Recently I bought a collection of short stories called Pulse by Julian Barnes. He’s a writer who receives very good reviews in the British press and I’d often wanted to read one of his novels after seeing it favourably reviewed in this or that newspaper or hearing someone talk about it on television but somehow, after browsing through his books in bookshops, I lost interest and he dropped down on my list. This time I didn’t browse his book in a bookshop because I’ve more or less stopped buying books and in any case I don’t like to buy hardcover books, which this is. Instead I downloaded the audio book and I listened to the first story of the collection. I was very glad to be able to get the audio book. There is even an ebook version, which shows the publisher is trying, like the author, to have a finger on the pulse of contemporary Britain, even though it’s clear we can never cure publishers of this old-fashioned habit of trying to sell us unwieldy expensive hardbacks when all we want is a convenient throwaway paperback.
The story I listened to is inarguably contemporary. It makes several topical references to the way life is changing in Britain – beach huts selling for £30,000 and the huge influx of people from Eastern Europe, for example. But the story seems from another age to me. The narrator is middle-aged, a little dull, and very old-fashioned. His sentences are insipid. The language is lifeless and uninteresting.
So next I switched to Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson from his collection called Burning Chrome. These stories were first published in Britain in 1986 and I read them in 1988. I read them after Neuromancer because I was so impressed by Neuromancer that I wanted something more by the same author. Their publication was no doubt a cynical move by the publisher cashing in on a successful debut novel but in this case it was justified by the quality of the stories. Johnny Mnemonic is a very sharp piece of writing and feels much more contemporary than Pulse. It’s not because it’s science fiction, it’s because the way Gibson writes is so very modern. Both Barnes and Gibson set part of their stories in some sort of café; it’s their styles, not their settings that are worlds apart.
Here is the first sentence of Johnny Mnemonic.
“I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.”
A few paragraphs later, the shotgun is alluded to again, elliptically.
“Pardon me. Pardon me, friends. Just Eddie Bax here, Fast Eddie the Importer, with his professionally nondescript gym bag, and please ignore this slit, just wide enough to admit his right hand.”
More paragraphs go by, packed with distracting detail. Then Eddie needs to use the shotgun. Unfortunately, he can’t. He is the victim of a neural disruptor.
“I put everything I had into curling the index finger of my right hand, but I no longer seemed to be connected to it. I could feel the metal of the gun and the foam-padded tape I’d wrapped around the stubby grip, but my hands were cool wax, distant and inert.”
I love all the physical detail. Foam-padded tape. Stubby grip. Cool wax. But it is not there purely for our pleasure. Many more paragraphs go by, we are treated to many more distracting details, and then finally, Eddie pulls the trigger. But we are not told he pulls the trigger. We don’t need to be told because the ground has been prepared so carefully.
“I brought the gym bag up, and my hand convulsed. The recoil nearly broke my wrist.”
This is the essence of modernity. Allusiveness, surprise, physicality, shock. But with an economical elegance. Cinematic precision. Explosive inevitability. This is why William Gibson is so good.