"Cryptonomicon Book Club, Part VII: Stairway to Heaven"
Oh man, you guys. All sorts of spoilers below, of course, and what spoilers they are. Previous parts of this discussion are linked to here. I cannot wait to hear what you guys have to say about this one.
Most of the time, I find it irritating that the Kindle doesn’t work on a page numbers system, especially for novels that don’t have formal tables of contents in all editions. But in the case of Cryptonomicon, this worked surprisingly well for me. I didn’t really have a sense of how far I had to go in the novel, and we built to what I assumed would be just another climax at Golgotha, and suddenly that was the end. Destroying the gold really did turn out to be the point.
It was the point of the action, at least. But I’m not actually sure the plot is the point of Stephenson’s novel. I’m entirely open to alternate arguments and interpretations. But given my memories of The Diamond Age, I was surprised by what a writerly novel this is, how beautifully full of experimentations with language it is, how certain moments of observation and description serve as jolting parallels if you’ve been reading closely.
Take, for example, one of the things Randy notices as he and Amy’s cousins are picking through his ruined house: “The hand-crafted Italian tiles that Charlene had picked out for the bathrooms are seventy-five percent broken.” It’s a marvelous statement of both who Randy is, that he notices something traumatic like this with mathematical rigor, and of where he and Charlene stand. They are over, done, unsolvable, but they haven’t yet verbalized it definitively. Charlene is gone, and all that remains is the formality of her declaration that she’s never coming back.
It would be a terrific moment of writing on its own, but it doesn’t stand on its own. Later we have this moment: “Shaftoe is trying to drag one of them out of danger when he looks down and sees that he is stomping across a mess of shattered white crockery that is marked with the name of a hotel—the same hotel where he slow-danced with Glory on the night that the war started.” The symbol of their relationship is broken by forces beyond their control, war and disease, much like the earthquake that ruined Randy and Charlene’s home together. But the thing that is broken in this case is not something that one partner picked out and that the other acquiesced to: it’s a symbol of a truly shining memory. The fact that Stephenson has these parallel moments, separated by hundreds of pages, tying the characters together across generations and across families, shows an attention to detail that I found tremendously moving when I encountered it.
The second parallel isn’t as clear: Bobby is impaled on instruments of literal warfare, while his granddaughter is shot by a corporate and legal warrior. He chooses to die, she’s able to live. But I like that it’s there, that the broken pottery isn’t the only thread in this.
The parallel threads are evidence of planning, but even on its own, Stephenson’s prose just shines. So much of Bobby Shaftoe’s narrative is shot through with sarcasm and parody that it’s easy to forget that he enters the novel in part as a poet. Stephenson gives him prose that’s worthy of that pedigree:
No one can reach him now, no one can help him. When the fuel oil stops streaming through the hose, he summons all the concentration he has left. Pretends, one last time, that he actually gives a damn. Jerks the safety pin from a white phosphorus grenade, lets the handle fly off and tinkle merrily across the roof. He can feel it come alive in his hand, the thrumming animal fizz of its inner fuse. He drops it into the air shaft, a circular pipe straight down, a black disk on a feel of dingy grey, like the ashes of a Nipponese flag. Then, on an impulse, he dives in there after it.
I particularly loved that after referring to the flag repeatedly as a meatball, a kind of goofy term that is a justifiable satire of kamikaze warfare and the unbelievably reckless, destructive stupidity of continuing the war after it was lost, Stephenson suddenly elevates it here, makes both the Japanese suicidal urge and Bobby Shaftoe’s something lovely, imbues them both with the beauty of the emotion behind lost causes.
And he pulls it off with the funny stuff, too. The satire flickers on an off throughout the novel, and in the midst of something profound, Bobby Shaftoe’s reunion with Goto Dengo, we get another lovely flare of it in the form of Douglas McArthur, who declares, upon finding the two together, “‘And now, when I least expect it, I encounter you here, many leagues distant from your assigned post, out of uniform, in a disheveled condition, accompanied by a Nipponese officer, violating the sanctity of a ladies’ powder room! Shaftoe, have you no sense whatsoever of military honor?'” McArthur’s sense of honor is outrageously misplaced, and in time, it’ll turn to tragedy, but Stephenson makes it very funny.
I have some real issues with the pivotal (for the plot, though as I’ve said, I honestly feel in this novel that the main caper is entirely beside the point) scene where Avi confronts Goto Dengo and convinces him to lead them to the gold buried in Golgotha:
‘His teeth are down in that hole. You buried my uncle’s teeth!’ Goto Dengo looks up into Avi’s eyes, neeither angry nor defensive. Just sad. And this seems to have an effect on Avi, who softens, exhales finally, and breaks eye contact. ‘I know you probably had no choice,’ Avi says. ‘But that’s what you did. I never knew him, or any of my other relatives who died in the Shoah. But I would gladly dump every ouunce of that gold into the ocean, just to give them a decent burial. That’s what I’ll do if you make it a condition. But what I was really planning on doing was using it to make sure that nothing of the kind ever happens again.’ Goto Dengo ponders this for a while, looking stonefaced out over the lights of Tokyo. Then he unhooks his cane from the edge of the table, jams it into the floor, and shoves himself to his feet. He turns towards Avi, straightens his posture, then bows. It’s the deepest bow Randy’s ever seen.
