The discussion below gets up to, but not including or beyond, the section titled “Golgotha.” For next week, let’s go up to the section called “Glamor.” Previous installments in this discussion appear here, here, here, and here.This chunk of reading felt a little bit more transitional to me, so no big essay this week, just three things that were notable to me, one of which will go off at some greater length than others.Observation the first: one of the most enduring questions left over from World War II is how Germans went along with, or assimilated, the Holocaust. I tend to find Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners to be a key piece of writing on the subject, and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen to be an effective emotional translation of what Germans who weren’t working directly on the Final Solution, but did work for or collaborate with the regime felt about their work and their country. This line, from the Rudy point of view section of the book, also seems like a concise and emotionally precise explanation of how ordinary Germans might have failed to integrate the information they were getting from the world around them:
A short train waits there. It does not contain any boxcars, a relief to Rudy, since he thinks that during the last few years he may have glimpsed boxcars that appeared to be crammed full of human beings. These glimpses were brief and surreal, and he cannot really sort out whether they really happened, or were merely fragments of nightmares that got filed in the wrong cranial drawer.
Obviously, I don’t think failing to understand what you see is an excuse. But I thought it was an exceedingly well-written passage.Second, this is the first moment where we see, from their perspective, what one of the main characters in the contemporary section of the novel thinks of one of their forebears from the World War II section of the novel:
When Randy now pulls into the main vehicle entrance, past the big tombstone that says WATERHOUSE HOUSE, he cannot but look straight out into the windshield and through the dorm’s front windows and straight at a large portrait of his grandfather, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse — one of a dozen or so figures, mostly departed now, who compete for the essentially bogus title of ‘inventor of the digital computer.’ The portrait is securely bolted to the cinderblock wall of the lobby and imprisoned under a half-inch-thick slab of Plexiglas that must be replaced every couple of years, as it fogs from repeated scrubbings and petty vandalizations. Seen through this milky cataract, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is grimly resplendent in full doctoral robes. He has one foot up on something, his elbow planted on the elevated knee, and has tucked his robes back behind the other arm and planted his fist on his hip. It is meant to be a sort of dynamic leaning-into-the-winds-of-the-future posture, but to Randy, who at the age of five was present for its unveiling, it has a kind of incredulous what-the-hell-are-those-little-people-doing-down-there vibe about it.
Again, it’s a nice piece of writing that tells us quite a bit about how Randy and Lawrence see each other, and how that interacts with how we’ve come to see them. There’s something dismissive, almost cruel, about Randy’s dismissal about credit for inventing the modern computer as an “essentially bogus title,” but it’s simultaneously proof of how much Lawrence and members of his cofraternity of visionaries changed the world. Simultaneously, it’s interesting to see Lawrence as a condescending, god-like figure. We know that Lawrence is sometimes incomprehensible, and ahead of his time, but for most of the novel, he’s been the most sympathetic figure in it to me. He’s awkward, he’s funny, he’s unintentionally progressive, he’s loyal. I’m curious if by the end of the novel, I’ll feel like Randy or Lawrence is the greater man. Does heritage mean dilution, or concentration?Finally, and this is an outgrowth of Randy and Lawrence’s basic familial geek-derived awkwardness: this is the first part of the novel where I felt like Stephenson’s gender politics really bothered me as a reader. I didn’t really mind Amy as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and I didn’t mind Glory as an overpowering vision of loveliness because I could feel the adoration in Bobby Shaftoe’s perception of her. But at this point in the novel, I feel like women are amusing, mysterious, trivial but enchanting creatures. There’s something almost Victorian about it, and it’s annoyingly reductionist.There’s Amy’s paranoid reaction to Randy’s return to California. There’s nothing to suggest, at this point in the novel, that she’s particularly attached to him, and this is so out of character with her general unflappability, that it seems insane, the product of some attack of the vapors:
Kia…has sent e-mail to Randy notifying him that she has recently fielded four trans-Pacific telephone calls from America Shaftoe, who wants to know Randy’s whereabouts, plans, state of mind, and purity of spirit. Kia has informed Amy that Randy’s on his way to California and has somehow insinuated, or Amy has somehow figured out, that the purpose of the visit is NOT BUSINESS. Randy senses a small pane of glass shattering over a neurological alarm button somewhere. He is in trouble. This is divine retribution for his having dared to sit still and not do anything for ninety whole minutes.
It doesn’t help that, um, Amy flies to California and proceeds to run Randy’s car off the road. This is not charming. This is psychotic. I like Amy less for doing this, and Randy less for thinking it’s all sort of charming. Their reactions to all of this make them less people, and more vehicles for events.Then, there’s the mystery of female solidarity, in which Kia, Randy and Avi’s sexy, diversity-embodying assistant, bonds with Amy over Randy’s theoretically bad behavior:
In the course of twenty minutes’ phone conversation, she has deeply and eternally bonded with Kia,’ Avi says. ‘I would believe that without hesitation.’ ‘It wasn’t even like they got ot know each other. It was like they knew each other in a previous life and had just gotten back in touch.’ ‘Yeah. So?’ ‘Kia now feels bound by duty and honor to present a united front with America Shaftoe.’ ‘It all hangs together,’ Randy says. ‘Acting sort of like Amy’s emotional agent or lawyer, she has made it clear to me that we, Epiphyte Corporation, owe Amy our full attention and concern.’
There’s even the stupid woman at customs (though to be fair, her boss isn’t exactly caught up himself):
Randy stares directly into the eyes of the female customs official and says, ‘The Internet.’ Totally factitious understanding dawns on the woman’s face, and her eyes ping bosswards. The boss, still deeply absorbed in an article about the next generation of high-speed routers, shoves out his lower lip and nods, like every other nineties American male who senses that knowing this stuff is now as intrinsic to maleness as changing flat tires was to Dad. ‘I hear that’s really exciting now,’ the woman says in a different tone of voice.
Lawrence’s pursuit of Mary is simultaneously more weirdly mechanical than Randy’s courtship of Amy, and slightly more charming. Obviously, it’s a symptom of Lawrence’s differing worldview that Mary comes into his life in the form of mathematical alterations:
It seems that the intrusion of FMSp into his happiness equation is just the thin edge of a wedge which leaves Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse at the mercy of a vast number of uncontrollable factors, and requiring him to cope with normal human society. Horrifyingly, he now finds himself getting ready to go to a dance.
But desire also humanizes Lawrence, bringing him in touch with a sense of the divine and miraculous when it looks like things might actually work out: “What this proves, beyond all doubt, is that there is a God, and furthermore that He is a personal friend of supporter of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse. The opening line problem is solved, neat as a theorem. Q.E.D., baby.” Getting an overly rational man in touch with the irrational seems like a gift in Stephenson’s world. But when he reduces women without any other character traits to a series of impulses, it’s a lot less charming.