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Inventory: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

February 29, 2012

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
The dude abides.
Status: Limited release in DC area only.

“INHERENT VICE” IS the Pynchon book I was the least interested in reading, and the one I flat out enjoyed the most.

Late-60s California surfer noir (on weed) is not really my thing, or so I thought.  Even a YouTube video featuring the famously reclusive author speaking as the book’s lead character Doc Sportello, who describes himself as “a private gum shoe…or nowadays more like gum sandal,” didn’t catch my interest. I went to the book reluctantly, and it turned out to be well worth the read.

“Vice” is a shorter novel, and not one of Pynchon’s 500+ page picaresques. The obvious comparison is to “The Crying of Lot 49,” but “Vice” has more substance on its story and more to care about in his characters. Pynchon paints the transition into the 1970s as a lost era of innocent hedonism, a time when the last stragglers at a long party — pushed as far West as they can go, and waiting as long as they possibly can — come up against the hard knowledge that the party is ending. It’s silly, heavy, and at times heartfelt, with plenty of Pynchon’s standard ingredients of odd conspiracies, strangely dangerous rock bands, mysticism, technology and even a little sexual dominance (but just a little).

The man does a really good weird detective novel.

Do you want to trade paperbacks?


Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
> Zero Cool.
Status: Available.

I’VE HEARD NEAL STEPHENSON’S NAME MENTIONED alongside writers like Pynchon and David Foster Wallace a few times, especially in reference to his 1999 novel “Cryptonomicon.” The book is a long, intricately plotted story following an ensemble cast through multiple, interwoven narratives, and Stephenson isn’t afraid of explicit writing about sex, science, violence, history, math or technology. Not to mention that he can also be really funny. The story is less challenging and, ironically, less cryptic than anything I’ve come across from DFW or TP, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and Stephenson withstands the comparison.

From its name, its gray on black artwork and the cruciform designs on its cover, I assumed “Cryptonomicon” was going to be about something more fantastical and occult. It’s not; the closest thing to magic here is the card-based role-playing game happening in the background of a meeting between hackers. The hackers in question would likely just be called computer programmers today, but in the late 1990s they were guys who knew how to program UNIX machines to do things the government and corporations were concerned about, or outright afraid of. “Cryptonomicon” is set right at the point when guys like these were gaining legitimacy, and huge paydays, but are still on the fringes of most things having to do with society.  One of the “hackers,” Randy Waterhouse, is working with a number of other eccentrics to establish a data haven on a fictional island in the South Pacific, roughly the equivalent of legally immune Swiss banks, but for information. Other reasons for the project are revealed as events progress.

When we’re not in the late 90s, we’re following a handful of globe-trotting characters during World War II. The chapters alternate between Randy, the American Marine Bobby Shaftoe having adventures in the Pacific theater of the war, a Japanese engineer, a rogue Catholic priest/mercenary, and Allied Forces code breaker Lawrence Waterhouse — Randy’s grandfather and the man charged with deciphering Japanese and German codes, then figuring out how to use them without revealing to the enemy that their codes are broken.  Things gets really interesting when it becomes clear why the various narratives are connected.

“Cryptonomicon” could have stood to lose some pages, and when writing about Bobby Shaftoe, who provides an almost slapstick style of comic relief in some of his scenes, Stephenson let’s his “Catch-22” influence show a little bit too often. But there’s no place where the story drags, which is saying a lot for a 900 page book.

Do you want to trade paperbacks?

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