3 weeks Ago

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880) (Read in 2014)

Published by marco on in Art, Film & Literature

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

Like Tolstoy’s novels, this was published as a serial in a magazine of the time called The Messenger. There isn’t an encompassing story arc, so it’s hard to call it a novel as such. It felt more like a collection of short stories and novellas that included the same cast of characters.

The first part is a long introduction to the debauched family of the Karamazovs and the other locals who they’ve drawn into their tawdry orbit. At the center of the first act is the patriarch Fyodor, who argumentatively fences with his three sons, Ivan, Dmitri (Mitya) and Alexander (Alyosha). There is a fourth (possible) son in the person of Smerdyakov.

A subsequent longer section is a long sermon by Ivan, as told to Alyosha. This was the most interesting part of the book thus far.

The life story of Father Zossima follows. This is the spiritual father of Alyosha, who is pledging to be a monk and values this elder above all others.

Kolya is a young narrator in book 5 (?) who is remarkably full of himself, as clever young man of that age typically are.

his narrative voice is also a prime example of what I consider to be the main problem with reading 19th-century Russian literature that is heralded the world over as top-one-hundred if not top-ten of all time.

With modern literature—that is, written during my time or near to it, say mid-20th century and onward—I can usually determine the intended tone of the writing. Is the author espousing his own views through a character? Or is the author espousing views he does not support through that character? If a character is ludicrous and pompous and just out-and-out wrong-headed, I can laugh along, knowing that the author intended to parody opposing worldviews.

However, with Dostoyevsky (and, to a lesser degree, with Tolstoy), while I know what I think of the characters and their views, I am often unsure of what the author intended. I feel like the guy who laughs out loud at a sad movie because he doesn’t realize that the director was being dead-serious.

This doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the writing—such as it is—but it certainly makes it more difficult to slog through long conversations between what I consider to be fools discussing utter foolishness when I don’t know whether the author is in on the joke. In net effect, I feel that I can read more of the exact same writing when I know it’s a parody than when I feel that the author intended to convey what he or she considers to be deep truths.

It may reflect poorly on me, I suppose.

Perhaps something is lost in translation or there is too great a distance between the culture that created the literature. I feel that my enjoyment of this type of great literature is too superficial. I see sparks where I feel that I am in on the joke, where I appreciate a bit of cleverness that or phrase, but I am saddled with doubt that I am enjoying the right thing.

On the other hand, I don’t want to be told by experts how I’m supposed to enjoy the book. I would like to be able to enjoy the ins and outs without help but, short of becoming an fluent reader of Russian and possibly more of an expert on a culture and mindset that lies over a century in the past, this will not be possible. That is, I can enjoy other good works on a much deeper level that I can these great works of art. That’s OK, though. I just wish that people would hedge their recommendation that “everyone should read these” to acknowledge that the level of enjoyment, satisfaction and understanding will vary greatly. While this is always the case, it is all the more likely when the original language and culture of the author of the work stands in such stark contrast to that of the reader.

The trial. The trial. It was a farce, with either Dostoyevsky or his translator Constance Gardner constantly using the word “evidence” when “hearsay” would have been much much more accurate.

Citations

I like this bit of drunken logic,

“The monks in the monastery probably believe that there’s a ceiling in hell, for instance. Now I’m ready to believe in hell, but without a ceiling. It make it more refined, more Lutheran that is. And, after all, what does it matter whether it has a ceiling or hasn’t? But, do you know, there’s a damnable question involved in it? If there’s no ceiling there can be no hooks, and if there are no hooks it all breaks down, which is unlikely again, for then there would be none to drag me down to hell, and if they don’t drag me down what justice is there in the world? If faudrait les inventer, those hooks, on purpose for me alone, for, if you only knew, Alyosha, what a blackguard I am.”
Page 23-24
“I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I’ve long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one’s heart prizes them. Here they have brought the soup for you, eat it, it will do you good. It’s first-rate soup, they know how to make it here. I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha, I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it’s a most precious graveyard, that’s what it is! Precious are the dead that life there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them: though I’m convinced in my heart that it’s long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in my emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky—that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. One loves the first strength of one’s youth. Do you understand anything of my tirade, Alyosha?” Ivan laughed suddenly.”
Page 225–226

Quoting Patton Oswalt: “I’m glad you like a book.”

“Fathers and teachers, forgive me and don’t be angry, that like a little child I’ve been babbling of what you knew long ago, and can teach me a hundred times more skillfully. I only speak from rapture and forgive my tears, for I love the Bible.”
Page 289–290
“The jealous man can forgive extraordinarily quickly (though, of course, after a violent scene), and he is able to forgive infidelity almost conclusively proved, the very kisses and embraces he has seen, if only he can somehow be convinced that is has all been “for the last time,” and that his rival will vanish from that day forward, will depart to the ends of the earth, or that he himself will carry her away somewhere, where that dreaded rival will not get neaer her. Of course the reconciliation is only for an hour. For, even if the rival did disappear next day, he would invent another one and would be jealous of him. And one might wonder what there was in a love that had to be so watched over, what a love could be worth that needed such strenuous guarding. But that the jealous will never understand. And yet among them are men of noble hearts. It is remarkable, too, that those very men of noble hearts, standing hidden in some cupboard, listening and spying, never feel the strings of conscience at that moment, anyway, though they understand clearly enough with their “noble hearts” the shameful depths to which they have voluntarily sunk.”
Page 382

In this next piece, I can’t tell if she’s serious or crazy or taking the piss and, if so, whether she does that deliberately and maliciously. The old woman is proposing to loan Dmitri money in the form of the idea of telling him to go find gold mines and mine them. Subsequent passages indicate that Dmitri took this suggestion seriously but discarded it because of its being too much work.

