Hollis Henry is trying to make a living as a freelance journalist. Having failed as a dot-com investor and not making enough in royalties from her influential but now-defunct indie band, The Curfew, writing seems like a safe and interesting career. She has landed a big assignment from the magazine Node about locative art, but things are not going as smoothly as she had hoped.
Locative art is computer-generated images, relying on GPS technology, that is usually staged in public, although you need the right equipment to view it. Hollis finds it strange and a bit creepy but becomes increasingly worried when she learns that Node doesn't even exist, and she may have been hired to find out something that has nothing to do with locative art at all. And so readers are drawn into the techo-noir world of SPOOK COUNTRY, William Gibson's latest novel.
While Hollis thinks she's entering the world of locative art, she in fact is entering a world of espionage and secret missions, international intrigue and money laundering, mysterious booty and even more mysterious figures. The man behind Node is Huberus Bigend. He sends Hollis to Los Angeles to find a locative art visionary, Bobby Chombo, but it seems that the neurotic and paranoid Chombo is actually at work on a much larger project.
Paralleling the story of Hollis Henry, and then interlacing with it, are the stories of Milgrim and Tito. Milgrim is a prescription pill junkie who happens to speak Russian. Because of his linguistic skill, he's been taken prisoner by Brown, a man who may or may not work for the government and who is on the trail of a network of operatives from Cuba who may be Chinese but speak Russian. That network is actually Tito's family. Tito's whole life is connected to the work his family does, although he rarely knows any of the details. He simply obeys the "protocol" for how to complete assignments. A major assignment has now been given to him --- so big, in fact, that he will have to leave his home afterwards, start a new life somewhere and possibly never see his family again. This secret and dangerous assignment brings him into contact with Hollis Henry.
All the mysterious plot lines converge in the Pacific Northwest as a ship sails into port carrying a special container. It's the container Chombo has been tracking, and it's the container's contents that everyone else is interested in. As Hollis finds herself getting deeper and deeper into the action, she starts to put the pieces of the puzzle together. But it's not until the very end that she (along with the reader) discovers what Tito's family, money laundering, the war in Iraq and the ship's container are all about.
SPOOK COUNTRY is a complex story filled with shadowy characters and both solved and unsolved mysteries. Gibson's tale is neither a straight spy novel nor a traditional mystery, although it has elements of both of these genres. It mixes them along with a post-modern, pared-down writing style, adding touches of satire and more than a bit of socio-political commentary for a unique and thought-provoking look at America in the age of "the war on terror." Gibson seems to suggest that there is profit to be made and power to be gained by exploiting the fears of citizens and the weaknesses of other nations.
Reminiscent of Cold War spy novels but with a decidedly contemporary voice, SPOOK COUNTRY requires patience and concentration, but in the end, like Hollis Henry, readers will find the adventure well worth it.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011