Cryptonomicon (was Re: [DWJ] Pratchett Convert)--corrected post

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Thu Jul 27 04:27:18 EDT 2006

Ooops.  I sent this before I finished.  This is the complete version.

On Wed, 26 Jul 2006 23:31:16 -0400, Elizabeth Parks wrote:

>Melissa, I'd be fascinated to know what you thought of Cryptonomicon as a
>book, not just a weapon.

I just re-read it a few days ago, and the story of why I did is a large part
of what I think about the book.  I was actually in the middle of another
book and enjoying it very much when for some reason I realized I was
remembering _Cryptonomicon_.  (This was odd because the book I was reading
was about as far removed from it conceptually and textually as anything
could be.)  I thought, "I'd like to read that again."  Then I realized I
wanted to read it again RIGHT NOW.  This led to much farce and merriment as
our copy is on permanent loan to someone else, and I had to drive to two
different libraries to hunt the thing down.  I realize this makes me not
just odd, but possibly a mental case.  All I can say is: you know how
sometimes you get a craving for, say, Nacho Cheese Doritos, and you drive
out to the store at 1 a.m. in your bathrobe, and then you eat the whole bag?
Well, we're both obsessed, but only one of us is now fat.

Reading _Cryptonomicon_ the first time was exhilarating.  Neal Stephenson is
one of those people who can make even the most ordinary happenings of
everyday life interesting to read about.  The book isn't fast paced, and
frequently there are scenes that seem to have nothing to do with the plot,
and I DIDN'T CARE.  I found great pleasure in the fact of reading it,
greater pleasure in an interesting and complicated plot, and deep
satisfaction in the subject matter.  But it's a book that would have been
dense at half the size (918 pages in hardcover, including the appendix) and
there was a lot I didn't get.  I didn't like the modern bits as
much--probably because I really didn't like Randy Waterhouse very much--and
keeping track of all the characters was a strain.  So when I was done, I had
the memory of how pleasurable the act of reading it was, but quickly forgot
all but the broadest details of the plot.

Coming to it the second time, with the entire _Baroque Cycle_ as reference,
I found it a very different experience.  Seeing the Waterhouses and the
Shaftoes of both generations in the light of their ancestors both changed my
understanding of them and made it a lot easier to remember who was who and
why it mattered.  The Waterhouse men all start out as observers of history
and end up being prime movers.  The Shaftoes are all primal forces whose
physicality and cunning are as highly evolved as the Waterhouse brains.
This could seem unrealistic--what family, after all, is *that* inbred as to
produce the same people over and over again?--but I think it's actually an
expression of the larger theme of historical cycles being played out over
time.  The same events keep coming back; why should not the same people
arise to play a part in them?

It's funny you should bring up the women, Lizzie, because I had been
thinking about that topic in particular this time around.  I actually see it
in another way, though: we perceive all the women in this book through the
eyes of the men rather than in their own right.  And the truth is that both
Lawrence and Randy are seriously emotionally constipated.  Their mental
isolation, their self-centeredness, leads them to see women as perpetually
Other.  Amy Shaftoe, for example, clearly *does* have a well-defined
personal life and an identity completely independent of Randy's.  He's even
aware of it, on some level.  But his every interaction with her is filtered
through how it will affect him.  What I find surprising is that Randy's (and
Lawrence's, though we see less of his romantic affairs) near-total solipsism
does not make him an obnoxious git.  Probably it's because he knows he's
lacking in this respect and doesn't try to make a virtue of it.  Bobby
Shaftoe's relationship to Glory is slightly different, probably because his
worldview is the highly focused one of the professional soldier in war.
Glory is the main driving force in their relationship, and later becomes a
freedom fighter, so she really isn't just their for his sexual
pleasure--it's just that, again, we see everything through his eyes.  Using
_The Baroque Cycle_ as another reference point, the same pattern emerges,
but this time we have a female POV to compare it to: Jack Shaftoe's thoughts
about Eliza are almost all in terms of sexuality, and there's even one point
where he's thinking about her almost as a tool or a machine to generate
pleasure for him.  Eliza's own sections give us a completely different view
of her, and it's tempting to think of it as truer.  But they're really both
true, just filtered through different sets of perspectives.  So I think the
female characterization in _Cryptonomicon_ reveals more about how the men
think than about what the women are really like.  (Personally, I like the
idea of Amy Shaftoe as the divine feminine, which in some ways is how Randy
treats her.  If she's cool and aloof and untouchable, it's as a side effect
of the choices she's made, not because there's some intrinsic quality that
makes her this way.)

It's an amazing book.  I don't know many people I can recommend it to; it's
dense, and highly intellectual in places, and there's a lot of strong
language and gory violence.  (Not that it isn't justified or necessary here,
but in the abstract such content is a problem for certain readers.)  I think
my sudden and seemingly irrational need to read it is because it's a unique
reading experience, not easily duplicated by any other book.  And I don't
think Stephenson is trying to make any great statement with it (except,
possibly, Encryption Is Good and Big Encryption Is Better) but I know
something's changed inside my head now that I've read it.

Melissa Proffitt

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