Read William Gibson’s short story Dougal Disincarnate last night. Then I couldn’t sleep.I had to reread the ending. Which seems like a constant problem I have with Gibson’s work. I’ve read big mouthed little comments on various Wired web pages which claim he doesn’t know how to end a story. I’d argue quite the opposite. I find his endings so exhilarating that I tend to read them too fast. I wonder if these critics are also skipping through the climaxes too quickly, but just choose to blame the author rather than their own comprehension.
It’s a story about a man whom Gibson has befriended, who will always be 19, named Dougal. When taking drugs in a certain part of Canada in the 70s, he separated from his body and could never go back. he watched his body go on to become a boring old accountant, but the 19 year old Dougal stayed stuck in this one part of town.
The story goes on to describe how this disincarnate befriends Gibson by watching scifi movies with him (I hesitate to just call Dougal a ghost, because I think the concept is too interesting to be tied down with the classic ghost tropes. This is more about memories and technology and entertainment) (and maybe hallucinations and drugs I guess).
A point is made that the best scifi often hides in the worst scifi movies, flowering out like a fractal at certain key moments. I should probably look up this specific line in the story, because I think it’s the key to everything. Gibson’s shorts tend to hit you with confusing lines of observation that you cannot possibly decode, until a few pages later when they are revisited in clearer terms. It’s a trick that puts me in a head space I like to call “as close to poetry as I’ll go.” You just have to let the story wash over you, and accept the strange details of the journey at face value. It will make sense later. It’s something we do everyday anyway, we just forget that there’s a hiccup between seeing something insane and deciding what we actually saw.
Anywho. The Story goes on. Dougal finds a way to get high in his non carnate form, by sticking his head in the backs of television sets. while the idea that photo emitters and magnets could have a mind bending effect on a disincarnate being is charming, I think it’s pretty clear this is a nod to how all humans use TV as a sedative. It’s also probably a nod to Gibson’s old interviews about cyberspace, where he described arcade addicts playing the same Pac-Man game in different spaces, and yet they were all glued into this consensual hallucination that seemed to exist several inches beyond the screen.
… I remember this “quote” (maybe incorrectly, but i refuse to check), and I think that the disembodied thoughts of our youth getting high on the photons generated in the back of the TV is probably closer to what Gibson meant when he coined cyberspace (closer than what society decided).
The story also notes touches on “time mirages” that only the disincarnate can see, and a sexy shaman from Okinawa who wants to claim Dougal by fucking him. I want to say there were also three other spirits (a girl in a white dress, a scared businessman, and… something else…), but I think this might be an intrusion from some other story I read earlier in the night. oop. huh.
My wife noted that her grandmother experienced time mirages before her death. She was well over 100 years old, and would tell Carrie very matter-of-fact-ly about the things she could see, just over there, that she knew were not real. Some strange memory glitch. Carrie had never called these time mirages before, but now the term has taken hold.
The very final paragraph of the piece concerns Gibson’s thoughts on Johnny Mnemonic (1995). Itself a story about memories and technology. And this final paragraph worked as a kind of casual hand grenade for me. I shrugged it off at first as Gibson daring to comment on his own cheesy movie failure. But a few minutes later my brow furrowed, and I wondered what was happening there. Why did the story end on that note?
For me, that little paragraph changed the story into something other than a love-letter to some district in some city in Canada ( “Kitsilano” district in Vancouver. Where I’m guessing Gibson either lives, or once did drugs. Maybe that’s unfair. But he doesn’t seem shy about living in Canada). Apparently this area was famous for it’s hippie culture “back in the day.” I’ve heard that stories about ghosts trapped in a certain geography are actually love-letters to that geography. But Dougal Disincarnate ultimately finds a way to get free of his space, and the story ends on this movie note.
Thus, I think it’s more about looking back on the parts of yourself that have drifted off into society and become their own things. ie, Johnny Mnemonic isn’t a good scifi movie, but it’s derived from a short story Gibson created many years ago.
And maybe the point of certain moments (in bad scifi movies) having value, like a fractal flower blooming, isn’t so much about frames of the movie, but the way it gets you to dig deeper into why the movie happened that way. Maybe the fractal flower hidden away in Johnny Mnemonic is the way it relates to Gibson’s own start in short fiction writing (he’s noted several times that it was the second story he ever wrote, and the first rejected.)
I’m not sure how to put this thought into further words. I was just captivated by the concept that maybe Gibson wasn’t just looking back and times and places and friends and parties, maybe this was a short story about looking into what wasn’t written in his own older short stories. And then my head went round an round. And maybe we’re all living in a bad scifi movie. and then it was 5am and I wasn’t getting any sleep.
I was left pretty depressed really.
I looked up “dougal” to see that it means “dark stranger”. I thought about someone I considered my best friend for many years, who shares a similar name, who removed himself abruptly from my life with no explanations. There are aspects of my optimism in people that left with him.
I thought of people who bring their treasured old William Gibson paperbacks to signings, and how Gibson enjoys signing them more than the big brand new beautiful hardcovers that have been well kept. I’ve always wanted to be jump into that scenario (I’ve got the old paperbacks, and I’ve been to Gibson book signings). But it occurred to me that I was trying to synthesize this heartwarming experience that I really couldn’t take part in.
I wondered why everything I do is work. even the fun. If watching movies and playing video games and drawing comics and writing bad stories is all work, I should probably be accumulating more value from it.
I wondered who these fucking people are that look back fondly on the days they had time to read Baudelaire and Proust and Sartre. Who has time to read all that shit? And who understands it when they’re young? Aside from pompous writers? (this thought sprang from accidentally reading the next story in the Darwin’s Bastards collection, when I realized I couldn’t sleep. oops).
blah blah. I was left in an old familiar head space where I couldn’t figure out who are “my people.”
But it was a good short story.