Re-reading Cryptonomicon

It’s still excellent, and it’s so excellent that it’s one of the books I re-read when I can’t find anything good to read. The density of Cryptonomicon’s ideas and the strange (at first) construction of its plot makes it a particularly promising re-reading, since getting the full effect the first time through is almost impossible.

CryptonomiconThe novel is very fond of explaining things and so are its characters. “Things” seems like a vague, loose word here but it’s appropriate given the diversity of explanation. To list the topics that come up would be too tedious for this post but would be in keeping with the novel. Take one example, as a character explains startup financing in the ’90s:

We begin with nothing but the idea. That’s what the NDA is for—to protect your idea. We work on the idea together—put our brainpower to it—and get stock in return.

Except that, as we know now, ideas aren’t that important (the execution is important) and the best ideas are usually mocked at first. But the rest is pretty accurate, and the dialogue shows that the characters have ideas, share ideas, care about ideas, and fight over ideas. Ideas—actual ideas, as opposed to what many intellectuals think of as ideas—don’t appear often in novels. To the extent they do, ideas usually appear as grand abstractions tediously embodied in specific characters.

Skip some sections if they don’t speak to you the first time through; they may later, though the famous Cap’n’Crunch scene still does little for me, or to me.

Few books describe real nerd culture:

“You have jet lag now?” Goto asks brightly—following (Randy assumes) a script from an English textbook. He’s a handsome guy with a winning smile. He’s probably in his forties, though Nipponese people seem to have a whole different aging algorithm so this may be way off.
“No,” Randy answers. Being a nerd, he answers such questions badly, succinctly, and truthfully. He knows that Goto essentially does not care whether Randy has jet lag or not. He is vaguely conscious that Avi, if he were here, would use Goto’s question as it was intended—as an opening for cheery social batter. Until he reached thirty, Randy felt bad about the fact that he was not socially deft. Now he doesn’t give a damn. Pretty soon he’ll probably start being proud of it.

Conversation is a skill and it’s a skill most nerds don’t develop, which may be why they face troubles in dating. Nerds spend lots of time with machines and to some extent that time begins to shape their minds to think like machines.

The psychologies of innovators and deep thinkers may not be viable subjects for literary writers, or, if they are, I haven’t seen the fruit of those writers’ labor.

Most novels that are called “novels of ideas” are actually not. Finding a novel of ideas embedded congenially in a novel of intense action is unusual, especially when most novels of ideas are actually novels of navel gazing. Cryptonomicon also violates many of the rules one hears from MFA types and is useful for that reason: many “novels” are not actually novel.

Copies are available for $.01 on Amazon (which means $4 with shipping), and that’s a steal.

The sprawling narrative and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reading of Middlemarch

In “Into the Canon: ‘Middlemarch,’” Ta-Nehisi Coates says he’s halfway through the novel and that “Eliot’s rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing.” He gives an example and then says: “I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I’m not particularly well-read–especially in the area of modern fiction.”

My answer: sometimes, but rarely. Two contemporary examples that work come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell* and Cryptonomicon. Neither is quite the same as each other or two Middlemarch, but great works of art are supposed to be singular, and both contemporary novels are long, have many moments of weird narrative (in which it’s hard to tell who speaks), and are highly detailed. Perhaps overly detailed.

In Encounter, Milan Kundera says, correctly, that “Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler,’ do away with whatever comes from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).” Coates is responding to the contrast between the modern tendency to cut “filler” and get at “the essential;” I think consciously about doing both when I write, and the “filler” often bothers me about 19th C novels—but then I suppose his point about voice is that voice can make filler into the essential, at least for some readers. I tend not to be one of them, but I can make exceptions—as I do for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Cryptonomicon, and as I don’t for the late, tedious novels of Henry James.


* I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the moment, and, while it’s hard to give an example of the novel’s vastness (do we really need the level of detail we get in the Spanish campaign sections? and what is “need?”), I would note this description of Jonathan Strange following the apparent death of his wife:

[Jonathan’s] words and his face were what all his friends remembered — with this difference: that the man behind them seemed only to be acting a part while his thoughts and his heart were somewhere else entirely. He looked at them from behind the sarcastic smile and none of them knew what he was thinking. He was more like a magician than ever before. It was very curious and no one knew what to make of it, but in some ways he was more like Norrell.

