Previous parts of this discussion are linked to here. Below the jump, the discussion will range up to, but not beyond, the section entitled “Glamor,” and there will be spoilers. But please don’t ruin any developments beyond that point for folks who haven’t gotten so excited about the book that they spent all night up getting to the end, like, ahem, your hostess. And for next week, let’s finish the book.
I think this section of the novel helped me clarify both a theory I had about the characters and a reaction I’ve had to much of the novel. I’ve had a hard time feeling as engaged with the contemporary section of the novel, despite the fact that I have a lot more in common with Avi and Randy than I do with Lawrence and Randy. I am a nerd rather than a genius, a nice person rather than a hero. And ultimately, I think Stephenson both recognizes the difference and think it’s important. I realize my preoccupation with this strain of the novel during the book club may seem too focused, and I hope you guys will continue to uses these posts as wide-ranging open threads to talk about whatever you want. But I do really think that this is the core concern, and it informs everything Stephenson is doing.
In this novel, Lawrence Waterhouse deals in secrets where Bobby Shaftoe is direct and relatively straightforward. The ways in which their descendants resemble them—and come to realize they resemble their forebears—have everything to do with those means of living.
Lawrence and Randall Waterhouse never meet each other during the events of the book, so Lawrence never knows that his grandson cracks his code. And Randy only slowly begins to understand who his grandfather was. It actually becomes clear most of the way through his book that none of Lawrence’s family has any idea what he did during the war:
Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse’s widow and five children agree that Dad did something in the war, and that’s about all. Each of them seems to have a different 1950s B-movie, or 1940s Movietone newsreel, in his or her head, portraying a rather different set of events. There is not even agreement on whether he was in the Army or the Navy, which seems like a pretty fundamental plot point to Randy.
It’s an interesting question as to whether this means Lawrence’s family didn’t really know him at all. Obviously, they know the choices he made afterwards, the way he diverted his life into a path that made him a competitor for history but not its sole possessor, that’s left him behind smeared glass in an obscure college. But they don’t know what he did, and as a consequence, they don’t know about other situations he found himself in, about other choices he made, mettle he showed. When Randy freaks out about Andrew Loeb’s involvement in the suit against Epiphyte, he doesn’t know something fundamental about himself, that his distance from epic awesomeness is actually far smaller than he realizes:
Randy’s body has now finally had time to deploy a full-on fight-or-flight reaction—part of his genetic legacy as a stupendous badass. This must have been very useful when saber-toothed tigers tries to claw their way into his ancestors’ caves but is doing him absolutely no good in these circumstances.
And when Randy does realize, belatedly and very slowly, what his grandfather was, there’s this beautiful
moment of nerd’s regret, as if Randy realizes himself as fallen:
They are surrounded by ring after concentric ring of cops, media, and law-firm minions—collectively, what Tolkien would call Men—and a few non- or post-human creatures imbued with peculiar physiognomies and vaguely magical powers: Dwarves (steady, productive, surly) and Elves (brilliant in a more ethereal way). Randy, a Dwarf, has begun to realize that his grandfather may have been an Elf. Avi is a Man with a strong Elvish glow about him. Somewhere in the center of this whole thing, presumably, is Gollum.
I think Stephenson, whether intentionally or not, gets at the core of most nerd’s insecurities here. There’s this sense that people like Randy, like Chester, could be in touch with mysterious, powerful forces if only the circumstances that generated those forces were available to them. Chester can reassemble a fallen plane in his roof, even turn it into something beautiful, but he lives in a world where people can’t be brought back from the dead, so he doesn’t have to worry about failing to be the person who resurrects them. Randy is coming to the belated realization that the age of miracles and wonder is less long-departed from him than he imagines, and thus, he maybe could have lived a more astonishing life than he has.
Things are different if you’re a Shaftoe, and I actually think one of the central problems of the novel is that we only get Amy and Doug as they’re translated by Randy. Bobby Shaftoe is a sort of astonishing creation, a morphine-addicted, honor-bound, horn-dog adaptationist and possible hero. Living inside his head is one of the most refreshing dips I’ve ever had inside a hypermasculine world. But we never get the sense of the virus of time in his descendants that we do in Randy. Bobby was a stupendous badass. Doug and Amy remain stupendous badasses. There’s something impersonal about the translation. We don’t know how they changed along the way, except, perhaps that they’ve lost some purpose. Where Randy might not be able to do what his grandfather was capable of, we’re left without distinction between the generations of Waterhouses, but I don’t believe they haven’t changed. What we’re mostly left with is Randy’s sense of inferiority towards even the most junior Shaftoes, so we understand his striving, but not their perspective. There’s Randy’s attitude towards Amy’s cousins, which he sort of fails to explain to Avi: ”‘You described them as teenagers.’ ‘But I don’t think that teenagers are the way they are because of their age. It’s because they have nothing to lose. They simultaneously have a lot of time on their hands and yet are very impatient to get on with their lives.’”
And then there’s Randy’s desire to impress Doug, which I suppose is driven by the fact that he’s hoping to perform a kind of familial alchemy, to become someone worthy of being a Shaftoe as well as a Waterhouse:
If Tombstone is shut down and grabbed by the cops before Randy can erase those traces, they will know he has logged on at the very moment that Tombstone was confiscated, and will put him in prison for tampering with evidence. He very much wishes that Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe could somehow be made aware of what a ballsy thing he is doing here. But then Doug has probably done all kinds of ballsy things of which Randy will never be aware, and Randy respects him anyway because of his bearing. Maybe the way to get that kind of bearing is to go around doing ballsy things in secret that somehow percolate up to the surface of your personality.
Randy can’t erase his history and become one of Bobby Shaftoe’s descendents, but if he’s worthy of being loved by Amy, it’s as if he’s retroactively made his grandfatherfather worthy of being truly respected by Bobby Shaftoe, a code Lawrence never quite managed to break in life. And what makes Amy inherently a Shaftoe, of course, is the fact that she doesn’t quite feel the need to make that leap. Like her grandfather and Goto Dengo, she simply crosses the line, this time into nerdland rather than into enemy territory:
This is potentially worse. A bunch of tubby guys who never go outside, working themselves into a frenzy over elaborate games in which nonexistent characters go out and do pretend things that aremostly not as interesting as what Amy, her father, and various other members of her family do all the time without making any fuss about it. It is almost like Randy is deliberately hammering away at Amy trying to figure out when she’ll break and run. But her lip hasn’t started to writhe nauseously yet. She’s watching the game impartially, peeking over the nerds’ shoulders, following the action, occasionally squinting at some abstraction in the rules.
Randy longs for something big in his life, “wonders if he’s ever had a serious experience in his life, an experience that would be worth the time it would take to reduce it to a pithy STOP-punctuated message in capital letters and run it through a cryptosystem.” In a sense, Stephenson is saying, this is it. Carrying our DNA forward, unlocking that simple but astonishingly complicated code of who we are, and figuring out how we relate to other people, is the big, complicated, worthy and impossible thing. And it’s why nothing else, not the gold in the mountain, not the Dentist, not General Wing, not even Epiphyte matters. The plot is not important. Only that desperate and terrifying act of decoding who we are, and what we mean.