Cryptonomicon Book Club, Part II: The Begats

Part I of the book club appeared here. Usual rules apply. Spoilers up to, but not including or past, the section entitled “Lizard” below the jump.One of the things I like most about this novel is that I have absolutely no idea where the story is going. I’ve resisted an urge I sometimes give into to check things on Wikipedia, and am requiring myself to remember names, and plot points. But that’s only part of it. I genuinely can’t predict what’s coming next. I assume that Bobby Shaftoe and Lawrence Waterhouse win World War II, but I can’t be sure, because Japan is Nippon now, apparently, and so something happened along the way to throw the world at least very slightly and perhaps considerably off-kilter.And this gets to perhaps what is my favorite part of the experience of reading Cryptonomicon: Bobby Shaftoe and Lawrence Waterhouse might be important because they win World War II. But it might just be that they matter because they survive to produce Amy Shaftoe and Randy Waterhouse.There’s something almost Biblical in Cryptonomicon’s concern with ancestry. Every time I hear certain names now, there are begats ringing out in my ears. We’re working with a smaller number of generations, but there’s a certain grandeur to the execution. And it functions well as a narrative device. There are an enormous number of movies in particular that begin with the entrance of the older version of one of the characters, arriving to narrate their own story:

It’s a frame device that is an inherent spoiler. Once an aged narrator appears, we know that the character will survive everything they’re about to tell us about.Stephenson’s decision to use lineage functions more subtly. The appearance of Amy and Randy suggests that Bobby and Lawrence survive for a while, but we don’t know for how long. We don’t know who their partners necessarily are, and it’s not even clear how many generations removed from Lawrence and Bobby Randy and Amy are. The mere existence of Amy and Randy gives me fragile hope for Bobby’s survival, for Lawrence forging a genuine and curious connection with someone that lasts long enough for a child to bear his name.In terms of characterization, Stephenson clearly believes to a certain extent that lineage is destiny. Early in his description of Avi, he writes:

His father’s people had just barely gotten out of Prague. As Central European Jews went, they were fairly typical. The only thing about them that was really anomalous was that they were still alive. But his mother’s people were unbelievably peculiar New Mexican crypto-Jews who had been living on mesas, dodging Jesuits, shooting rattlesnakes and eating jimson weed for three hundred years; they looked like Indians and talked like cowboys. In his relations with other people, therefore, Avi dithered. Most of the time he was courtly and correct in a way that was deeply impressive to businesspeople — Nipponese ones expecially — but there were these eruptions, from time to time, as if he’d been dipping into the loco weed.


The first couple of sentences read like a Michael Chabon novel, a stark and emotionally blunt description of escape, but then Stephenson swerves in a way I think is distinctive, translating the old West to contemporary business in a way that’s strikingly original. He’s a great juxtapositive describer in his writing. The “looked like Indians and talked like cowboys,” line is one of my favorites in the book, based on a simple repurposing of a basic phrase, infused with meaning. But he’s also found a way to make the Holocaust, the old West, and contemporary global business seem like a clear progression in a single paragraph, and in a single person.He does something similar in describing how Bobby’s Uncle Jack landed in Manila that for me, conjures up a moment in Tony Kushner’s short play “Reverse Transcription,” when one of the characters describes the land in a Martha’s Vineyard cemetery as “Forefatherly. Originary.”:

Nimrod…decided that he liked the pluck of these Filipino men, in order to kill whom a whole new class of ridiculously powerful sidearm (the Colt .45) had had to be invented. Not only that, he liked hte looks of their women. Promptly discharged from the service, he found that full disability pay would go a long way on the local economy. He set up an export business along the Pasig riverfront, married a half-Spanish woman, and sired a son (Jack) and two daughters. The daughters ended up in the States, back in the Tennessee mountains that have been the ancestral wellspring of all Shaftoes ever since they broke out of the indentured servitude racket back in the 1700s. Jack stayed in Manila and inherited Nimrod’s business, but never married.

The idea that ancestral land can pull you back from halfway across the world, even if you were born abroad, is an almost old-fashioned notion, one we associate with nostalgics and Zionists. But Stephenson isn’t afraid of the scope of the lineages he’s conjuring up. It’s a long story he’s telling, and a long game he’s playing.But even as he’s asking us to accept a rather grand notion of ancestry, Stephenson still directly acknowledges a very modern contradiction: an insistence that we, rather than genetics and ancestry, determine who we are and the shape of our lives, while at the same time the fact that we’re forced to acknowledge that sometimes our families understand us better than anyone else. Bobby Shaftoe learns this when he comes home after being wounded:

The family has been scrupulous about holding on to the ancestral twang, and to certain other traditions such as military service….Bobby’s not the first to have won a Silver Star, though he is the first to have won the Navy Cross….Sometimes he goes out into the yard and plays catch with his kid brothers. He helps Dad fix up a rotten dock. Guys and gals from his high school keep coming round to visit, and Bobby soon learns the trick that his father and his uncles and granduncles all knew, which is that you never talk about the specifics of what happened over there….The only person he can stand to be around his his great-grandfather Shaftoe….He never talks about it, of course, just as Bobby Shaftoe never talks about the lizard.

I’ll be curious to see more of what the characters know about their own ancestry, and about how these various lineages cross over. The only real sense we’ve gotten of those interactions is in the story that Amy tells Randy about her father (a side note relevant to this discussion, I thought corvus’s comment in our first discussion in response to the allegation that Amy is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, is a wise one: “I think she is really just meant to be the complete opposite of Charlene, and the obvious female descendant of her father and grandfather. However, that doesn’t mean she is not just a wish fulfillment object for the male protagonist involved, instead of a character in her own right.”), who shoved a man we’ll later meet, who is one of the architects of the Vietnam War, off a ski lift. What I really want to know is whether Lawrence Waterhouse and Bobby Shaftoe met, or whether they passed each other like a code and interpretation that never quite meet up, and if they met, what they meant to each other, and consequently, what all of these families mean to each other. It’s as if there’s some sort of underlying pattern to the universe. But Lawrence Waterhouse can’t see it yet. And so far, neither can I.