There are a couple of traits similar to the “sprawling” narratives Coates mentions: most of the time we’re listening, as we are here, to a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator, and we’re not motivated to think this observation comes from a particular character’s point of view. Notice how “no one knew what to make of it:” how does the narrator know what everyone thinks, in order to say that “no one knew?”

This kind of pronouncement is uncommon in contemporary novels, or at least the contemporary novels I read. Perhaps more importantly, the quote above could easily be omitted, and Strange’s behavior left to the reader to interpret, without authorial comment. We should be able to infer Strange’s change in character and manner from the way he acts, but Clarke chooses (or, in her mock-19th Century idiom, “chuses”) to give it to us—as she tells us a few sentences later that “They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.” It’s lovely to know they ate “gravy made with the fat of a green goose,” whatever that means, but I’m not sure how desperately we need to know.

In most books such details would be irritating; in this one they’re mostly charming. Call it the book’s magic.

For a similar example in Cryptonomicon, see the famous Cap’n Crunch scene, a portion of which is at the link.

The sprawling narrative and Ta-Nehisi Coates' reading of Middlemarch

In “Into the Canon: ‘Middlemarch,’” Ta-Nehisi Coates says he’s halfway through the novel and that “Eliot’s rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing.” He gives an example and then says: “I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I’m not particularly well-read–especially in the area of modern fiction.”

My answer: sometimes, but rarely. Two contemporary examples that work come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell* and Cryptonomicon. Neither is quite the same as each other or two Middlemarch, but great works of art are supposed to be singular, and both contemporary novels are long, have many moments of weird narrative (in which it’s hard to tell who speaks), and are highly detailed. Perhaps overly detailed.

In Encounter, Milan Kundera says, correctly, that “Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler,’ do away with whatever comes from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).” Coates is responding to the contrast between the modern tendency to cut “filler” and get at “the essential;” I think consciously about doing both when I write, and the “filler” often bothers me about 19th C novels—but then I suppose his point about voice is that voice can make filler into the essential, at least for some readers. I tend not to be one of them, but I can make exceptions—as I do for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Cryptonomicon, and as I don’t for the late, tedious novels of Henry James.


* I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the moment, and, while it’s hard to give an example of the novel’s vastness (do we really need the level of detail we get in the Spanish campaign sections? and what is “need?”), I would note this description of Jonathan Strange following the apparent death of his wife:

[Jonathan’s] words and his face were what all his friends remembered — with this difference: that the man behind them seemed only to be acting a part while his thoughts and his heart were somewhere else entirely. He looked at them from behind the sarcastic smile and none of them knew what he was thinking. He was more like a magician than ever before. It was very curious and no one knew what to make of it, but in some ways he was more like Norrell.

There are a couple of traits similar to the “sprawling” narratives Coates mentions: most of the time we’re listening, as we are here, to a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator, and we’re not motivated to think this observation comes from a particular character’s point of view. Notice how “no one knew what to make of it:” how does the narrator know what everyone thinks, in order to say that “no one knew?”

This kind of pronouncement is uncommon in contemporary novels, or at least the contemporary novels I read. Perhaps more importantly, the quote above could easily be omitted, and Strange’s behavior left to the reader to interpret, without authorial comment. We should be able to infer Strange’s change in character and manner from the way he acts, but Clarke chooses (or, in her mock-19th Century idiom, “chuses”) to give it to us—as she tells us a few sentences later that “They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.” It’s lovely to know they ate “gravy made with the fat of a green goose,” whatever that means, but I’m not sure how desperately we need to know.

In most books such details would be irritating; in this one they’re mostly charming. Call it the book’s magic.

For a similar example in Cryptonomicon, see the famous Cap’n Crunch scene, a portion of which is at the link.

