The Allure of Obscurity, Daniel Tiffany’s ‘Infidel Poetics’ and William Gibson’s ‘Spook Country’

I would offer up a hands-forward promise that I’m going to try so very hard to not use William Gibson novels as a talking point in any other blog posts for a while, but a quarter or so into his newest offering, Zero History, and I simply don’t think I can keep that promise.

I, like many critics of the trilogy, have found the character Hubertus Bigend to be the ostensible core, giving rise to the unofficial label ‘The Bigend Trilogy’.

A bit of summarizing: Hubertus Bigend is described in the first book as “Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins’ blood and truffled chocolates”. The following collection of critics’ description is, I think, astute:

Bigend is described by Times Union reviewer Michael Janairo as a “hyper-connected, ever curious, multigazillionaire”, and by biopunk writer Paul Di Filippo as amoral and egocentric. Other appellations include “imperious” (SFGate), “enigmatic” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), “pontifical Belgian ad mogul” (The Village Voice), “filthy-rich man-behind-the-curtain” (Seattle Times), “untrustworthy corporate spiv” (The Guardian), “accentless Machiavellian fixer with unnervingly white teeth” (New Statesman), and “information-sucking android-like advertising guru and godgame magus” (John Clute, Sci Fi Weekly).

From Spook Country, a bit more insight:

“He’s like a monstrously intelligent giant baby…utterly immoral in the service of his own curiosity.”

Bigend can then, more or less, be considered a virtuoso of marketing in the truest sense of the mechanism. His genius and success are, as he puts it, byproducts of his own obsessions and curiosities. Make something enigmatic, as enigmatic as Bigend himself often appears, and people will be intrigued, in this case maneuvering his clients’ brand names and products in ways that take advantage of this intrigue, the same kind of ‘meta-intrigue’ that keeps the character of Bigend mysterious and the perfect agent of movement throughout the entire trilogy. He is one part obsessive collector of intriguing anomalies, and one part man of limitless wealth with which to pursue them.

We find the following exchange earlyish in Spook Country as Bigend articulates to the female protagonist, Hollis Henry, what he and his company (and her imminent employ) ‘are about’:

“So what do you expect to get out of this, if you can find out what’s in Chombo’s container?”

“No idea. None whatever. That’s exactly what makes it so interesting.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Intelligence, Hollis, is advertising turned inside out.”

‘Which means?”

“Secrets…are cool…are the very root of cool.”

What’s quickly apparent to me as a long-time follower of Gibson’s work is how he has essentially built Bigend into his fiction as a kind of avatar, an artifice-within-artifice mode of exploring his own talents and obsessions for the bits of interstitial, often esoteric bits of culture, art, and technology to be found, particularly when the current landscape of information sharing is as obstacle-free as it seems to be. Gibson has and continues to be a rather brilliant and surprisingly unique filter for such bits, combing through them and storing them away in a cellar to age a bit before curating them through the text of his novels, providing a white noise of strange minutiae that work so well to fill in the cracks of his novels, particularly in points where plot and even character development feel a bit unrefined.

Unlike many critics I actually stop short of considering these unrefined elements ‘flaws’, as I don’t consider them Gibson’s goal; whereas many writers center their work on these more traditional elements, Gibson more than any novelist I’ve read seems to give well-crafted if shallow lip service to these elements while giving much more emphasis to these interstitial bits that are, obviously, what have always really interested him. I have to say they nearly always interest me too; Gibson’s novels are full of breadcrumb trails of his own obsessions, always almost giddily inviting the reader to google them and see what all the fuss is about. I wonder how much traffic to Wikipedia is due to the piqued interest of Gibson’s large fanbase.

The reason I mention Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics is that he seems to be talking about the same thing to an extent. In my understanding of his book (of which I’ve read portions only, I admit) and his talk on the subject when he visited Notre Dame recently, he is arguing for the value of obscurity for the reason (among others) that it often produces so much allure in the ‘uninitiated’, those outside the sect / inner circle / clubhouse / whatever to which the ‘secret’ knowledge has been given.

My impression more and more is that not only does Tiffany consider the notion of ‘difficulty’ incorrect in an almost factual way but also considers it a short-changing of sorts, not only for the poet but for the fearful, uninitiated reader to whom obscurity can be such an enjoyable experience. He mentions riddles, who rely on puzzlement and obscurity for their humor and satisfaction. But the satisfaction isn’t only in the resolution, the eureka moment, but also in being puzzled at all. As Bigend said, secrets are the very root of cool. The reverse of course is the implication that the plain, the clear, the handed-to-the-reader-on-a-silver-platter is insulting and, much worse, dull.

We’re left to wonder if it’s the uninitiated then who is to be envied; those ‘educated’, ‘enlightened’ folk may have ‘the answer’ that many might thing they need to deduce from a poem or other complicated work, but what fun is that? Shouldn’t a reader chase after and embrace those works they find so enigmatic, even perhaps with the kind of obsessive quality Bigend exhibits? Not to step too much into the Franzen / Marcus debate but isn’t it the obscure, complex work that will benefit the reader? This makes questioning the motives of the crowd demanding plain-spoken’ poetry unavoidable, though I think I’ll pass for now.

Before getting that far, though, we still must talk about the nature and pleasure of obscurity. In a recent discussion the insight was brought to my attention that even if as a reader one is overwhelmingly intimidated, fearful, repulsed, disgusted, angered, etc., that all of these reactions still find roots in reactions of intrigue; if one is not bored, is not completely without reaction at all, that reaction holds value in exploring. Luckily, in literary matters we can do that exploring even without Bigend’s billionaire resources, though there is certainly a kind of currency of fortitude to be earned and spent, and it’s this kind of ‘work’ I’m trying to engage in myself, though I feel I’ve personally a long way to go in doing it well.


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