So over on the good Mr. Scalzi’s Whatever, Ty and I were lucky enough to get a chance to post our Big Idea. In the middle of it, as an aside, I included this:
(At this point, Daniel goes on a foaming-at-the-mouth rant about that one part of Cryptonomicon despite the fact that it’s in many ways a fine book and his friends assure him that Neal Stephenson is a perfectly decent human being.)
The Last Neal Stephenson Book Daniel Ever Read
There have been several requests to hear the actual rant, and I can see why folks would be interested. But more than that, I can see how it might actually be useful and interesting. So okay.
First off, I’m going to put in some caveats: Neal Stephenson is a damn good writer. I have gone back and re-read Snow Crash and In the Beginning … was the Command Line more than once. I admire his intelligence and his ambition, and that he lost me as a reader isn’t a reflection on his skill or the result of any kind of failure on his part. It’s about his project as a writer and mine as a reader.
Another caveat: I’m about to spoil the hell out of part of Cryptonomicon. Really. Stephenson did something in the book that was clearly an intentional choice and (I think) clearly signaled what he intended to do, and it’s the issue at hand. If I don’t talk about it in concrete detail, it won’t make much sense.
So. Yeah. All right.
There I was, back in ’99, and I was an utter Neal Stephenson fanboy. I’d read Snow Crash and shared it through with all my friends. I’d reviewed The Diamond Age for my college newspaper. And then here was Cryptonomicon, and it was built out of everything awesome. High drama, cryptography, H. P. Lovecraft references, economics, Godel’s theorem, philosophy, Nazis. I was aching to get my fingers on this book, and I dove into it like it was a swimming pool. I engaged.
If you haven’t read it, the book has an alternating timeline. One story is going on in the present day, the other in 1940s. The 1940s timeline follows a group of people whose job it is to stage plausible events that would explain how the Allies could have found information even if they hadn’t broken Enigma (because if they knew things that they could *only* know by having broken Enigma, then the Nazis would know they’d broken Enigma). It was tense and fascinating and it turned all my dials up to 11.
And then there was this one part.
I haven’t gone back to look at this in over a decade now. I don’t really know how much of this is supported by the text and how much is my own fallible memory. But here’s what I recall. If you’ve read it more recently, you can correct me where I’ve strayed.
So we have a character — Bobby Shaftoe — who knows that Enigma’s been compromised. He’s been captured, and is in a Nazi U-boat. And he’s a morphine addict in the early stages of withdrawal. And the whole Allied fleet is trying to sink the U-boat to keep him from spilling the beans about Enigma. And the Allies have convinced the Nazis that the U-boat has actually been seized and the crew replaced by Allied submariners, so the *Nazis* are trying to sink the U-boat too. And Bobby Shaftoe’s in the brig with the Nazi captain — the fate of the world in the balance — when the chapter ends.
Now you have to imagine me reading this, right? I’m hunched over the book. I’m blowing off my assignments for class. I’m taking it with me to work to sneak in a few pages in the slow times. The next chapter is the present-day one, and I’m going through page by page, knotted with suspense until I get to the next Bobby Shaftoe chapter.
Where he’s in Holland, in bed with this blonde woman we’ve never met before, and the resolution of all that narrative tension I was feeling? Yeah, we covered that with an expository flashback.
Neal Stephenson isn’t a stupid man. I believe he knew what he was doing when he built up those — very standard, very genre, naive even — narrative expectations and then didn’t follow the traditional path that they led down. I understood that this was a signal that the novel wasn’t a standard narrative — not even a wildly baroque and powerfully intelligent one. I got the point. Intellectually.
How I felt was stupid. And yeah, a little humiliated.
Because, y’see, I was that naive genre reader. I was the sucker who’d actually taken it seriously. I’d gotten excited by this silly, over-the-top scenario. I hadn’t seen the wink, and so I was exposed as the silly, unsophisticated reader who’d actually thought he was reading that kind of book.
I don’t think Stephenson set out to cultivate contempt for his reader — by which I mean me — but that was my experience. After that, I appreciated his writing and his intelligence, but I wasn’t going to be so silly and gauche as to actually *care* anymore. And I haven’t.
I want to like Neal Stephenson’s books. I really do admire his ambition and the depth of commitment he has for his projects. He’s hellishly smart, and the work he’s doing is made of everything I want to read. But I haven’t picked up anything after Cryptonomicon because we have different opinions about story and about sentiment.
The project he’s engaged with isn’t — or at least wasn’t — something that had room for emotional engagement, and I have emotionally disengaged from his body of work. I feel that Cryptonomicon is a Fuzzy Bunny book where we’re all supposed to be laughing, albeit with a very intellectual and sophisticated kind of laughter. What I thought was a story was conceptual humor. Or not humor. Wit.
When I want a story, I go places where I feel safe caring about the characters. When I want intellectual stimulation, I read non-fiction. And, honestly, it’s a freaking shame, because I ought to love this guy.