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May 2001
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by Robert K. J. Killheffer

Going Going Gone by Jack Womack, Grove Press, 2001, 224 pages, $24.00

Zeitgeist by Bruce Sterling, Bantam Spectra, 2000, 293 pages, $24.95

As I write, the strangest presidential election in U.S. history remains bizarrely unresolved—the politicos still sniping, the candidates in court, the ballot counters blearily studying the dimples that could be the difference. Whoever prevails—and by the time you're reading this, someone surely has—they will have done so by a margin of several hundred votes in the state of Florida, an absurdly tiny percentage of the total votes cast.

It's an appropriately silly end to what may have been the most grotesque campaign season we've ever seen. It was a veritable feast for cynics, as minority voices (Nader and Buchanan) and sustantive issues were swept off the public stage, leaving the two frontrunners to belabor their fractional differences. To the weary voter's eye it seemed clear that neither a Gore nor a Bush victory would signal anything so much as business as usual; hence one of the narrowest margins in our nation's history.

There could hardly be a more perfect backdrop for reading Jack Womack. In his "Dryco" series—beginning with his first novel, Ambient, in 1987—all of today's dire trends have maximized futureward. Corporations like Dryco own their employees; the income gap has widened to a canyon; the environment has gone to hell; and everyday violence outdoes the bloodiest Death Wish flick. Dryco controls the president, and the United States pursues a constant low-level war with Russia in order to ensure a healthy economy. It seemed close enough to home when Ambient first appeared; today, it's not hard to believe that we're just a stock market crash away from Womackville.

Going Going Gone is his latest, the sixth and final volume of the "Dryco" series. And it's a kick. Womack slides his compact, playful, sardonic prose past the reading eye, sequining his narrative with wry observations and a peculiar vocabulary, and rendering with exquisite economy a world so nearly our own (though not) that it's more meaningful than the one we inhabit. Going Going Gone mutes its sf armature, preferring the subtle to the spectacular, but it delivers the double-take brain thrill that true lovers of the form crave. "What's television?" asks our narrator, Walter Bullitt, for in his New York, circa 1968, many things are the same, but the boob tube never bloomed.

Bullitt works as a freelance contractor for shady government agencies. He specializes in psychoactive substances, performing experiments on himself and an uninformed public—"acts of chemical interference in the national interest," as he styles it. His glass-smooth affect shows little sign of qualm, but Bullitt's arrangement is precarious, because he and his main handler, Martin, have trace elements of black ancestry in their bloodlines, and in this other 1968, that's a compromising problem of immense magnitude. Bullitt also operates with little or nothing in terms of cash reserves, so when his employers request his assistance in disrupting the nascent presidential bid of Robert Kennedy, it doesn't take very long for Bullitt's resistance to crack under a starve-out siege. It's this job or none, and so Bullitt uses a common obsession with classic 78-rpm recordings to launch a Trojan Horse friendship with Bobby K's ne'er-do-well brother, Jim.

In the meantime, though, Bullitt's life has been invaded by two disturbing presences: a pair of ghosts calling for help but answering no questions, and two unusually dangerous ladies from across the barrier between worlds. Eulie and Chlojo come from the bleak and violent Dryco stream, and they need Bullitt's help in solving the mystery of his ghosts, in order to prevent some sort of interdimensional catastrophe. It takes no special genius to guess that this combination of forces spells the end of Bullitt's comfortably edgy lifestyle.

There's not a lot more to the plot of Going, Going, Gone, but that's just fine, and to be expected. Womack novels don't live or die on narrative twists and turns—he uses plot like a coat hanger, support for what matters more: the texture and odor of his imagined worlds, the thoughts and linguistic tics of his characters. He uses his sf elements much the same way. One doesn't turn to Womack for extended "what-if" thought experiments. The dark and violent future, the parallel alt-history timestreams, and even some of the details (such as the Dryco world's Church of Elvis) will be familiar stonework to sf readers. It's not so much what Womack imagines as how he imagines it, and how he conveys it. More than any other sf writer active today, he relies on quirks of prose as much as odd details to generate a sense of otherness and futurity. "Museumwear," Eulie says of his record collection. "Populacra." This is the way they speak in Drycoland.

