Critic’s Notebook: Unpopular Causes, Part V

Two Personal Favorites: Spook Country (2007) and Domino (2005)

Spook Country

The toughest challenge for any author is to follow up a big hit with an equally big hit.  Following the epic genius of Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon released the misunderstood novel Vineland.  In the case of William Gibson, he experienced career resurgence with the release of Pattern Recognition, an “empathetic thriller” about advertising, intelligence, and an elusive video.  Gibson set the novel in the present and it reads like a strange relic, an artifact set in a world after 9/11 but before YouTube.

Spook Country follows the same general template.  Modern setting, strange characters, and a thriller plot.  Unfortunately, not everything clicked into place.  Despite the reprise of Hubertus Bigend, the showy yet elusive Belgian CEO of Blue Ant, and a plot involving intelligence and geospatial art events, the novel lacks the forward momentum of Pattern Recognition.

When measured against the genius of Pattern Recognition, Spook Country falls short.  On its own terms, Spook Country still has a lot to offer a reader.  One thing Gibson excels at is the description of modern commodities and emergent technologies.  He would make an awesome reviewer for Wired or the Cool Hunter (

Because all the characters are a little off, it gives their descriptions of experience an added gloss of skewed intensity.

Each sentence has the economy of a Zen koan:

“How long was one expected to live one’s life in the tautly strung fug of Brown’s curdled testosterone?”

“The seats back there, upholstered in that gunmetal lamb, obviously reclined, becoming beds, or possibly chairs for high-end elective surgery.”

One longer passage is especially fascinating in its mash up of vintage sci fi tropes and the history of the Frankfurt School:

Milgrim doubted that Gray’s comforted Brown, exactly, but he did know that Brown could become relatively talkative there.  He’d have the nonalcoholic piña colada with his franks and lay out the origins of cultural Marxism in America.  Cultural Marxism was what other people called political correctness, according to Brown, but it was really cultural Marxism, and had come to the United States from Germany, after World War II, in the cunning skulls of a clutch of youngish professors from Frankfurt.  The Frankfurt School, as they’d called themselves, had wasted no time in plunging their intellectual ovipositors repeatedly into the unsuspecting body of old-school American academia.  Migrim always enjoyed this part; it had an appealing vintage sci-fi campiness to it, staccato and exciting, with grainy monochrome Eurocommie star-spawn in tweed jackets and knit ties, breeding like Starbucks.  But he’d always be brought down, as the rant rolled to a close, by Brown’s point that the Frankfurt School had been Jewish, all of them.  “Every.  Last.  One.”  Dabbing mustard from the corners of his mouth with a precisely folded paper napkin.  “Look it up.”

Spook Country is not a great novel, but it has touches of verbal brilliance in the otherwise sluggish plot.  While not the best example of a thriller, it stands out as a lucid investigation of the commodity fetishism in late capitalism and the intersection of technology, art, and espionage.  Sometimes its just better to find enchantment in the words.


Unleash the awesomeness!

Insane and insanely memorable scene in otherwise forgettable action movie: Tom Waits as the stigmatic preacher in Domino. Domino is remembered, if at all, as Tony Scott’s single most visually incoherent movie, but there’s a sequence at the end, scripted by Donnie Darko mastermind and all around nutter Richard Kelly, that stands out for its batshittery. Before sexy bounty hunter Domino Harvey and her motley gang head off to their doom in Las Vegas, they stop in the desert for a chat with a crazed prophet who happens to be bleeding from his palms. Of course he’s played by Tom Waits, and of course he spouts a bunch of gibberish about destiny, and it almost redeems the rest of the movie, which is basically a migraine-delivery system.  (Matt Christman, Worse than Hitler, December 15, 2009)

Domino is the story of bounty hunter Domino Harvey.  Tony Scott directs and Richard Kelly provides the script.  Portrayed by Keira Knightley, Domino is a lone female in the male-dominated shadow world of professional bounty hunting.  It is a journey in a legal gray space where criminal and lawman become interchangeable identities.  Kelly complicates the matter by opting against the garden-variety biopic formula for a more hallucinatory telling, mixing autobiographical and fictional elements with anarchic glee.

The real Domino Harvey.

Unfortunately, like Spook Country, Domino fails in its goal.  Domino’s hallucinatory journey becomes a migraine-inducing experience, director Tony Scott amping up everything.  Cuts, process shots, and colors are thrown together in a manner usually associated with cinematic Antichrist Michael Bay.  The story is great, but the direction is dizzying.

While still a cinematic failure, it remains a personal favorite of mine.  Part of this enthusiasm stems from Knightley as a gun-toting badass in the mold of Gina Torres from Firefly and Claudia Black from Farscape.  More characters like Domino Harvey would be a welcome addition to the action movie landscape.  Spastic direction mistaken for storytelling would be a welcome subtraction.

Domino is a fun movie, just one that requires a motion sickness bag.

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