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.

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