Welcome to the first installment of the Cryptonomicon book club! I’m thrilled to be discussing this novel with you. The usual rules apply: the post and discussion below the jump will contain spoilers up to, but not beyond, the section entitled “Nightmares.” Please don’t spoil beyond that for your fellow readers, or for that matter, me!
There are a lot of things I like about this novel so far—the sense of history converging on a moment and on a group of people, the gentle treatment of Alan Turing, the virtuosic, Aspergerian description of the Pearl Harbor attack which captures the disorientation of that moment better than any account than I’ve ever read, the various ways masculinity are working in the book so far. And I’m sure I’ll write about all of those things at some point. But I think the thing that’s striking me most strongly about Cryptonomicon so far is how effective the satire is.
Let me back up for a moment. When I went through my big discovery of Don DeLillo a while back, I tore through Underworld and Libra, and then got to White Noise and hated it. I thought it was just too broad, too nonsensical. I got where DeLillo was going with the absurd academic department, the absurd panic. But the strokes were too broad to reveal any additional truth about the things DeLillo wanted to make fun of. I tend to feel the same way about much of Christopher Buckley’s writing: there’s a contempt and broadness in his look at politics that ignores the fact that there are emotional realities attached to institutions and events.
But I think one of the things Stephenson is doing beautifully in the book so far is keeping that emotional core at the center of his exaggerations, his overly-saturated scenes. For example, Charlene’s research into beards and privilege is exactly the kind of thing that DeLillo does with Hitler Studies in White Noise. But in that novel, where the concept stands on its own as something that DeLillo seems sort of proud of himself for inventing because of its cleverness, there’s a point to Charlene’s absurdity:
Randy does not want to move to the East Coast. Worse yet, he has a full beard, which makes him feel dreadfully incorrect whenever he ventures out with her. He proposed to Charlene that perhaps he should issue a press release stating that he shaves the rest of his body every day. She did not think it was very funny. He realized, when he was halfway over the Pacific Ocean, that all of her work was basically an elaborate prophecy of the doom of their relationship.
That injection of intense melancholy, the end-stage of a relationship where you don’t love each other any more and maybe even are beginning to hate each other but can’t imagine the process of separation, makes the satire meaningful. Charlene is doing something ridiculous not just because academia is ridiculous, but because she can’t find a rational way to break up with Randy, to signal her disgust, the difference between them. It’s genuinely meaningful.
Alan’s sexual propositioning of Lawrence works the same way:
One day a couple of weeks later, as the two of them sat by a running stream in the woods above the Delaware Water Gap, Alan made some kind of an outlandish proposal to Lawrence involving penises. It required a great deal of methodical explanation, which Alan delivered with lots of blushing and stuttering. He was ever so polite, and several times emphasized that he was acutely aware that not everyone in the world was interested in this sort of thing.
Lawrence decided he was probably one of those people.
Alan seemed vastly impressed that Lawrence had paused to think about it at all and apologized for putting him out. They went directly back to a discussion of computing machines, and their friendship continued unchanged.
This is gentler, without the real sniping at academia, but it’s a light satire of social mores and Lawrence as well. But ultimately the message is that Lawrence, because of his lack of experience and social skills, actually behaves in a more compassionate, progressive way that other people Alan has encountered. It’s a satire on past attitudes more than the people involved.
I think it’s easy in a book of this scope for the humanity of the main characters to shift out of the focus, or to fall out of the picture in a meaningful way. But for all that it’s a book about war, and code, and science, it seems that this is fundamentally a novel about understanding.