Tag Archives: Neal Stephenson

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (Penguin 2013)

0143125753I came to Bleeding Edge prepared to be baffled and intimidated, as I had been by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 more than three decades ago. W S Gilbert pretty much nailed my response to those books: ‘If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me, / Why, what a very singularly deep young man / this deep young man must be!’

Well, neither Thomas Pynchon nor I are young any more, and if there’s any bafflement in Bleeding Edge, it’s less of the intimidating too-deep-for-me variety than the mildly irritating I’ve-never-heard-of-yet-another-US–brand-name/alcoholic-beverage / pop-culture-figure kind, with quite a bit of Who-was-that-character-again? thrown in.

It’s a New York novel whose action begins in spring 2001 and ends soon after Christmas that year. That is to say, it’s set in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble burst and includes the destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001. The main character, Maxine Tarnow, a wisecracking fraud investigator, Jewish mother of two, is drawn into a network of elaborate intrigues involving denizens of the Deep Web, Silicon Alley mavens, characters who may or may not be part of the Russian Mafia, a super-secret CIA-type agents who may have foreknowledge of the events of 11 September, ruthless neo-liberal working for (or against?) the government funnelling money to the Middle East, to help either terrorists or anti-terrorists, and more. There are murders, gritty-comedic sex scenes, and a lot of New York.

The writing is tough-guy witty. The marshalling of period detail – often in list form – is awesome. The invented period details (such as a running list of improbable movies, including a version of Don Giovanni featuring the Marx Brothers) offer bursts of delight. It doesn’t matter that it’s all a little familiar, that I felt I could stop reading at any point without more than a twinge of regret. Think of a Stephanie Plum adventure in a Neal Stephenson universe, with product placement by post–Pattern Recognition William Gibson, an occasional touch of magic realism to save inventing plausible plot devices, and one or two science-fictional gestures that don’t lead to anything much. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that any of the plot amounts to anything much. One person dies, or does he? A plot is revealed, but exactly what was it? There’s clear filmed evidence of another plot, but again (spoiler alert) we never find out what the evidence means. Revenge is taken on the main villain, but does he even notice?

Maybe I should add Seinfeld to the list of people who make this book feel familiar: for all its vast piling up of incident, its huge cast of characters, and its frequent insights into the times we live in, it wouldn’t be completely inaccurate to describe it as a novel where nothing happens. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light

Frank Moorhouse, Cold Light (Vintage 2011)

This book came highly recommended by what seemed like the whole world, and I can see what people admire, even enjoy about it.

It’s a rare thing, a novel whose main character lives consciously and deliberately as part of the great historical narrative of her time. Edith Campbell Berry engages with ideas, faces political realities, and tries to wield influence to make things better. In the first chapters she has returned to Australia in the early 1950s. She has a hand in the design of Canberra – in fact, her intervention seems to be crucial to the decision to go ahead with Walter and Marion Griffin’s plan for a lake. Through her brother and his partner she is a close-up witness to the Communist Party’s response to Bob Menzies’ failed attempt to ban it, and then to Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin and the invasion of Hungary. She dines at Menzies’ table, and chats with Whitlam soon after his election in 1972. She works with the International Atomic Energy Agency and is again close to the action when secrets about the English atomic tests in Western Australia leak out. At her death she is a special envoy in the Middle East for the Whitlam government.

But Edith is no cardboard cutout. Through all these years, she has to contend with assumptions that women’s place is not among those wielding power. Failing to gain official positions, she bluffs her way past public service obstacles and procedures, works her connections, takes advantage of gossip that she is some kind of spy. Her sexual experiences, and sexual might-have-beens, are unconventional and complex. Possibly the most attractive thing about the writing is the sense that Frank Moorhouse is discovering things about her as the novel progresses. Ambrose, Edith’s husband at the start of the book and the love of her life, is a transvestite, and I couldn’t resist the notion that this is a metaphor for the way the author slips into Edith’s skin and clothes – including on occasion her underclothes. Be that as it may, there’s a strong sense of Edith as someone Frank admires and loves, someone who exists independently of him. I didn’t need to be told that there was a real woman somewhere in the background (as Frank told Stephen McCarty at Ubud and on Slow TV a while back – it’s towards the end of the clip). It does feel at the end of the book that one has read the story of a life lived for its own sake and not to enact a writer’s world view. That’s really something.

