda bottles because he’s too weak to stand. He’s convinced that history is about to collapse into a singularity, a nodal point akin to 1911, in which everything will change. And he knows who’s involved: Rydell, Chevette, Fontaine, Harwood – and a mysterious assassin in Harwood’s employ. The novel dallies over the comings and goings of the cast, or rather the coming together of the cast into the nodal point, which spatially corresponds to the “interstitial communities” that have taken over the Golden Gate Bridge. Eventually, Gibson even tells us what this great thing is that’s going to change everything. So yes, there’s something like a plot here–although, as usual, it’s a bit leaky. The entire book stands on unlikely intersections and coincidences, an improbable conjunction of events. And the resolution of a major plot line, involving an idiot savanta chase through cyberspace, and the image of an antique watch, is such a preposterous exercise in hand-waving that even Gibson’s formidable prose can’t make it digestible.
But we don’t read Gibson for his plots, which have never borne close inspection. We read Gibson because of his unparalleled ability to immerse us in his ragged settings, engage us with his characters, and tell us something about the world. Gibson works at deeper levels than the mere synchrony of events. In All Tommorrow’s Parties the recurrent image is engulfement, the image of being swallowed up and obliterated by events and emotions, by worlds internal and external. Laney is swallowed up, slowly digesting in the bowels of a Tokyo subway, swallowed up by data and by the great empty hole he finds in his soul. Harwood wants to be swallowed up, to cocoon himself in a virtual bunker while the firestorm of change cleanses the world and paves the way for him. Rydell feels obliterated, like a rock thrown into a puddle of goo, swallowed and forgotten. We’re all being consumed by history: the entire world is sinking into the singularity of the nodal point, already past the even horizon where nobody can change it. Everybody here is along for the ride. But in the book’s final prosaic image, Gibson masterfully transmutes this theme of engulfement and disappearance into one of surrender and transcendence. Get this book and let it swallow you up.