Cryptonomicon

Another one from the top five list: Cryptonomicon is a massive, funny read, and even if the end creaks, the ride makes the destination a tertiary concern. The language is there, the story is there, and the characters are there, even if they brush the cartoon line.

The mathematically-inclined Waterhouse clan makes a strong showing, including Lawrence Waterhouse, a World War II-era mathematician with a mind too logical for social graces. His grandson, Randy Waterhouse, using his Lord of the Rings classification system, sees Lawrence as an Elf, while he (Randy) is a Dwarf, and his longtime girlfriend and her nitwit academic friends are squabbling hobbits. A subplot with Randy’s ex-girlfriend takes potshots at academia, a target Neal Stephenson regards with bemused detachment in this Slashdot interview. It’s worth reading the whole interview to see a chaotic (in the sense of Chaos Theory) mind at work.

Lawrence probably has an equally chaotic mind, even if Randy probably most resembles the author. Randy is a contemporary hacker who is bright but not brilliant and knows it, and as such is just trying to make his way in an insane world—populated with some minor characters who keep reappearing like unwanted infections. They can be handled, though, with good friends and steely resolve, even if those good friends sometimes pontificate.

Okay, so they do pontificate a lot, but their conversations are so fascinating that the book’s length seems if anything too short, but too long on a few ideas. At the end there’s a mini-dissertation about the importance of myth, which is fantastic, but a few scenes degenerate into cartoonish and mindless subplots. The latter is embodied by the comments on Qwghlm, a made-up place and language designed to comment on linguistic and cultural quirks that seem more silly than anything else. Still, such very minor flaws are obscured by enormous strengths, as Cryptonomicon is as hilarious as Straight Man and as deep as Proust. One scene takes multiple pages to describe eating Captain Crunch. I’ll never look at breakfast cereal quite the same way.

There are also plenty of bits about the nature of life and reality—properly placed in a story so bound up in abstract math and seeing the patterns in existence where some see none. It’s also meditative at times, such as when Enoch Root, who plays the sagacious guide, says:

Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior?… Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.

So what is real, anyway, Root? Nothing, I suppose, since an inappropriate application of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem to consciousness tells us that we can’t step outside the system of consciousness to evaluate that systems. So we’re inside looking out, but we can’t really hold up a mirror to ourselves—which is itself just a metaphor for the abstract concept I’m trying to convey. Or, as Randy’s ex-girlfriend might say, reality is a cultural construction.

Philosophy done right is hard. So is math, full stop, without even saying “done right”. No wonder they both used to be the same thing: natural philosophy, or what we now think of as science. Stephenson’s telling us in Cryptonomicon that there’s no real separation between the two, despite the school system’s artificial segmentation of naturally overlapping disciplines into neat subjects.

Cryptonomicon is more fun than deep, particularly regarding the odd mating habits of nerds, who are the unusual heroes of this book—even more so than a gung-ho World War II-era China Marine, Bobby Shaftoe, the third protagonist. Granted, he’s an unusually perceptive gung-ho China Marina, but he’s still an action hero with more lives than Cat Woman and a knack for being in the right place at the time right historical time. Stephenson likes that sort of thing: The Baroque Trilogy is filled with such handy coincidences, although those three novels aren’t anywhere near the level of Cryptonomicon. Well, at least the first one, Quicksilver, isn’t, since it’s the only one I read, but I assume the others don’t improve.

If the book has a major weakness—I don’t count the end as major—it’s how difficult understanding the storylines can be, but by a quarter way through you start to see how they intertwine, and although the end that brings them together may not pull them as tightly as it could due chiefly to strain of trying to keep three zany plots together, it does work—and the first thing you want to do is go back and read the first half again, so you can perceive all that was previously uncertain and confused. In that way you get two books in one, but it’s more like two times three: Cryptonomicon’s length comes from the three storylines, any one of which would be sufficient to fill a book of normal girth. The same strategy applies to The Baroque Trilogy, but in that case the sausage components burst through the casing.

Cryptonomicon is amazing. It’s the book that’s easy to read and yet offers astonishing intellectual rewards. Any criticism above is minor in comparison with the magnitude of the work. Losing sight of that is easy in the dissection of minor flaws, so I will reiterate the point here.

Fiction and empathy?

This study suggests that reading fiction is correlated with empathy. Perhaps the fiction reader (or the person with an innate fiction reader’s disposition) has more empathy, as well as a greater power to separate truth from lies. I wonder what, if any, relationship fiction reading has with technical acumen or engineering skill.