But, you know, I can’t say I enjoyed the book. It’s the third volume of a trilogy and maybe I should have read the other two books first. As it was, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of recapping, an awful lot of ‘As you know, Bob’. I expect that if I’d read the other books, these would have been less irritating, and I might have had greater tolerance for Edith’s frequent ruminations because of a clearer sense of them perhaps as charting her mental journey. She ruminates on on her ideal capital city, on the nature of love, on the lessons to be learned from the League of Nations. I’ve got nothing against ruminations, but I couldn’t find anything wise, witty or provocative in Edith’s – I don’t think I’ve ever been so bored in a book that I still wanted to keep reading.

And then there was the sense that Moorhouse had done a huge amount of research and couldn’t bear to let some of it go even though it didn’t quite serve the story. I’ve got nothing against info dumps: my love of Neal Stephenson is partly due to the way he drops in great wads of information, and if Barbara Hambly’s Free Man of Color groans under the weight of her research into the New Orleans society of its time, it is the groaning of a table laden for a feast. But for whatever reason – perhaps because Moorhouse often presents his information as a character’s reveries or as even less plausible conversations – I wondered if the Readers Digest Condensed Version might be a better book. There’s an extremely poignant moment a bit past the novel’s midpoint, where Edith and Ambrose have parted, perhaps forever. And just as she – and the reader – have a moment to absorb the full import of the event, along comes this conversation with her driver:

‘How long will it take the Major to reach London?’ he asked, making conversation.
‘About fifty hours, plus the time from Canberra to Sydney.’
‘Many stops?’
‘Darwin – Singapore – Calcutta– Karachi – Cairo – Rome. I’d rather not talk, Theo.’
‘Of course, ma’am.’

Your mileage may differ, and I hope it does, but for me that was a case Frank the Irritating Researcher interrupting Frank the Passionate Story-teller. When Edith returned to her reverie, the moment for this reader had been lost.

I didn’t hate the book. I did learn from it. I do admire it. I’m glad I read it. It was a slog.

Neal Stephenson’s Reamde

Neal Stephenson, Reamde (William Morrow / Atlantic Books 2011)

At 1044 pages, this is to a normal novel what The Wire or The Sopranos is to a feature film. Characters who loom large in the first couple of hundred pages are killed as summarily as any TV character whose actor has had a better offer. New characters turn up who come from whole other continents. Plot strands that appeared to be central are apparently resolved after a mere 350 pages, and, to mash my metaphors a bit, other strands arise from the ashes and shards that remain of them. As the action moves to a new location, that location is described in loving detail, usually over a couple of pages. Yet, with all those shifts of direction and detailed evocations of place, the narrative stays gripping.

Neal Stephenson is the man who raised the info-dump to the level of an art form. In the climactic battle scene, for instance, when two sets of jihadists are shooting it out with a heterogeneous collection of good guys, he pauses to notice that when machine-gun bullets hit the walls of a log cabin, the freshly exposed wood shows up starkly blond against the weathered outside wood. And elsewhere in the same battle, a character has time to reflect that one’s mental functions are less sharp when one is burning fat than when burning carbs. But there are none of the spectacular digressions of earlier books – no lectures on Babylonian mythology, nanotechnology, computer cryptography, advanced mathematics, or the fashions of the court of Charles the Second of England.