Womack takes his prose play to new heights in Going Going Gone. Not only do we get the futurespeak of Dryco, but the narrator Bullitt's own hepcat patois shimmies and shivers in nearly every sentence. "The hens gave my place the deadpan, looking like cotillion debs at an Irish wake," Bullitt tells us as he brings Eulie and Chlojo back to his none-too-chic pad. Bullitt's peculiar diction doesn't indicate anything about the alternate world he lives in, though—even his contemporaries often find his speech befuddling. "Poor missy looked like she'd been hit over the head with a duck," he says of a gal who can't glom to his badinage. But it does seem to have something in common with the lingo of the clandestine government agencies with which Bullitt works—most of his contacts from that crowd speak in cryptic, contorted phrases, as though their covert habits have warped their brains.

In one sense this makes Going Going Gone an odd finish to the Dryco series. All the previous volumes were set in or featured narrators from the Dryco future, and the linguistic habits of that world stood in marked contrast to the speech of the parallel world Dryco's agents entered. The focus is further off the ultraviolence in this book, too, though the occasional eruption bursts through. But in another sense this sixth book makes a fitting culmination, as over the course of the series Womack has brought the twists of prose further and further into the foreground. In the previous volume, Random Acts of Senseless Violence, we watched through a girl's diary as the world collapsed around her and she did a time-lapse Jekyll and Hyde, from quiet private school girl to hair-trigger street fighter, and we perceived the transformation as much in how Lola spoke as in what she did. In Going Going Gone, Womack gives us another supremely idiosyncratic narrative voice, but the effect is much the opposite: Bullitt celebrates the endlessly generative power of language, revelling in every opportunity to substitute colorful metaphor for straight-on blandness. His playful verbosity presents a potent contrast to the clipped and stripped corpspeak of Dryco, in much the same way as the baroque speech of the Ambients did in the first volume.

So sweet and hypnotic is Bullitt's voice that you don't want to read Going Going Gone in little snippets, on the subway or for fifteen minutes before falling asleep. This is prose you can sink into like a warm bath, and if you give it long enough you can no longer tell where your skin ends and the water begins. See if you don't start thinking in strangely twisted figurative phrases yourself after you've read it. Me, I haven't been able to shake the pleasant tingle of the phrase "to open the savoury bivalve"—I keep playing it through my head as I drive to work. No, I'm not going to tell you what it means—go read the book.

Still, there's no completely escaping the end-of-series blues, and not merely the sort that comes from knowing that a beloved pal has stopped by for her last visit. Womack grooves deeply on Bullitt's otherweird 1968, and while the action is centered there Going Going Gone croons heartstoppingly well. When the scenery shifts to Drycoland for the big wrap-up, the energy drops some—seeing loose ends tied rarely fascinates as much as watching them spun. That problem didn't strike Womack's previous novel, the unrelated Let's Put the Future Behind Us, freed as it was from the need to intertwine with earlier work. At its best, Going Going Gone upsweeps the reader into an hypnotic dreamland, wafted on Bullitt's psychedelic patter, and it leaves us hungering to see what Womack will gift us with next.

* * *

Zeitgeist. It's the kind of title that would scare me away, promising more than it can hope to deliver, but it's by Bruce Sterling, who is one of the few among us capable of living up to it. Particularly in the wake of his previous novel, Distraction, which captured certain aspects of the spirit of our times so very well, I opened Sterling's latest offering full of confidence that he'd deliver the goods.

And he does. Like Womack's novel, Zeitgeist presents to us a warped world that's 90% our own, while the other 10% exaggerates or distorts certain factors, the parts we should be paying attention to. As it departs from the reality we know, it helps us know it better.

As with Going Going Gone, the plot isn't the important thing in Zeitgeist. It's a framework, a skeleton upon which to hang flesh. Sterling opens with Leggy Starlitz, international hustler extraordinaire, energetically flogging his latest commercial scam à la 1999: the pop band G-7, composed of seven utterly untalented girls from seven different countries—the U.S., Britain, France, Japan, Italy, Germany, and Canada. Indeed, so unimportant are their individual personalities that they are known simply by the nationalities they represent—the French One, the German One, the American One.