Remember that correlation is not causation. I found that link just by searching for it with Google.

(Thanks to Marginal Revolution.)

Mating

Odd things happen in the wild. Odd things happen in the mating game too, and in the eponymous book, with its title carefully chosen for an association with animal instincts. Norman Rush’s Mating is all about contrasts: our perceived intellectual ability despite being trapped in a big piece of meat, our capacity for delusion and belief in the face of overwhelming and contradictory evidence, and the power of knowledge to enlighten—and to trap.

Mating reminds me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in that both are about the highest, most abstract levels of love and sex even while basic instincts still control and inform those functions. The overall strategy about love is probably is probably as well understood by your average sixteen-year-old as your average Ph.D., even if the teenager can’t articulate anything with the verbal dexterity and alacrity of Mating’s narrator. They’re both looking at the game theory of love: How do I achieve success if I’m dependent on the posturing of others? What is success in a field as elusive and uncertain as relations among people? Perhaps most importantly: how will others perceive me, how will they perceive me perceiving them, and so on in an infinitely recursive loop?

Someone schooled in the sophistication of societal relationships takes those questions to a deep place, watching the interplay between self and other. The narrator of Mating is, in the fashion of intellectuals, very aware of her own awareness, and the awareness of others. She doesn’t get lost in watching, however, because she’s too busy acting; no longer an anthropology student, the narrator doesn’t need to worry about the observer’s paradox.

What happens when utopian-inclined but jaded brains mate in the wild? Hilarity, among other things, a comic journey into the heart of darkness and heart of lightness, corresponding to the heaviness and lightness in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Whether life is lightness or darkness depends on how you perceive and accept it, but for the narrator, it’s lightness even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

And it’s a fun journey, to a land in Africa where a man wants to set up women as the socially powerful, as a test of human relationships from the individual to the national to the societal level. Regular readers of novels or nonfiction about utopian movements can probably guess what might happen, but Mating is not a conventional story, and both the narrator and her guru/lover, Nelson Denoon, are regular readers and constant consumers and processors of information. They know about love as well as societies—but what about each other and their own society? That’s harder to see for reader and actor, and even until the last three sentences you don’t know what’s going to happen.

But it is unusual, just like the journey. So try the journey—Mating slipped under my radar for far too long a time, until I saw it in the NYTimes’ effort to identify the best work of American fiction in the last 25 years. Mating didn’t win, but it is in good company, and worthy of the accolades it received.

Chasing thought: in the zone

Being immersed in a topic makes you ready to have the flash, the epiphany, the moment when thoughts collide and new ones emerge. It’s why I write about books: I see something I didn’t just from reading, and when I’m writing I pull something out of my subconscious that I didn’t even realize was there. From nothing comes something.

It’s a remarkable feeling, being in the zone, and the zone develops and broadens with time. You need the ideas, the knowledge, and the stimulation to form the primordial mass necessary. Then the ideas can start combining, extending, evolving. I suspect this kind of cycle applies to most fields of intellectual endeavor, and the more one practices being in this state of mind, the easier it comes.

In essence, it’s a virtuous cycle: creativity and discovery beget more creativity and discovery. It means paying attention to what others have said without being dominated by their ideas; it means being ready to challenge when you should and accept when you should. It means having a notebook or dictaphone, so you’re always ready when you’re in a car or on a train or walking your dog to capture the wisp before it floats away, maybe never to return in the exact same form.

The scaffolding is important—you need to know what the greats who preceded you thought. You’re not really ready for the higher stuff until you’ve laid the base; you don’t build a pyramid from the top down. You need your mind to be primed with the books you’ve read, the conversations you’ve had, the newspaper you saw this morning, and the problems you’ve considered. Once they’re all there, you unconsciously work on what you have, and connections form. And when the storm breaks, it’s a good idea to have buckets below, whether in the form of computers or dictaphones or pencils.

In fact, all this came to me in a torrent while I was working on a post about Mating. In a moment, I opened the OS X program DEVONthink and began typing. The first draft wasn’t as good as it could be, but the raw material I later shaped into a more coherent whole (some may debate the “coherent” aspect). The important part was writing before the inchoate thoughts evaporated; the feeling of capture is a rush, in a way somewhat similar to running or drugs, but subtly different too.