The creator’s mindset and lawyers’ destructiveness in Cryptonomicon

Rereading Cryptonomicon is always an absurdly pleasurable experience that yields ideas I should’ve noticed before but didn’t. For example, hacker Randy Waterhouse undergoes a life change characteristic not only of numerous nerds I know, who often swerve from the mind-numbingly pointless activities to fantastically enriching ones even though both spring from the same drive, but that also demonstrates the difference between someone who’s just happy to make something and lawyers, who do sometimes deserve their bad rap and rep:

[Randy’s] life had changed when Charlene had come along, and now it changed more: he dropped out of the fantasy role-playing game circuit altogether, stopped going to meetings of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and began to spend all his free time either with Charlene or in front of a computer terminal. All in all, this was probably a change for the better. With Charlene, he did things he wouldn’t have done otherwise, like getting exercise, or going to see live music. And at the computer, he was learning new skills, and he was creating something. It might be something completely useless, but at least he was creating.

“Things he wouldn’t have done otherwise” probably also include showering regular and buying clothes when the old ones develop holes, if Randy is anything like the majors nerds I’ve known and, occasionally, been. Most importantly, he’s making stuff. And that’s what distinguishes Randy, whatever his other problems might be, from everyone else. Lots of people talk about doing things and relatively few do. When you find someone who does stuff, it’s notable, even if the thing “might be something completely useless.”

In Randy’s case, he writes a game based in part on information gleaned from a crazy grad student named Andrew Loeb, and, when Andrew finds out, he ends up suing Randy; when the university whose computers Randy used finds out, they sue him too. Naturally, this is only a very light gloss on how it goes down, like the difference between lipstick and car paint, but events ultimately leave Randy here:

In the end, just to cut his losses and get out of it clean, Randy had to hire a lawyer of his own. The final cost to him was a hair more than five thousand dollars. The software was never sold to anyone, and indeed could not have been; it was so legally encumbered by that point that it would have been like trying to sell someone a rusty Volkswagen that had been dismantled and its parts hidden in attack dog kennels all over the world.

Which, apparently, is what happens when deranged, unreasonable people meet certain kinds of lawyers, or come from them. Randy eventually comes to “decide that Andrew’s life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.” But we have no society-wide immune system to people whose lives are “fractally weird” and want to makes others’ lives miserable, via abusing the legal system or some other means. The people who will make others’ lives miserable don’t really understand the mindset of creators, who’re just trying stuff out to see what happens. And they often don’t realize what other people are like, either, because they haven’t developed the intellectual immune system necessary to protect them from crazy assholes. Creators often live in a gift economy while others live in a commercial economy. So they get in situations like Randy does, having “to hire a lawyer” and cut their losses.

Reading over this post, I realize that, as usual, it’s not really possible to excerpt Cryptonomicon effectively, because the scene in question lasts four densely forested hardcover pages and delves into a level of nuance appropriate for Emacs users. And Stephenson’s novels are fractal too: you can examine almost any segment, from the sentence on up, and find that any part is as detailed and intense as the whole. I haven’t begun to dissect what comparing software, a non-tangible entity that can be infinitely copied with near zero cost, to a Volkswagen, which is quite finite and has many other characteristics separating it from software, actually says about both software and Volkswagens.

Through Randy, however, Stephenson is trying to explain hackers, or at least show one in action, since they’ve been conspicuously absent in literary fiction while probably doing more to change the world than virtually any other group over the last 30 or so years. You can’t really explain their core in a short space, which is why Stephenson devotes about a quarter of a 1,000 page book to examining one, and another quarter or so to examining one’s literal and figurative predecessor. But I could imagine an academic paper examining the construction of a hacker’s temperament, how it differs from the straw-man average man’s temperament, and how an eventual awareness of that difference forms the hacker’s outlook. Randy’s encounter with Andrew can be read as the awareness of that difference coming to the fore, rather as a comic book hero comes to realize that his special powers separate him from his classmates. The difference is that comic book heroes usually have their villains pre-selected and presented as suitably villainous, whereas in life it’s pretty unusual to come across someone as conveniently villainous as Andrew is here.

The creator's mindset and lawyers' destructiveness in Cryptonomicon

Rereading Cryptonomicon is always an absurdly pleasurable experience that yields ideas I should’ve noticed before but didn’t. For example, hacker Randy Waterhouse undergoes a life change characteristic not only of numerous nerds I know, who often swerve from the mind-numbingly pointless activities to fantastically enriching ones even though both spring from the same drive, but that also demonstrates the difference between someone who’s just happy to make something and lawyers, who do sometimes deserve their bad rap and rep:

[Randy’s] life had changed when Charlene had come along, and now it changed more: he dropped out of the fantasy role-playing game circuit altogether, stopped going to meetings of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and began to spend all his free time either with Charlene or in front of a computer terminal. All in all, this was probably a change for the better. With Charlene, he did things he wouldn’t have done otherwise, like getting exercise, or going to see live music. And at the computer, he was learning new skills, and he was creating something. It might be something completely useless, but at least he was creating.

