2.24.2007

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

For the past few weeks, I've been making my way through Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. If you've seen a copy, it's a mammoth book. It's also a meandering book. There are three main plot threads, and a fourth creeps in half way through the book.

Essentially, this book--as you can probably guess from the title--is about cryptography. Two of the three threads take place during World War II. One follows a marine who participates in the Double Cross System, which helped keep the Nazis from finding out that their secure code system had been broken. Another thread follows a mathematician who worked for the Ultra program and for Double Cross. The third thread follows the descendents of the World War II characters. (I've since found out that The Baroque Cycle of novels follows the ancestors of the Cryptonomicon characters.)

The first two plot threads involve Shaftoe and Waterhouse's attempts to keep Ultra, and the fact that they've cracked their codes, a secret. What fascinates me about these plot threads is how elaborate Ultra's safeguards were. While the allies would use the intelligence they got from the Ultra transcripts, they did everything they could to make the Nazis think that they got their information from other sources. They'd send up spotter planes, or send thank you notes to non-existent spies, and all sorts of other things.

The last plot thread involves a latter-day Waterhouse's project to create a data haven in the Pacific. I'm not as interested in this thread as I am in the WWII threads, but I will admit that I'm interested to see how it all links together.

All that ties these characters together is their involvement with cryptography, information, and secrets. Well, and their ancestry. But other than that, it seems like two books got shuffled together. Granted, I haven't finished the book yet, and I have to hope that the connections will be revealed.

2.16.2007

House of Leaves again

Even though I never managed to finish House of Leaves, I am still fascinated by this novel. I've never seen a book before that managed to actually exploit its textuality. Any way, the Table of Malcontents post I saw today really sums up what it's like to read HOL:

If you haven't read House of Leaves, the plot is complicated to describe, as it is tiered through multiple narrators of varying degrees of sanity in the form of an endless, nearly stream-of-conscious series of clippings, manuscripts and footnotes.
It's not really the plot that keeps this novel going--though that's pretty interesting, too. It's trying to figure out what's really going on and how sane the characters really are.

The Table of Malcontents post also has a great image of one of the pages, demonstrating how hard this sucker is to get through.

Via Blog of a Bookslut.

2.04.2007

Possession, Part II

I am about mid-way through Possession now and am still holding on--though I'll admit that I've started to skip over the excepted pieces of poetry and critical essays. The story part is still very interesting. It's not a very exciting read, I'll admit, but it's a very different kind of love story.

One of the things I'm enjoying the most about this book is that it is also a critique of modern literary scholarship. Last time I mentioned the absurdity of what scholars write about and read into their subjects. This time I want to comment on something that one of the characters said. The character, Fergus Wolff--a scumbucket with a better vocabulary--wondered angrily about the point of what they do. He reads "dead letters by dead people" (my paraphrase). Truth to tell, the vast majority of people couldn't care less about literary scholarship. So why do literary scholars write? Sure some write to stay in academia (for whatever reason), but there has to be a deeper reason to stay in a profession that is poorly paid and highly competitive.

I think it's because literary criticism is, in part, a search for meaning and, maybe, truth. When I was an undergraduate working on a literature degree, I started to think of novels and plays and poems as petri dishes, where the author would throw characters and setting and situations together just to see what would happen. (I always thought this was especially true of Shakespeare.) I saw literature as a safe way to do human behavioral experimentation and the psychology of the text was what interested me the most.

My favorite works to write about were any of the variations of the Faust myth: Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, Shelley's Frankenstein, etc. What drew me to those works was the moral and ethical dilemmas that the characters wrestled with. Maybe it's because I am a dropout from Christianity and have had to find my own moral compass, but watching those characters and thinking deeply about their motivations had profound meaning for me.

I don't know if it's true for every scholar, that they find a story that speaks to them and that they can listen to and think about for years, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that most literary critics continually return to the same author or the same work over and over again.