All this goes back to the writing itself, which is where some of these new ideas grow. I’ve heard people say that they don’t like to analyze what they read—but I discover more about what I read through writing about and reacting to it. Being able to explain why something is good and how it is good is a useful skill—as is its flipside. It’s part of grasping the principles underlying so many surface phenomena. And if you’re really going to get in the zone, you need to know the ground before you can fly through the air.

Elmore Leonard

Why is Elmore Leonard so damn good when he’s at his best? His best excuses his worst in the same way hitting a three at the buzzer in game seven excuses a season of bad rebounding and missed lay-ups. His middling caper novels are better than the best of most writers; the best Leonard is seeing the master work because you don’t see him work unless you’re paying attention to all those deft cuts and all that masterful dialog. You have to slow down if you’re going to consciously notice how good he is, because you’re reading so fast that you’re not even reading—you’re living, and when you look up and see it’s two hours later and you still have to get up for work in the morning, you’re let down because work isn’t going to be nearly as good as what you’ve just been reading.

He’s so good that reading generalized criticism raises my hackles. One disappointing part of Reading Like a Writer came with the put-down that Leonard, though highly skilled as a writer, is basically formulaic. He’s not, and the rest of Reading Like a Writer lets me chalk up the disagreement to differing taste, but accepting Prose’s judgment on other books doesn’t come as swiftly after she hits Leonard.

Still, even I have a hierarchy within the Leonard canon. I didn’t love The Hot Kid: Leonard’s milieu is in the contemporary caper world; his early westerns don’t hold up well. Some reviewers, including the one of the NYTBR, called The Hot Kid his best, but I disagree. He’s said that it takes about a million published words, and if his westerns trained him for his later work, I’m glad they were published.

It’s tough to get a feel for Leonard without reading an entire book. He doesn’t deliver big ideas into poetic aphorisms. His genius is between and among the lines, and it’s often not until I’m done with a book that I realize how good it is—not just in terms of the “plot,” which is the only way people can defend garbage like The Da Vinci Code, but in terms of the writing and especially the dialog. This comes from Out of Sight, although stripped of the preceding pages it doesn’t come as such a surprise:

He said, “It doesn’t have to, it’s something that happens. It’s like seeing a person you never saw before—you could be passing on the street—and you look at each other . . .”
Karen was nodding. “You make eye contact without meaning to.”
“And for a few moments,” Foley said, “there’s a kind of recognition. You look at each other and you know something.”
“That no one else knows,” Karen said. “You see it in their eyes.”
“And the next moment the person’s gone,” Foley said, “and it’s too late to do anything about it, but you remember it because it was right there and you let it go, and you think, What if I had stopped and said something. It might only happen a few times in your life.”

Yeah, we know what you mean. The exchange is so good because of how implausible it is, and yet its perfection in the story’s context. They’re telling us what Charles Foster Kane did fifty years ago—he once saw a girl in a white dress on a passing ferry, and yet still often thinks of her, even after acquiring all the wealth and power the world had to offer. Leonard’s characters don’t have anything but their experience and wits, but they feel the same feelings, the same longings, that don’t know the boundaries of class or time.

In the story you get the impression that Foley and Karen Sisco are overcoming themselves to have that exchange, each tentatively probing to see if the other is going to shut down, and in a flawed book it would’ve been forced. But the passage fits so naturally, and it’s so understated, that you’re already jumping ahead to what happens next. But Leonard doesn’t overplay his hand—he seldom does—and the description doesn’t fail. Problem is that it might be too late for Foley, this thing that happens only a few times in his life, but you’re not quite sure: with Leonard it could go either way.

One unusual note about Out of Sight: it’s almost as good a movie as a book, and experiencing both back to back is worthwhile.

The best of Leonard’s best is Get Shorty, and if you haven’t read it already, get it. The only danger in starting with it is the possibility of disappointment when you read the rest, but it’s worth the risk.

He is, after all, both popular in the sense of making the bestseller lists, and respected by reviewers and critics. It’s a rare feat these days, with the stereotypical effete, elite fiction dominating among the literati while garbage thrillers occupy the New York Times bestseller lists, to have both—and be worthy of them.

Nonfiction roundup

I finished The Story of English and The Book of Lost Books, neither of which merit a recommendation. The first was a quick read more anecdotal than comprehensive, and its status as a companion to a PBS show is apparent through the book’s episodic nature, which has the some of television’s defects.

