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Musing on Books
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stepheson, Avon, 1999, 27.50
Let me say two things up front. First, before I picked up Hannibal the only experience I'd had with Thomas Harris was through the movie Silence of the Lambs, which, as it turns out, was an artful and intelligent adaptation of a very, very good police procedural. It featured the compelling, fascinating, and disturbing performances of Anthony Hopkins as Lecter and Jodie Foster as the young woman, Clarice Starling, who is forced to surrender her life, in bits and pieces, as barter for another's.
Second: I do not read slasher books. I read very little horror, and in particular the gorefests in which deaths of loving description and grotesque ingenuity abound are anathema, not on moral grounds but on aesthetic ones: If it starts to read like a medical list of body parts, I have the same emotional attachment to the text as I would to -Gray's Anatomy. This perhaps makes me the wrong audience for the book itself (I actually had no less than five people tell me I had no right, as a reader, to review this particular book---), and perhaps my review will not be relevant to readers who have more appreciation for certain horror tropes than I.
Because the performances of the two actors mentioned above were so compelling, I started Hannibal as if it were a sequel to the movie, flipped it open, started to read, and was completely lost. After I finished it, I went back and read Silence of the Lambs, rewatched the movie and compared it with the book, and then read the less relevant Red Dragon, in which Lecter makes his first, sketchy appearance. Both Silence and Dragon have in common the structure of a police procedural. Hannibal does not.
In some ways, Hannibal is more of a sequel to the movie than it is to the novel. In the novel, Clarice Starling took from the screaming of the lambs one fragile element of hope: the pony on the farm. She rode it to the orphanage; she saved it from the death the ranch offered. She was turned out of the last refuge she had for doing so, but the pony lived, a symbol of possible healing.
Compare this with the movie, in which Hannibal Lecter makes clear that she failed to save anything. She picked up a lamb; it was heavy. She ran with it, thinking if she could just save one thing . . . but all that remains from that single night in which the lambs were screaming as they were butchered is the bitter memory of failure and the frenzied need to obviate that failure by saving something. Clarice Starling, the representative of decency and the character with whom the reader/watcher most identifies, still feels those psychological scars strongly. And who wouldn't? Who hasn't felt helpless in a situation in which greater strength of power might have saved the day?
Hold that thought, and move forward ten years, from the precise police procedural of Silence to the very different terrain of Hannibal.
Far from basking in the light of her previous success, agent Clarice Starling has fallen on hard times because of her inability to play bureaucratic, political games. The few friends she has always had in the bureau are on the outs, and the man who has been, if not a father, then a father figure---the legendary Jack Crawford---is looking retirement in the face.
When a drug bust goes dangerously, terribly---and far worse, publicly---wrong, the bureau needs a scapegoat, and Starling, reeling from the impact of that bust and plastered across the nation's tabloids, has concentric circles all but painted across her perfect forehead. She knows it, but she's never gone down without a fight.
Agent Paul Krendler, self-important chauvinist, is back and makes her life hell as a superior in the bureau. He is, at best, a cardboard cut out. He teams up with a man named Mason---the only one of Lecter's victims to actually survive---(and an equally unconvincing character; all of the characters that surround Mason, with the single exception of Barney, the only nurse/attendant who was considerate enough about security during Lecter's imprisonment that he met with Lecter's approval, are walking cliches; you can practically see the strings move) and they attempt, between them, to trap Hannibal Lecter. Krendler is in a position to offer as bait the only thing it is known for certain that Lecter maintains a fascination with: Clarice Starling. Mason is willing to use that bait because he wants revenge. His massive fortune allows him to run a hotline that takes in and checks out all tips about the whereabouts of Hannibal Lecter, and when a good, solid tip comes in, he sends out his hired help to catch Lecter; their failure leaves Starling as the only option. This section almost sinks the book; it's over the top in a garish way that serves only to drag Lecter from one place to another---and I wish that Harris had just used a boat or aeroplane instead. I have out of kindness neglected to mention the man-eating pigs trained by the hired assassins.
This sounds harsh; it is. But . . . it didn't stop me from reading the book. Because whenever Harris turns hand or pen---and word---to Hannibal Lecter or Clarice Starling, the book sings. From the opening letter that Lecter sends to Starling through various remailers, in which he speaks to her sense of profound failure by invoking an equally profound dignity, through the scenes in which, room by room, Harris leads us into the heart of Lecter's "Memory Palace," right up to the final set of scenes in which they're both hunters and hunted, there's a richness to language and image that speaks of older, wilder things.
Having discovered that dedication doesn't make a difference in her world, Starling is looking at a bleak future. The morally correct world of law enforcement has been tarnished by the banality of politics and ambition; men who should know---who do know---what she's faced are willing to sell her in order to save themselves. Not only does Harris deprive Starling of the easy straight and narrow, but he finally allows Hannibal Lecter to share the memories that are at the foundation of his compelling and revolting career. To ask whether or not the motivation is psychologically convincing is almost to miss the point: Hannibal Lecter is not a man. He's a fictional deity, a person who---on screen---has been incapable of making a mistake or of losing control of the situations in which he deigns to involve himself. He is not a man we love to hate; he is a personified force to which we are uneasily drawn, as Clarice herself has always been.
Both Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter are survivors. But they are survivors who, at a point in their lives, were helpless before the onslaught of men who kill for food. For Clarice, peace has been bought by saving victims. And for Hannibal? It's clear that he grew quickly to identify with the hunters and not the hunted; it is less clear that there is any peace in that growth.
