Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Peripheral: Satisfyingly complex, with a happy ending

Reading William Gibson is like learning a new language. At first you struggle. It’s a bit boring, although you can tell that’s just because you don’t understand, that there are exciting things happening under the surface. Then, one day, you’ve learned enough vocabulary and grammar that it starts to click and you can converse.
His latest novel, The Peripheral, which I listened to on audio, read by Lorelei King, follows two interlocking story-lines. One is from the perspective of Flynne, a young woman in a not-too-distant but horribly bleak American future. Her brother Burton, an ex-Marine, gets Flynne a job running security in what she believes is a virtual reality game. While on the job, she witnesses a horrifying murder. Flynne soon realizes that what she saw was not virtual, but actually happened. As the sole witness, she is drawn into the murder investigation. Puzzlingly, she is still only able to interact virtually with the people investigating the murder; the reason behind this is unveiled about 100 pages in.
The other story-line is Wilf Netherton’s, a publicist, although I’m not entirely sure Gibson is using that word the same way I understand it today. At the beginning, he is indirectly associated with the murder victim and with Flynne, but becomes an integral part of the murder investigation. Netherton is a liar and a drunk. In one of the first scenes, he lies convincingly to one of his celebrity clients, getting her to do  what he wants. When the client agrees, Netherton’s partner croons over his earpiece, “I’d want to have your baby now, . . .  except I know it would always lie.”
The future that Gibson creates for readers in The Peripheral is complicated enough on its own without the vocabulary he invents. Some are invented, like Michikoid (which I’m honestly still a little fuzzy on), but others are just words repurposed, like “stub,” “jackpot,” “builders,” and the titular “peripheral.” Gibson doesn’t bother explaining the terms, either; he dumps the reader into the scene as if you’ve actually been transported there, presumably by the virtual technology he writes about. It took about a hundred pages for me to understand what a peripheral was; basically it’s a virtual body someone can operate remotely, even across time.
At first, the experience of reading so much intentionally opaque dialogue and description was frustrating, but as I went on, I found it perversely satisfying to try to put the pieces together — a little like hitting your head against a wall because it feels so good. The weird thing is, even when I didn’t understand the larger context of what’s happening, I kept reading because Gibson’s characters in The Peripheral are likeable and the immediate stakes of the action seemed important. Some of this was down to King’s sympathetic reading of Gibson’s characters; she got Flynne’s hard-nosed, smart, capable, and kind nature. Her deliberately slow, deep-voiced reading of Netherton’s made him a lovable bastard, kind of a mess but still thoughtful about the world and his effect on it. My favorite was her reading of the celebrity, Daedra, which was child-voiced and completely self-obsessed, like Tara Reid’s Bunny Lebowski from The Big Lebowski. All of the characters were so human, so relatable, that I was happy to read along until I got it. This very fact puts me in awe of Gibson; I’m not sure what crossroads he sold his soul at, but I want directions.
As the murder mystery begins to unravel, the book becomes more and more engrossing. For such a dense book, there is actually quite a lot of action: battles, a kidnapping, some undercover operations. Several of the characters have fascinating backstories that we only get tantalizing hints of here and there. My favorite was Detective Inspector Lowbeer, whose perfectly coiffed white hair hides a brain that, thanks to some added technology, makes it so that she is practically omniscient.
One of the best things about The Peripheral is the worldbuilding. Gibson’s vision of future London — the greenway down Oxford Street, the tiny steamship battles in the Serpentine, the way Cheapside has been turned into a live 24-hour Victorian cosplay event — is breathtaking. The future technology is also imagined with great detail. One character, Ash, is covered with “tattoos, a riot of wings and horns, every bird and beast of the Anthropocene extinction” which move around on her body: “the drawings of animals, startled, fled up her arm, over a pale shoulder, gone.” Ash also has a weakness for amazing outfits, such as “a Napoleonic greatcoat apparently rendered in soot-stained white marble. When she was still, it looked like sculpted stone. When she moved, it flowed like silk.” Of course, not everything about the different futures that Gibson draws is glamorous; Flynne’s world is populated by chain stores and “pork nubbins” from China.
The peripherals themselves are not just clever inventions, but they also allow for effective character-building. One of the most moving moments in the book is when Connor, a friend of Flynne’s who was seriously disabled in the Marines, wakes up in his peripheral skin, the body of a young, extremely athletic man. He immediately takes off for a run:
And as he ran he screamed, maybe how he hadn’t screamed when what had happened to him had torn so much of his body off, but between the screams he whooped hoarsely, she guessed out of some unbearable joy or relief, just to run that way, have fingers and that was harder to hear than the screams.
The least ambiguous part of The Peripheral was its ending, which is almost too happy; [spoiler, highlight if you want to read it] everyone lives, is super-rich, and ends up successfully coupled off. It’s like the ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. [end spoiler] Some of the reviews I read found this problematic, and I empathize. It feels like emotional coddling to have all the protagonists live happily ever after, which is especially odd given that, if you’ve made it through the gauntlet of Gibson’s terminology, you’re probably not the kind of reader who needs to be coddled. But maybe that word “coddling” is too condescending; is it immature to desire a happy ending, to want your favorite characters to live, and live well? Maybe I’ve been spoiled for unambiguously happy endings by living in a world circumscribed by HBO and irony. Perhaps the future Gibson has created is gritty, grim, and, in his words, “sadass” enough to provide the dose of harsh reality we’ve become accustomed to from all the deaths in A Game of Thrones.
*This review originally appeared here on, where I gave the book 4 stars. 

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