As a description of the English language’s development the book does well enough, but it leaves unanswered the better question of why English developed as it did. The fundamental story of English is inexplicable: we can see, sort of, how it happened in retrospect, but English’s modern domination of the linguistic world wasn’t even apparent until the fall of the Soviet Union. Which language will dominate the future is equally uncertain. English, Chinese, and Spanish seem the most probable candidates, in that order, with Arabic running a distant fourth. The only lesson one can draw from the past is apparently that the future is inscrutable, but The Story of English doesn’t even fully establish the links between past and present that could’ve elevated it beyond a collection of miscellaneous facts.

The Story of English was most interesting on the level of meta-commentary: the book reinforced the domination of English merely by being written in that language, just as this post reinforces the power of language it’s written in. It makes you think about the power of your actions in day-to-day life, and what practices or ideas you’re tacitly endorsing through individual choice. It’s too bad that such insights were bound in an unappealing package.

The Book of Lost Books should have been left as cocktail trivia and academic banter. The hard core bibliophile might like it, much as the basketball fanatic might know the names of the men on every NBA roster for 1974, but I didn’t care for its ceaseless speculations about what might have been, anymore than I want to hear myself recalling the lovers who slipped away. The world might be a better place if The Book of Lost Books were a lost book.

His Dark Materials

Like so much fantasy, His Dark Materials has more commentary on our world than about its own, just as Paradise Lost is more interested in the world of men than that of God. The fingerprints of Paradise Lost are all over His Dark Materials, and intentionally so, even if one of Pullman’s purposes is the diametric opposite of Milton’s. Pullman has discussed the connections to Paradise Lost in interviews, and a quote from it starts The Subtle Knife.

If Paradise Lost justified the ways of God to Man, then His Dark Materials justifies the ways of Man to Man—or, rather, the fiery spirit and independence of the individual against the poisonous power of authority. It’s more about the relationships of men among each other.

His Dark Materials points toward self-reliance, and the American myth of it informs the books’ championing of the individual against the faceless bureaucracies. The fear of Big Brother is there, although Big Brother is the Church rather than government. It’s anachronistic to cast the Church as a villain—that would’ve been more appropriate five hundred years ago, or at least during the Victorian age, because the major potential oppressors of today are governments, not religions. Still, if Pullman is concerned chiefly with the oppression of a particular individual, his villains work, and when either institution concerns itself with reducing individual liberty, it is as terrible as the other.

Missing all that among the ceaselessly moving plot should be forgiven: The Golden Compass starts fast and never lets up. Not until the middle of The Subtle Knife does the pacing even catch a breath. Lyra, who seems built around the adjective “spunky,” has no one but herself, and like so many Romantic protagonists, begins the story as an orphan. But her parents turn out to be more in the model of the power-crazed and narcissistic ones in Story of My Life or Less Than Zero than the classical model of caring guardians who were forced to abandon her, leading to a joyous reunion. Lyra has to find companions and helpers where she can, and the motley ensemble must take on the mighty, glittering edifice of the dominant social and political structures.Over the course of the flight and then fight Lyra matures. The external plot charts the internal process of growing up: taking on responsibility, dealing with adversity, and a host of other things that, so baldly stated, sound terribly boring. Much better to represent them through a fantastic world filled by marvels and not bound by science as we know it. The external actions are a manifestation of the internal development. In many ways, it parallels the growth of adolescence into adulthood, which is even more explicit in His Dark Materials than most fantastic literature because of Lyra’s age. If the external/internal growth process sounds familiar to regular readers, that’s because it is.

Although featuring children and obviously targeted in part at them, His Dark Materials is a hybrid in the sense that adults can read and enjoy it as well as children, much like The Chronicles of Narnia. The same is true of Harry Potter, although to a lesser extent: His Dark Materials reflects a strong classical education, which allows it to function at deeper levels and with a greater awareness of what has come before. His Dark Materials is stronger than either of those series, both in terms of the writing itself as well as the content; its tone remains strong and serious, even when it is funny, whereas The Chronicles of Narnia at times descends to the level of conventional children’s stories, and Harry Potter never fully leaves that realm.

The ending, like that of Lord of the Rings, is bittersweet: the gains outweigh the losses, but those losses can never be assuaged or made whole; they merely become a burden that can be transmuted to wisdom, but the some aspects of the loss endures despite all efforts to mend them. So it is with the transience of life, and like all the best works of art, His Dark Materials has a lot to say about life—if we are perceptive enough to listen.

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