“Things he wouldn’t have done otherwise” probably also include showering regular and buying clothes when the old ones develop holes, if Randy is anything like the majors nerds I’ve known and, occasionally, been. Most importantly, he’s making stuff. And that’s what distinguishes Randy, whatever his other problems might be, from everyone else. Lots of people talk about doing things and relatively few do. When you find someone who does stuff, it’s notable, even if the thing “might be something completely useless.”

In Randy’s case, he writes a game based in part on information gleaned from a crazy grad student named Andrew Loeb, and, when Andrew finds out, he ends up suing Randy; when the university whose computers Randy used finds out, they sue him too. Naturally, this is only a very light gloss on how it goes down, like the difference between lipstick and car paint, but events ultimately leave Randy here:

In the end, just to cut his losses and get out of it clean, Randy had to hire a lawyer of his own. The final cost to him was a hair more than five thousand dollars. The software was never sold to anyone, and indeed could not have been; it was so legally encumbered by that point that it would have been like trying to sell someone a rusty Volkswagen that had been dismantled and its parts hidden in attack dog kennels all over the world.

Which, apparently, is what happens when deranged, unreasonable people meet certain kinds of lawyers, or come from them. Randy eventually comes to “decide that Andrew’s life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.” But we have no society-wide immune system to people whose lives are “fractally weird” and want to makes others’ lives miserable, via abusing the legal system or some other means. The people who will make others’ lives miserable don’t really understand the mindset of creators, who’re just trying stuff out to see what happens. And they often don’t realize what other people are like, either, because they haven’t developed the intellectual immune system necessary to protect them from crazy assholes. Creators often live in a gift economy while others live in a commercial economy. So they get in situations like Randy does, having “to hire a lawyer” and cut their losses.

Reading over this post, I realize that, as usual, it’s not really possible to excerpt Cryptonomicon effectively, because the scene in question lasts four densely forested hardcover pages and delves into a level of nuance appropriate for Emacs users. And Stephenson’s novels are fractal too: you can examine almost any segment, from the sentence on up, and find that any part is as detailed and intense as the whole. I haven’t begun to dissect what comparing software, a non-tangible entity that can be infinitely copied with near zero cost, to a Volkswagen, which is quite finite and has many other characteristics separating it from software, actually says about both software and Volkswagens.

Through Randy, however, Stephenson is trying to explain hackers, or at least show one in action, since they’ve been conspicuously absent in literary fiction while probably doing more to change the world than virtually any other group over the last 30 or so years. You can’t really explain their core in a short space, which is why Stephenson devotes about a quarter of a 1,000 page book to examining one, and another quarter or so to examining one’s literal and figurative predecessor. But I could imagine an academic paper examining the construction of a hacker’s temperament, how it differs from the straw-man average man’s temperament, and how an eventual awareness of that difference forms the hacker’s outlook. Randy’s encounter with Andrew can be read as the awareness of that difference coming to the fore, rather as a comic book hero comes to realize that his special powers separate him from his classmates. The difference is that comic book heroes usually have their villains pre-selected and presented as suitably villainous, whereas in life it’s pretty unusual to come across someone as conveniently villainous as Andrew is here.

Well, there goes the weekend, thanks to Neal Stephenson’s Reamde

I have a late Henry James novel to finish and a paper to write about it. And  paper to write on John Updike. Plus some miscellaneous other writing I should be doing. But then the UPS guy shows up with this:

And I realize: thanks to Reamde, my plans have changed. If you’re reading this and thinking, “What’s the big deal?”, I’ll just say: start with Cryptonomicon.

Well, there goes the weekend, thanks to Neal Stephenson's Reamde

I have a late Henry James novel to finish and a paper to write about it. And  paper to write on John Updike. Plus some miscellaneous other writing I should be doing. But then the UPS guy shows up with this:

And I realize: thanks to Reamde, my plans have changed. If you’re reading this and thinking, “What’s the big deal?”, I’ll just say: start with Cryptonomicon.