Damaged, both people reflect their past; the veneer of the mundane, civil world shows cracks long before they meet again in the pages of Hannibal. In the psychological forest in which Lecter's palace stands, "good" is just another form of scarring. We all start out as babes with no concept of morals or ethics, and clearly Harris believes that the ethics that we as a civilized society do prize are developed at cost and through the same fires that forge a much darker set of characteristics.
This point is the one thing that makes the novel disturbing in a way that its predecessor wasn't. In that book, Starling was the person with whom we identified. Although the psychology of her past was explored, there was never any question about her. She was the person who struggled---as we all do---to do the right thing in an imperfect world.
She is less than that here, and more than that. Harris has crossed the line between evoking reality and playing with archetype; he is telling us a story, a fabulist tale, about monsters in dark places who are still looking---in as much as they are capable---for justice.
The end of Hannibal is not what I expected, and I honestly wasn't certain how I felt about it for almost a week afterward. Ultimately, I chose to accept it for what it is: a twisted, incestuous, and compelling read throughout which the dark heart of Beauty and the Beast can be found, beating loudly.
Cynicism has become synonymous with intelligence; optimism must be displayed with a certain elan and a smallness of scale that makes it unthreatening and undemanding. Nobody who is hip is earnest or idealistic.
And nobody is more hip these days than Neal Stephenson. He has been on the cover of Wired. He writes the highly fashionable and incisively humorous future fiction that has justifiably garnered praise. He has been called the successor to William Gibson by more people than I can probably count in my spare time.
And Cryptonomicon is the book that a hip person with a strong streak of idealism would write. Well, a hip person with an arresting command of language, a keen eye for the way people relate to each other, a subtle sense of structure, and a sense of humor that never sidles into slapstick.
The book is slow to start. Stephenson is no minimalist. His language is rich, his descriptions arresting; he makes no attempt at invisible prose---and why should he? He's aware of media, and his medium; when you're as good as he is, there is no reason to dissemble. Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is a compulsive man with a genius for mathematical equation and formulae and an inability to interact with the world around him otherwise; Bobby Shaftoe is a US Marine whose life will be informed in every way by the work Waterhouse does, although he is in the end to see very little of him. They begin with the game of war and the game of codemaking and codebreaking; the story will take their grandchildren Randy Waterhouse, the quintessential computer geek, and Amy Shaftoe, salvage expert in training, to finish.
Bridging the generations are two men, Enoch Root and Goto Dengo; Dengo's secrets lie at the heart of the mystery, although Enoch's secrets---which remain partially hidden from the reader by book's end----are certainly the root that seems most likely to lead into the future that Stephenson has said in interviews elswhere exists in the universe of Cryptonomicon. Enoch Root was part of the special war-time division that was created to keep the Nazis from realizing that their precious war-time codes had been cracked by the obsessive on-the-edge of sane men who people the Crypto division. But it wasn't Nazis alone who were involved; the Japanese were also using a coding system of their own to communicate with their allies, and it is these communications that are crucial.
Starting before World War II, and ending in a very near future, Stephenson traverses the boundaries of time, generation, and geography. Cutting between the distinct periods of past and present, Stephenson builds a fellowship of geeks; people who are compulsive about data, structures, secrecy---codes. People who live on the fringes of their own society, in the midst of different kinds of war. Is this book, strictly speaking, SF? No, not if you plan on starting and stopping here. But in that it sets up the future that Stephenson has spoken of, it's the beginning of a speculative work on a grand scale, and its relevant to the genre's readers for that reason.
There is a Tolkienesque substructure to the whole; a sly nod and an homage to a man whose magnum opus, for better or worse, defined the mythic or heroic quest for the past half-century. It's interesting; so many writers who are not working in what is thought of as the Tokienesque vein are nonetheless grappling with the legacy of reading his work at an early age, of being influenced and moved by it, of believing in it on some level that seems---at a remove---to be unfairly naïve.
We've outgrown our belief in the heroic. We've come face to face with the banality of every day life, with the practiced lies that are politic and political, with the struggle for power in every institution, no matter how theoretically venerable and above these things they should be. We're caught in the smallness of our lives, in the inwardness of them.
What does this have to do with Cryptonomicon? Everything. Stephenson rushes headlong into that smallness, decrying it while he celebrates the weirdness inherent in it (there is a scene in the book that is killer funny, but only if you've been in the excruciating position of actually having to explain what a fantasy RPG is to someone who clearly has no idea and would probably have you committed if they did), casting his nets, and pulling from the war and horror of the past an unlikely fellowship, a group of men---and a woman---who will make their way to a figurative Mount Doom, carrying the burden of the desire for gold and the geas of changing the world with it; of making it a safer place for those who will follow in generations to come.
What I don't know---and what I want to know---is what comes after. In the Tolkien-eye view of the universe, the great magics and the great heroes passed away with the dying of an age. We're what was left. In the Stephenson view of the universe, at the foot of what could be a volcano, our heroes are looking for a moment of peace before the future devours them.
I want to know what that future is. I want to know if the idealism that drove these people to this place in spite of the very real horrors of their life, or perhaps because of them, is rewarded, or if it, like all dreams, is to be exposed as callow and foolish; if the best we can do is to facilitate the dishonest by our credulity, or if the best we can do is continually attempt to wage the war on our own terms, gaining ground we can't see even if the idea of holding all of it is načve.
And I don't know yet which side of the future Stephenson falls on, but I'm watching with a curious hope. If someone as perceptive as Stephenson can see a future that might come out of the optimism and idealism of the past, it means a lot.
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