Starlitz's magic lies in his ability to cut to the core of the matter, to reduce a strategy or a concept to its utter basics, and this is what he's done with G-7. Other manufactured pop bands (think Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, et nauseam) still spend an inordinate amount of time on maintaining their pretense as actual musicians—releasing albums, studying choreography, lip-synching. Starlitz sees through that to the heart of the enterprise. Pop bands aren't about selling music. They're about creating an opportunity for tie-in merchandising. G-7's success rests entirely on its ability to sell action figures, T-shirts, Wonderbras, whatever. "Who needs big stars?" asks Starlitz. "Big stardom is poison. This is all about the marketing concept."

Starlitz is a fountain of postmodern business wisdom of this sort, and watching him swirl through his dealings and wheelings during the first few chapters makes the head spin with recognition overload. It's dead right; it's what you can feel lies behind everything you read in the newspaper and Entertainment Weekly or hear on television news-o-tainment programs. Starlitz schmoozing with a connected young Turkish mogul in the charred ruins of a cafe recently car-bombed. Starlitz roping in the services of his favorite paparazzo to stoke the media for the G-7 Turkish tour. "We just want screen time and column inches for the clothes and the shoes," he explains. Why can't his Turkish partner's girlfriend join the group? She's got too much actual talent. "The thing is, she's got to be a genuine fake, just like the other G-7 girls."

Starlitz sums it all up in a pep talk to another associate, this one a former Soviet fighter pilot, veteran of the Afghan war, now involved in smuggling and other "biznis" on Cyprus. "You don't want to be exciting," Starlitz tells him. "You don't want to be a man of mystery or a front-line hero. You just make people want things, and then you give them what they want. That's the secret, man. That's the secret of success."

And so in the first 60 pages of Zeitgeist, Starlitz establishes himself as the embodiment of the market-crazed, trend-pushing, international entertainment complex mentality that grips our world, and he tosses off enough sharp observations to populate a month's worth of Op-Ed columns. But there's something stranger going on, and that begins to emerge as Starlitz's Turkish tour unravels before it kicks off.

Starlitz rolls with the punches as he runs the G-7 act, but one rule he has set down and determines to keep: The whole thing ends in Y2K. Band dissolves, marketing deals kaput, total shutdown. And it becomes clear that this is more than another marketing gimmick. Starlitz thinks a big change is coming for him in the year 2000—something deep, metaphysical, something that he may not even survive. "There's a big cusp coming," he says. "A major narrative crisis. It's going to wipe a lot of slates clean."

This "narrative crisis" isn't merely conceptual. In Starlitz's world, there's a hard literal truth to some of the po-mo theoretics popular in academia. There's the consensus narrative that dominates, and within which most people lead their whole lives; and then there are other narratives, splinters and underground texts, within which other people operate some or all of the time. "There's only language," Starlitz explains. "There is no truth or falsehood, just dominant processes by which reality is socially constructed. In a world made out of language, nothing else is even possible."

As the early chapters make clear, Starlitz truly does embody the spirit of the later twentieth century, and that's his problem. If the twenty-first century has a different spirit—and he feels it will—then he has no place there. He literally can't exist. Beyond 2000 there may not be any Leggy Starlitz, if the "dominant processes" that define reality no longer include someone like him in the mix.

The plot of Zeitgeist gets rather disjointed as it develops this concept in increasing detail. Starlitz gets sudden custody of an eleven-year-old daughter he's never met. He drops the band, drops everything, and takes her on a search for his own father. And then it's off to Hawaii for a visit with Starlitz's old friend Makoto, huge international recording star, and his partner Barbara. And then back to Turkey and Cyprus to find out why the G-7 girls are dying and to confront Starlitz's old partner Ozbey and his megalomaniacal fantasies. The episodes, while often compelling and colorful within themselves, don't exactly hang together well—the logic that moves the story from one stop to the next often just isn't there. Perhaps that's part of the late-twentieth-century zeitgeist too?

As I noted above, though, the softness of the plot hardly matters. We read Zeitgeist for the warped reflection it provides of our here and now. Sterling has become our canniest cultural observer, and his eye here (as in Distraction) rarely falters. From cynical marketing philosophies to New Age lesbians to the relativistic theories of semiotics and deconstruction, Sterling produces a trippy satire that's as incisive as it is amusing. "If you can understand reality," Starlitz explains to his daughter, "then you can't do anything. If you're doing anything, it means that you don't understand reality." The more I ponder that one, the more clearly it seems to me the signature statement of the book, and the most concise encapsulation of the spirit of our times. In fact, it pretty closely describes the experience of Election 2000 . . .

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