Flashback — Dan Simmons

There are shades of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle all over Flashback. Problem is, they don’t really go anywhere. The novel opens in the near future with a mystery: Hiroshi Nakamura is a wildly wealthy Japanese man who needs Nick Bottom to solve the mystery of his son’s death using a drug called Flashback, which lets one relive in the past as if it’s the present. The setup is clever; Nick, rather than being a classic detective-alcoholic, is a flashback addict and feels “the flashback itch crawling in him like a centipede. He wanted to get out of this room and pull the warm wool covers of then, not-now, her, not-this over himself like a blanket.” He wants his time warped, in other words, as the centipede tells him. He wants to retreat to childhood: hence the blanket. It’s a nice image, and double so because the novel doesn’t have many of them.

Flashback is frustrating because it has so much promise that goes unfilled. There are lots of “as-you-know-captain speeches” (as there were A Game of Thrones), like this one, six pages in:

The polishes cedar floors and fresh tatami mats, in contrast, seemed to emanate their own warm light. A sensuous, fresh dried-grass smell rose from the tatami. Nick Bottom had had enough contact with the Japanese in his previous job as a Denver homicide detective to know that Mr. Nakamura’s compound, his house, his garden, this office, and the ikebana and few modest but precious artifacts on display here were all perfect expressions of wabi (simple quietude) and sabi (elegant simplicity and the celebration of the impermanent.

How do you have fresh dried grass? Shouldn’t it be fresh or dried? Beyond that, the phrase “Nick Bottom had had enough contact” signals that we’re about to be told a bunch of stuff. In and of itself, that’s fine. The problem is the sheer number of times the story pauses for no particular reason to regurgitate stuff at us. Susan Bell’s essay “Revisioning The Great Gatsby” (part of The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House) details how deftly F. Scott Fitzgerald avoids such problems in The Great Gatsby, with the help of Maxwell Perkins. We’re not so lucky here. In Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, digressions feel organic. Here they feel forced.

So do the italics that give us Nick’s thoughts; toward the end of chapter one, he thinks, “You know why you’re going to hire me for this job, jerkwad. Let’s get to it. Yes or no.” I’ve heard similar sentiments in a thousand detective novels and movies. They don’t add anything to the story or Nick’s character. They’re distracting. The problems in the first chapter continue throughout.

There are good bits, as when Nick decides not to flashback to sex: “he was simply glad that his video-recorded idiot’s face wouldn’t be showing the uncoordinated spastic echoes of his orgasms from eighteen years earlier.” We get the self-loathing, the professional’s unhappiness at being caught unaware, the thought of “uncoordinated spastic echoes” that capture a look in a way that’s fresh and vital. Such moments are just too rare. The book is too fat. It deals with balkanization and terrorism in ways that are interesting and imagines a future without state or national infrastructure, which is a scary one. It just doesn’t do so well. There’s a palpable fear of Muslims and what, for lack of a better word, I would call multiculturalism or pluralism; a character thinks:

Los Angeles [was] celebrating the events of that old holiday called 9-11, September 11, 2001, the date—as Val had been taught in school—of the beginning of successful resistance to the old imperialist American hegemony and a turning point in the creation of the New Caliphate and other hopeful signs of the new world order.

We get a lot of conservative ideology here: the distribution of dangerous ideas in schools; the idea that liberals see American hegemony as dangerous and imperialist; and the fear of Islamists taking over the world. Women “in full burkas” sit, and one has “bright blue eyes” who Val says “was Cindy from his Wednesday Social Responsibility class.” None of these fears seem likely, and after the Arab Spring, they seem even more ludicrous. The world is mostly inching toward liberalism, not authoritarianism, bikinis, not burkhas, despite the United States’ present penchant for spying on its own citizens. A college professor begins to question his own received wisdom, and experiences “Doubt [about] whether America’s eventual retreat from the rising success of radical Islam’s influence around the world was the wisest course.” Except that the U.S. is successful precisely because its culture promotes letting people live as they choose, so long as they don’t harm others: this is part of the reason why the U.S. is very good at integrating minorities, while Europe struggles. The idea that the U.S. will ‘retreat,” whatever that means in the context, is ludicrous.

