Not So Long After All

In a previous post, I commented on the extreme length of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which I was reading on my Kindle. As it turned out, it was not as long as I had thought. My husband had started reading it several days before I did and had managed to stay a little ahead of me, and when I had reached about 80%, he warned me that the novel actually ends at 87%; the rest of the Kindle edition is “e-book extras.” I was very glad of the warning, as I hate finishing a book suddenly and unexpectedly, and I did very much enjoy the extras as well.

I reported that the Kindle book had 22,830 locations, comparable to The Count of Monte Cristo, with 24,681. But Cryptonomicon actually ended at location 19,979, so it was significantly shorter. The Count of Monte Cristo was also a page turner in its way, but I’m sure I did not devour it as compulsively as I did Cryptonomicon!

Among the extras was a compilation of comments by Stephenson on the book, taken from his website and various interviews conducted at the time it was published. One reporter commented that “Cryptonomicon is a long book.” Stephenson replied:

If you get into it, for most people it doesn’t seem that long. At least I hear from most people that they get through the book without that much agony. And I know from reading big, long novels like [Thomas Pynchon’s] Mason & Dixon and [David Foster Wallace’s] Infinite Jest — which was brilliant, amazing — that I was always sad when I got to the end.

There is a kind of cult of brevity that a lot of people subscribe to. I don’t know where it comes from. I’m speculating that maybe people have taken classes in writing where they’ve been trained to be minimalist, to be very pithy, and people who get jobs as writers in a journalistic setting are taught that they’re supposed to write just so much and no more. That, I think, leads to a kind of attitude that when someone writes something very long, they’re engaging in a disgusting show of self-indulgence. So, that’s my attempt to explain an attitude I don’t understand. But my own reaction to that kind of criticism is, emotionally, kind of lukewarm. I’m not, like, angry or bitter about it.

I confess I was a little sad when I got to the end, and I was encouraged by Stephenson’s remarks about his intention to write sequels:

Cryptonomicon is the first volume in a trilogy, right?

Neal Stephenson: We’re trying to avoid the “T-word.” Not that there’s anything wrong with trilogies, but we’re using words like “cycle” or “series” instead, partly because the term “trilogy” implies a closer linkage between books. I’m trying to write these in such a way that you could read any one in the series and not have any idea that the others existed. But there is a big tangle of interrelated themes here: crypto, language, computers, and money. It is pretty fertile ground and I have come up with a few possible storylines, set in different historical epochs. There is a future one that didn’t fit into this novel, and another farther in the past that I’m playing around with now. There are always a few strange little corners of the story that may not make sense outside of the context of the full series, but ninety-nine percent of it can stand on its own reasonably well, I hope.

Another of the extras was an excerpt from Quicksilver, the second book in the “Baroque Series.” From the excerpt, I could tell that some of the characters had the same last names as those in Cryptonomicon, and it may be that they’re intended to be ancestors. Perhaps this series is what Stephenson had in mind when he spoke as reported above—or is what his ideas at the time resulted in—though a seventeenth-century setting was not necessarily what I was expecting.

The longest of the “extras” was an article about submarine cable laying that Stephenson wrote for Wired in 1996. Though doubtless outdated in some ways now, it was still quite fascinating and thought-provoking, and he does cite it as one of the research sources for Cryptonomicon. One passage I found unintentionally poignant: writing about the Pharos of Alexandria, he says. “The collapse of the lighthouse must have been astonishing, like watching the World Trade Center fall over. But it took only a few seconds, and if you were looking the other way when it happened, you might have missed it entirely — you’d see nothing but blue breakers rolling in from the Mediterranean, hiding a field of ruins, quickly forgotten.”

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