If you haven’t read any Neal Stephenson, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this. Snow Crash is a fabulous cyberspace thriller; Cryptonomicon goes deep into Second World War cryptography and modern electronic security; The Diamond Age is set in a world where nanotechnology is achieving wonders, yet has at its heart a book for small children (and a small child who reads it); The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) is a rollicking picaresque novel and also a fictionalised account of the dawn of capitalism, the Enlightenment and the scientific age. Compared to any of them, Reamde is just a thriller.

But it’s wonderful, improbable fun. You can get an idea of the plot from this little ‘story so far’ passage from page 827 (you need to know that T’Rain is a massively popular and profitable multi-user internet game, and it may help to know that Seamus is a semi-disgraced but still potent US secret operative and ‘these three’ are all in their early 20s and not generally inclined to risky living):

Seamus had no idea what level of precautions was appropriate here. Apparently these three had left half of the surviving population of China seriously pissed off at them, as well as making mortal enemies with a rogue, defrocked Russian organised crime figure. In their spare time they had stolen money from millions of T’Rain players, created huge problems for a large multinational corporation that owned the game, and, finally – warming to the task – mounted a frontal attack on al-Qaeda.

I confess that my enthusiasm was beginning to flag in the prolonged climactic battle, where not a lot was happening besides stuff blowing up and people shooting at each other, but generally this was an excellent summer, even all-of-summer, read. And what if my teetering To Be Read pile is calling me to  a world history of genocide, a revisionist account of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the next Book Group title? Neal Stephenson is a major Guilty Pleasure, and I am unrepentant.

Anathem, Heavy

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (Atlantic Books 2008)
14f4541I approached this book with enthusiasm (based on my love of everything by Neal Stephenson I’ve ever read) tempered with guilt (is it the best use of my time to read a 900 page science fiction novel?) and resentment (surely he could have told his story in fewer pages than that, and given us something not quite so heavy to lug around). Three hundred pages later, resentment was a dim memory, guilt had faded to irrelevance, and enthusiasm was transformed into something like exhilaration.

Imagine a cross between Harry Potter and The Name of the Rose, with a substantial dash of A Brief History of Time thrown in, and the faintest possible hint of The Da V*nci Code. A group of adolescent (that is, awfully earnest but also charmingly naughty) members of an religious order set out to solve a mystery, not of a murder but of an invasion from outer space, and uncover a secret conspiracy that’s thousands of years old – only it’s not a religious order exactly, but a vast enclosed community devoted to reason, debate and theoeticcal (theoric in the world of the novel); it’s oversimplifying to say that the invasion is from outer space, and the conspiracy … well, I’m not sure I quite grasped what was going on there, something you could never say about D*n Brown’s plots). There’s maths, there’s physics, there’s philosophy, all redolent of what we know on earth but twisted into new and strange shapes. There are space ninjas (sort of), time travel (sort of), 7000 years worth of back story, and more diverging alternative realities than you can poke a Diana Wynne Jones at. In fact, just when you think you’ve got the measure of this book, it does some kind of athletic sault (oh yes, it makes you want to do that sort of thing to language) and you’re casting about for a new measuring device. The sheer energy of Neal Stephenson’s mind is amazing. His erudition is matched only by his playfulness. His acknowledgements page more or less wrings its hands, says there’s not enough room, and refers the interested reader to 4700 words or so on the web. He can make a fifty-page conversation about the philosophical idea of multiple cosmi not just readable, but fun, though I confess that in that part of the book I was occasionally tempted to skip. But it’s hard to skip when the text is so thick with invention he coins the term Artificial Inanity to describe something that sounds very like spam, for example, and one of his ‘aliens’ says incomprehensibly alien things such as  ‘say zhoost’ to signify agreement or ‘monyafeek’ to express admiration. For those who enjoy an in joke, the marvellously long-lived Enoch Root, a character from earthbound novels Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, makes an appearance here – he has a different name, but there was no mistaking him.

I marked this passage at about the half way mark, just because I liked it. Interestingly, I think it comes close to articulating what the book, beneath all the prolixity, the explosions and the mind boggling theorics, is about:

Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organisations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will behind this; not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them.