I’m not opposed to novels with political messages, as long as those messages are thoughtful, reasonable, and well-integrated, and dumb politics aren’t limited to the right (on the left, see: John Steinbeck). I’m opposed to novels with dumb politics, like this one, but I’m even more opposed to weak writing.

You can have a book with little plot and spectacularly unusual sentences or language use; this is basically what Joyce and John Banville do (or, think of Banville’s alter ego detective fiction writer, Benjamin Black). You have a book with lots of plot and uninteresting or banal sentences, which is what a lot of thrillers do. But it’s really hard to have little plot and average sentences, which is what you see in Flashback. It’s got a great premise and doesn’t deliver. I got to page 200, mostly because I had time to kill while waiting to meet a friend. Flashback did fill time and did offer an intriguing premise. It didn’t do much else.


EDIT: I am not the only one who is disappointed in Flashback.

Neal Stephenson and Anathem

Jacket Copy, the L.A. Times’ book blog, just posted bits of Neal Stephenson interviews old and new.

My favorite questions relate to Snow Crash and geography:

S.T.: What made you set “Snow Crash” in L.A.?
Neal Stephenson: At the time I was living in New Jersey, and I was really in the space between Philly and New York. So I was in this place where there really was no city center: You could drive for hours in either direction and see the same landscape repeating itself, of strip malls, and…. I don’t think I’d ever lived in anything like that before. You read science fiction, and it’s always on a giant urban core, or it’s on a space station — but from where I’m sitting that’s not the future. From where I’m sitting, the future is this landscape of low-rise sprawl. I think I put it in L.A. — it’s been a long time — because it gave me more options. You have the entertainment industry there, you’ve got high-tech, the Pacific Rim factor…. It just gave me more surface area.

S.T.: You’ve been in the Northwest for a long time now — Seattle’s working for you?
Neal Stephenson: It is really working for me. I like this kind of weather. I like the neighborhoods. There are a lot of interesting people around because of the high-tech world here. And there’s a gritty, practical side to the city that’s easy to miss. But it really informs the way the city works. I think of about the time of the dot-com bubble bursting, there was a crab boat that went down in the Bering Sea — the entire crew was lost. It put everything in perspective. Nobody was whining about the high-tech [bust] anymore.

I just moved from Seattle to Tucson, and although I don’t entirely agree with Stephenson’s comment about Seattle’s grittiness, he nailed the point about interesting people and neighborhoods. Tucson, on the other hand, is vastly more akin New Jersey: endless strip malls and roads until the desert begins. Everything manmade looks pathetic, rundown, and designed to interact with other machines rather than the people who presumably operate said machines. In short, it’s like Snow Crash without the technological wonderful. The designers failed to take into account Jane Jacobs‘ lessons about cars—like many Western cities. Seattle and Portland are the two primary exceptions.

If you’re going to read Stephenson, begin with Cryptonomicon, then go back to the science fiction, and skip the Baroque cycle, which is too much idea and too little story, and what story does exist is sublimated to improbably coincidences and thin dramatizations of debate from that time. But he’s another author so marvelous that his best excuses his worst. Expect to hear more about Anathem.

If that’s not enough Neal Stephenson, see Salon’s fluffy but approving piece, the fuller piece from the L.A. Times, Wired’s preparation guide, and Discover Magazine’s discussion of ends that occurs at the beginning of its review.

The Indian Clerk

In college literature courses I heard and disagreed with endless refrains about the supposed division between the sciences and humanities, while in computer science I heard endless jokes about liberal arts majors’ only job skill being the question, “Would you like fries with that?” I opposed both smug camps, and David Leavitt’s excellent The Indian Clerk is there with me, making art and science equal part of the intellect. The Indian Clerk follows the great self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s time at Cambridge before and during World War I. His curious journey came thanks to G H Hardy, who helped bring him from India to Britain, and over several years the two worked together in numerous areas of math that went over my head when I tried to research them. Leavitt, however, builds a cohesive novel on this unusual partnership.

