Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review: Cryptonomicon (1999)

I have finished Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.

And no, no one gave me a cookie.

To fully appreciate the magnitude of my accomplishment, you have to understand my brain. It regulates everything I do -- sleeping, breathing, eating, making random comments, and writing snarky reviews. Like yours, my neurons number in the hundred billions and obediently transmit electrochemical signals. Like you, I have a reptilian brain that (perhaps unlike you) allows me to stare unblinkingly into people's eyes while I wrack my computer for inappropriate responses that will maximize the other person's confusion and my amusement, which are directly proportionate. Finally, like you, I have no idea where I am going with this paragraph.

Oh, I remember: math and my brain do not mix. And Cryptonomicon, which protagonizes* the Nerd, contains a metric ton of mathematics. Stephenson has two timelines and three main good guys/narrators: codebreaker Lawrence, his programmer grandson Randy, and the Marine Bobby Shaftoe. Lawrence and Bobby are in the WWII timeline, which alternates with Randy's present day (circa 1999) narrative. And, you guessed it, both time periods merge into a stunning and creamily delicious epilogue sure to satisfy your hunger for elegant thematic impact.

In the same way that the reverse timeline in Memento is a mind-blowing gimmick, the mathematics in Cryptonomicon indicate a severely impressive writing style. So much loving care and attention is devoted to the illustrations of how to break/create codes that you almost forget the basic plot: (a) Axis powers hide gold during WWII; (b) gold is found in present day. The beauty of the book is all the layers and storylines and characters and batshit crazy stuff that happens between Point A and Point B. Stephenson is a master of incredibly quirky descriptive language -- in one instance, a more prosaic writer would have just inserted, "Everyone was quiet," but Stephenson spends pages and pages describing the extremely organic and noisy makeup of the human body just to get the point across that the person speaking to the entire room in that scene is Very Important. And in the most hilarious chapter of all (Organ), Lawrence, a genius-level nerd, invents his very own code for social behavior and speech patterns for the noble goal of "f***ing Mary," his future wife. The second most hilarious chapter contains rapid calculations of speed, distance, and time that makes a point about obsessive male behavior involving females.

Speaking of females, it's nice that all of Stephenson's major women characters are either strong/dignified, strong/heavily armed, or strong/snarky. We only see them through the lens of the lead male characters, which makes the men more fully developed at the expense of the women. But that's okay; we need to be mysterious anyway. The easier to implement our secret plans for world domination! MWAHAHAHA!!! ...which I'll get to as soon as I finish waxing my legs. Also, I just saw something pink flutter by my peripheral vision; infiltrating male-dominated governments and multinationals will just have to wait until I hunt it down. I hope it's something I can wear.

Finally, let me say that if you're looking for a PG-13 reading experience, Cryptonomicon is not for you. All of the book's leads are horny as hell and it gets worse when their targeting devices home in on a desirable female. I now have unwelcome insights into the workings of the young-ish adult male, thank you very much. Poor, innocent me.

For further reading, here is a review of Cryptonomicon by someone who likes Atlas Shrugged, which I read and took seriously until I got to the part about the force field. Then I spent the rest of the book cracking up.

If anyone would like to reward me for reading Cryptonomicon, I also accept brownies. And dinner.

* protagonize, v., to turn into a protagonist (Nicole Super English Dictionary, 2011. Entry added into Dictionary following essay, "Antagonist is to Antagonize as Protagonist is to Nothing: Moralistic Subcultures and Why 'Protagonist' Also has the Right to be a Verb," Presumptuous Press, 2010)

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