February 15th, 2013
I should perhaps start by saying that Cryptonomicon probably isn’t a book I would have picked up on my own. I’d heard good things about it, and all my friends on Goodreads who have rated this book either liked it or really liked it (four gave it five stars, two gave it four stars, and one gave it three stars), but there wasn’t anything that made me think that I would necessarily really like it. But then my boyfriend gave me a copy for Christmas (it’s one of his favorite books) because we were planning a trip to Manila (I had to go for work; he decided to come along for fun), and chunks of the book are set there. He was re-reading it while I was reading it, which was pretty excellent: one of this book’s big strengths, for me, is the humor, and it was nice to have someone to share funny lines with.
Another strength of the book is its structure: it jumps around in time between the years before and during WWII and the late 1990s, and follows the intersecting stories of several characters/families of characters. There’s Bobby Shaftoe, a haiku-composing Marine who’s stationed in Shanghai at the book’s start. There’s Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a socially clueless math-and-organ-playing prodigy who’s friends with Alan Turing and becomes a cryptanalyst during the war (and invents a computer). There’s Goto Dengo, a Japanese soldier with a knack for poetry and engineering, who becomes unlikely friends with Bobby Shaftoe. There’s Randy Waterhouse, Lawrence’s grandson, who’s a little less socially clueless but definitely a computer nerd, and who happens to meet and fall for Amy Shaftoe, Bobby’s granddaughter, who runs a marine services company in the Philippines with her father, which entails sonar scans, laying submarine cable, and diving for treasure. The shifting focus of the narratives and the way everything/everyone comes together is pretty satisfying, and the other pleasing thing about the structure is how much is in it besides straight narrative and dialogue: there are haiku, decoded messages, emails, and mathematical problems/digressions, along with occasional diagrams.
All those stories and all those things, though, make for a sprawling book, and sometimes Cryptonomicon was a slog for me. I think most of it was the characters: it bothered me, after a while, that basically all the main characters are dudes, and the women in the story are basically all relatives of the men or love-interests of the men. There are a few exceptions—the company Randy’s part of has a female partner (though she gets less time in the story than any of the other stakeholders of the company) and a female secretary (who’s kind of an intentional token character). I’m pretty sure that this book does not pass the Bechdel test. I don’t normally think of myself as wanting/needing significant female characters in order to really like a book—I mean, I’m not a gender essentialist/I don’t actually believe in a gender binary—but here it irked me. I think it was partly to do with the ensemble nature of the story/structure: if I’m reading a book that’s told through first-person narration, or even is a narrative centered around a single person, I don’t necessarily care if that person is a man or a woman or whatever. But if I’m getting a story that alternates its center/shifts its focus, but somehow keeps focusing on people who are dudes, that grates a bit. My other problem with the book was that sometimes Stephenson’s style veers close to over-written: there are moments when it seems fully intentional and therefore works for me: there’s a great moment in a chapter focused on Lawrence that takes a metaphor too far in a way that’s somehow totally apt: there’s talk about how when he crosses the street in London he can’t remember which way the traffic is coming from, which “diverts his train of thought onto a siding, much to the disturbance of its passengers and crew” (143-144). But then there are sentences like this, which kind of makes me want to grind my teeth: “The sun has made a long, skidding crash-landing along the Malay Peninsula a few hundred kilometers west, breaking open and spilling its thermonuclear fuel over about half of the horizon, trailing out a wall of salmon and magenta clouds that have blown a gash all the way through the shell of the atmosphere and erupted into space” (pp 890-891).
Still, those complaints aside, I’m glad to have read this and liked it more than not; I’m even kind of pondering reading Quicksilver, another book by Stephenson, after I finish my TBR Double Dog Dare.