The novel covers Ramanujan’s stay in England without going much into the hidden genesis of his talent in India. We get the interior life of Hardy; The Indian Clerk is told chiefly from Hardy’s view, and concerns Hardy as much as his nominal subject, who is to me as enigmatic at the end of the novel as the start. In part this is because Hardy is neither interpersonally nor emotionally perspicacious, English/Indian cultural barriers are never fully surmounted, and, in a clever twist on unlike people forced together, mathematician culture emphasizes the quality and quantity of work above other considerations. As told through the fictional Hardy, the culture of mathematicians encourages the necessary but, it is implied, false belief that social culture matters not at all. The epigraph acknowledges the issue: “Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immorality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.” But the story of Ramanujan and Hardy fascinates enough to drive a wonderful novel more for the unprecedented circumstances surrounding their collaboration than for purely technical achievements. To be sure, the former cannot exist without the latter, but it is the latter that most inspires.

Explaining technical and other issues is part of what Hardy, like any scientist or mathematician, must do. Much of the novel concerns the difficulty of relationships and expression, and statements like this early one are common: “Hardy tried to put his position in a language O.B. would understand.” Or, a few pages later, “For [Hardy], goodness was indefinable, yet also fundamental, the only soil in which a theory of ethics could take root. And where did goodness lie? In love and beauty.” Math is what he most often perceives as beautiful, as when he says, “I cannot tell you what pleasure I continue to take, even today, in the beauty of this proof; in the brief yet extraordinary journey it represents, from a seemingly reasonable proposition (that there is a greatest prime) to the inevitable yet utterly unexpected conclusion that the proposition is false.” These passages also demonstrate the myriad of math metaphors explaining the ideas of the characters; it’s a worthy method too infrequently used in novels, and Cryptonomicon’s similar usage made it far more successful.

Still, math is only an aid to understanding the world and not understanding itself. The racism of Hardy’s colleagues against Ramanujan reminds us of prejudices among those in technical fields. It’s facile but true to lament that more people aren’t judged by ability or knowledge rather than appearance, but while I couldn’t help perceiving that idea, Leavitt is far too deft a writer to make banal if true statements in the fashion of Harper Lee. Hardy attacks the discrimination problem like a technical one, and successfully, even when similar approaches fail in other domains. Being a homosexual, Hardy faces problems like Ramanjuan’s, as homosexuals long have in Western society. This makes another parallel is laid between him and Ramanujan. Hardy’s outsider status, both in terms of financial upbringing and sexuality, helps explain his willingness to overlook Ramanujan’s native country and at his math.

The puzzle comes together from multiple sources: Hardy as a younger man, Hardy as an old man, and occasionally from minor characters. This structure suits a novel with historical figures and uncertainty; anyone who wishes to know the end of Hardy or Ramanujan can easily do so just by typing either’s name in a search engine. Leavitt uses a dual structure, with a present-tense timeline beginning in 1913 and a later, past-tense timeline in which Hardy is giving a mostly imaginary lecture at Harvard in 1936. Thus, he incorporates both the rush of events happening as well as the melancholy of things remembered. The things remembered include Britain before the devastation from World War I and Ramanujan before the mystery illness that took his life. The hints of what will happen never go beyond foreshadowing, giving the narrative fresh urgency instead of muted elegy.

The Indian Clerk has tremendous depth that I’ve only accounted for in small part because it is bigger than many critically esteemed works, and I suspect that many critics will try in vain to plumb its depths for a long time to come. Whole sections involving important characters have been left out. The Indian Clerk provides much pleasure and imparts much wisdom, even if too many subplots in the latter half sometimes flatten the effects. But I do not hesitate to call it the best novel published this year, and it is the kind of book that should narrow the artificial, academic rift between science and art. Commentary on both subjects and many others fill it without impeding the action, and one of the larger subjects is uncertainty, as at the end of part three when Hardy says, “One wonders what would have happened had the war not broken out. many wonder this, for all sorts of reasons. There is of course no answer.” It must be a painful thing for a mathematician to exist, especially in an era before or near the time of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorum. Just as it appears that mathematical discoveries will go on forever, so too will attempts to understand great art, of which math is a subset. The Indian Clerk concerns itself with the inability to know what others think and what causes history’s lunatic journey, and that uncertainty, about racism, about the relationship of abstract math to life, about life itself, will keep me interested in The Indian Clerk for a long time.


To learn more see Leavitt’s extensive blogging at The Elegant Variation.

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