Count Zero: Bildungsroman Cyberpunk

2009 February 4
by Zachary McCune

Count Zero is cyberpunk as Horatio Alger narrative, except that instead of a Puritan work ethic propelling our protagonist to the top, there is Internet hoodoo.

Which is only one way to cut Count Zero, becuase given William Gibson’s desire to create “spiral” narratives, with chapters focusing on separate characters that slowly tighten towards a conclusion, there are many ways to see the story.

Virek vs. Newmark

The two characters that really must be focused on are Josef Virek and Bobby Newmark. Two polar opposites really, old vs. young, rich vs. poor, accomplished vs. unproven, capable vs. impotent, and most importantly, one character is driven solely by the desire to escape a life only in the matrix, and the other seems to aspire to this (as Mona Lisa Overdrive brings to a conclusion).

The body of Cybercapital

Like a lot of cyberpunk, embodiment, re-embodiment, and dis-embodiment become essential questions in Count Zero. Josef Virek, a man whose physical existence is presented as almost not human (vat. sweden. constant life support. swirl of chemicals), has become almost pure information. He is, to work with McLuhan’s definitions a human message within a non-human media, which, as McLuhan would follow, makes him inherently non-human. He is like a William Burroughs sound piece, transcoded, but at great cost to his sense of self.

The subjectivity of Virek is bound up in his need to enter ‘constructs’ in the matrix to gain a certain vision of self. But this is merely superficial, as there is no denying his potent agency which seems to be made possible by his disembodied state. A certain terror hangs over the text, as we try to escape Virek with Marley, we discover that where the network is, so is Virek. He becomes the face of the network, in fact, and so Marley must forego network technology altogehter to avoid him..

Josef Virek presents an interesting figure that we might imagine as the experience and power of global capitalism in action. Aided if not defined by the network of the Matrix, and empowered by a seeminly endless amount of money, Virek is the dangerous conglomeration of power, network, and capital. When he is finally killed, we realize that his only weakness was the thing he most sought to re-define, his problematic (non) bodily experience. Virek’s power in the network also invites a curious reflection on the nature of The Matrix itself, rather than ‘bringing people together’ the net also empowers certain individuals others. With Josef Virek, this is case and point.

The Count

Bobby Newmark, to switch gears, is inherently not Josef Virek. Or a cowboy for that matter, which bothers him. He wants to be something, and his relationship to Barrytown (his hometown) feels familiar to contemporary readers, because it is the Nirvana-soundtracked I-need-to-escape-the-suburbs drive that lurks in lots of youth music and cultural items.

Newmark is not talented. His rise, is not a Bill Clinton story about working hard, and rising out of squalor, but a bizarrely enabled ascent, that the reader is led to distrust as unlikely. This scepticism is necessary, as it makes a hoodoo internet all the easier to swallow once its revealed.

That Bobby Newmark doesn’t die when he was supposed to already casts a religious light on the text before we encounter loa, legba, and the rest of the horsemen. He is saved, by something we are not sure about, and neither is anyone else. Newmark, saved by this thing, is forced to become someone, though clearly not in the way he wanted to. Constantly, people promise him that they’re making him into the jockey he always wanted to be, but that’s not quite true.

Angie Mitchell is his counterpart. They are about the same age. They’ve both lost their parents, they are both becoming who they will be. It is quite easy to read Count Zero as a sort of bildungsroman, wherein the two young protagonists develop into adults through the tribulations of the story.

Newmark ignorance, and Mitchell’s innocence are what save them from harm, and promise them a future. But they don’t work forever, and by the end of the novel, both the young protagonists have been forced into adult roles. This coming of age is best complimented by Bobby’s handle, ‘Count Zero,’ which initially is something ridiculous and superficial, a laughable attempt by a kid to seem cool, but by the end of the novel, it has become a real identity. Potent. Respected. Cyberpunk.

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