This is, in some ways, a highly insightful book about World War II. But it is not a book that in any substantive way that deals with the Shoah, which for a novel that hinges on profound respect for the profaned remains of murdered Jews, strikes me as kind of a problem. Avi’s Judaism is treated only glancingly: as the source for his many nannies, as the reason his wife is so comfortable flying off to Israel—she always knew she was going home—as a reason for his interest in holocaust prevention that’s never really explored or treated with the respect that ethically neutral practices like codebreaking and hacking are. But the World War II-era principals spend none of the narrative events of the book in occupied German territory. Rudy’s glimpse of a concentration camp is the only time we see the Holocaust, and then Rudy escapes. The incident is punishment for him, but not a deep engagement with what the regime he served was doing. We don’t ever know that Goto Dengo is aware of the Holocaust, though we assume he must be, given his emotional reaction to Avi’s declaration.
I don’t think it’s wrong to want to focus on the Pacific theater, on forced labor, on the suicidal grand strategy of Japanese leadership. But I do think it’s a problem to use the victims of the Holocaust as a very brief plot device without really dealing with them, if their deaths are meant to be important connective tissue between characters.
A lot of the discussion about this book has surrounded Stephenson’s characterizations of women. The Fatling wrote, I thought very articulately, in the book club two weeks ago that:
I think Stephenson is under the impression that he’s somehow doing us women a respectful favor by not delving into the whys and wherefores of his female characters’ behavior. Like, “Oh, I don’t pretend to understand you, and I’d hate to get it wrong, so I’m not even going to try.” Which, instead of elevating us to this demi-goddess status, just serves to make us into people who don’t matter enough to be interesting. It’s really frustrating to me, because I really, really like his books, but he can’t even be bothered to let the ladies be human.
But one thing I thought Stephenson did exceptionally well in this section was to give us—and Bobby Shaftoe—the experience of loving from afar a woman whose experiences are probably impossible to translate in a profound and specific way. I think it’s telling that the myths people tell Bobby about Glory elide her trauma, his abandonment of her, her solitary pregnancy, her contraction of leprosy, her heroism:
They say that she has a healthy young son, living in the apartment in the Malate neighborhood of Manila, being cared for by the extended family while his mother serves in the war. They say that she has put her nursing skills to work, acting as a sort of Florence Nightingale for the Huks. They say that she is a messenger for the Fil-American forces, that no one surpasses her daring in crossing through Nipponese checkpoints carrying secret messages and other contraband.
It’s not just that Stephenson can’t comprehend the fullness of Glory’s experience. The man who loved her can’t, the people who revere her can’t. They can only deal with the horrific things that she’s been through by cloaking them in the healing balm of heroism. And in the finest passage of the novel, when Bobby finally comes to understand Glory, when he tries, in his fumbling, inarticulate way to explain Glory to their son, Stephenson makes that refusal to pretend we understand her a point of honor, something beautiful, it acknowledges the horror of her experiences, her courage, and her continuing struggle for self-actualization:
Bobby squats down and looks the little Shaftoe in the eye, wondering how to begin to explain everything. But the boy says, ‘Bobby Shaftoe, you have boo-boos,’ and drops his club and walks up to examine the wounds on Bobby’s arm. Little kids don’t bother to say hello, they just start talking to you, and Shaftoe figures that’s a good way to handle what would otherwise be pretty damn awkward. The Altamiras probably have been telling little Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe, since the day he was born, that one day Bobby Shaftoe would come in glory from across the sea. That he has now done so is just as routine and yet just as much of a miracle as that the sun rises every day.
‘I see that you and yours have displayed adaptability and that it is good,’ says Bobby Shaftoe to his son, but sees immediately that he’s not getting through to the kid at all. He feels a need to get something into the kid’s head that is going to stick, and this need is stronger than the craving for morphine or sex ever was. So he picks up the boy and carries him through the compound, down semi-collapsed hallways and over settling rubble-heaps and between dead Nipponese boys to that big staircase, and shows him the giant slabs of granite, tells how they were laid, one on top of the next, year by year, as the galleons full of silver came from Acapulco. Doug M. Shaftoe has been playing with blocks, so he zeros in on the basic concept right away. Dad carries son up and down the stairway a few times. They stand at the bottom and look up at it. The block analogy has stuck deep. Without any prompting, Doug M. raises both arms over his head and hollers ‘Soooo big’ and the sound echoes up and down the stairs. Bobby wants to explain to the boy that this is how it’s done, you pile one thing on top of the next and you keep it up and keep it up—sometimes the galleon sinks in a typhoon, you don’t get your slab of granite that year—but you stick with it and eventually you end up with something sooo big. He wishes that he could also make some further point about Glory and how she’s been hard at work building her own staircase. Maybe if he was a word man like Enoch Root he would be able to explain. But he knows that this is going way over the toddler’s head, just as it went over Bobby’s head when Glory first showed him the steps. The only thing that’ll stick with Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe is the memory that his father brought him here and carried him up and down the staircase, and if he lives long enough and thinks hard enough maybe he’ll come to understand it too, the way Bobby does. That is a good enough start.
I was crying by the end of this. I don’t think it makes up for the way Stephenson keeps other women at a distance, keeps Mary an adorable creampuff and Amy a sexy badass, and refuses to invest them with the substance of inner life. Glory is real, but she’s lost to Bobby, she’s lost to us, the sexy girl we got to know in the novel’s early pages is lost even to herself. It gives a sense of what Stephenson could accomplish if he tried elsewhere, and it’s both a triumph and a deep and abiding exposure of a flaw.