“The money is as good as in your pocket, not three thousand, but three million, Dmitri Fyodorovitch, in less than no time. I’ll make you a present of the idea: you shall find gold-mines, make millions, return and become a leading man, and wake us up and lead us to better things.”
Page 386-387

Kolya and his mother, in a classic relationship:

“He was extremely vain. He knew how to make even his mother give way to him; he was almost despotic in his control of her. She gave way to him, oh, she had given way to him for years. The one thought unendurable to her was that her boy had no great love for her. She was always fancying that Kolya was “unfeeling” to her, and at times, dissolving into hysterical tears, she used to reproach him with his coldness. The boy disliked this, and the more demonstrations of feeling were demanded of him the more he seemed intentionally to avoid them. Yet it was not intentional on his part but instinctive—it was his character. His mother was mistaken; he was very fond of her. He only disliked “sheepish sentimentality”, as he expressed it in his schoolboy language.”
Page 511
“Habit is the greatest motive-power.”

The captain is extremely poor and the doctor appears at his home to advise him on his ailing son. The doctor recommends experts in Paris, to which the captain responds,

“Doctor, doctor! But you see!” the captain flung wide his hands again despairingly, indicating the bare wooden walls of the passage.”
Page 555

The captain is ashamed to directly address his poverty but appeals instead for the doctor to adjust his diagnosis and recommendation to something appropriate to the circumstances. The doctor responds quite coldly,

“Well, that’s not my business,“ grinned the doctor. “I have only told you the answer of medical science to your question as to possible treatment. As for the rest, to my regret—”
Page 555

While his answer is most likely correct, it is cold and ignores the duty of the a doctor to provide at least a modicum of comfort. If there’s nothing to be done, there is no point in mentioning all of the things that could be done were more money available. In honestly, the experts in Paris probably couldn’t do anything either but suck money from the patient’s father’s pockets. But the world and its solutions are for the rich. The cruelty lies in the doctor reminding the captain of that in the depths of his pathos.

“Brother, these last two months I’ve found in myself a new man. A new man has risen up in me. He was hidden in me, but would never have come to the surface, if it hadn’t been for this blow from heaven. I am afraid! And what do I care if I spend twenty years in the mines, breaking ore with a hammer? I am not a bit afraid of that—it’s something else I am afraid of now: that that new man may leave me. Even there, in the mines, under-ground, I may find a human heart in another convict and murderer by my side, and I may make friends with him, for even there one may live and love and suffer. One may thaw and revive a frozen heart in that convict, one may wait upon him for years, and at last bring up from the dark depths a lofty soul, a feeling, suffering creature: one may bring forth an angel, a create a hero! There are so many of them, hundreds of them, and we are all to blame for them.”
How could you help reckoning on him? if he killed him, then he would lose all the rights of a nobleman, his rank and property, and would go off to exile; so his share of the inheritance would come to you and your brother Alexey Fyodorovitch in equal parts; so you'd each have not forty, but sixty thousand each. There's not a doubt you did reckon on Dmitri Fyodorovitch
“That was quite right what you taught me, for you talked a lot to me about that. For if there’s no everlasting God, there’s no such thing as virtue, and there’s no need of it. You were right there. So that’s how I looked at it.”
Page 628–629
“He had unmistakably been, at some time, in good and fashionable society, had once had good connections, had possibly preserved them indeed, but, after a gay youth, becoming gradually impoverished on the abolition of serfdom, he had sunk into the position of a poor relation of the best class, wandering from one good old friend to another and received by them for his companionable and accommodating disposition and as being, after all, a gentleman who could be asked to sit down with any one, though, of course, not in a place of honor. Such gentlemen of accommodating temper and dependent position, who can tell a story, take a hand at cards, and who have a distinct aversion for any duties that may be forced upon them, are usually solitary creatures, either bachelors or widowers.”
Page 632
“What would become of an ax in space? Quelle idée! If it were to fall to any distance, it would being, I think, flying round the earth without knowing why, like a satellite. The astronomers would calculate the rising and the setting of the ax, Gatzuk would put it in his calendar, that’s all.”
Page 637

And this is possibly the inspiration for the most-famous utterance of Marvin the paranoid android.

“Philosophy, indeed, when all my right side is numb and I am moaning and groaning. I’ve tried all the medical faculty: they can diagnose beautifully, they have the whole of your disease at their finger-tips, but they’ve no idea how to cure you.”
Page 637-638
“<Why, you keep thinking of our present earth! But our present earth may have been repeated a billion times. Why, it’s become extinct, been frozen; cracked, broken into bits, disintegrated into its elements, again ‘the water above the firmament,’ then again a comet, again a sun, again from the sun it becomes earth—and the same sequence may have been repeated endlessly and exactly the same to every detail, most unseemly and insufferably tedious—”
Page 641-642
“in his opinion the prisoner was now, and had been all along, in a perfectly normal condition, and, although he certainly must have been in a nervous and exceedingly excited state before his arrest, this might have been due to several perfectly obvious causes, jealousy, anger, continual drunkenness, and so on. (Emphasis added.)”
Page 672
“At the first temptation—for instance, to entertain the woman with whom he had already squandered half the money—he would have unpicked his little bag and have taken out some hundred roubles, for why should he have taken back precisely half the money, that is, fifteen hundred roubles? Why not fourteen hundred? He could just as well have said then that he was not a thief, because he brought back fourteen hundred roubles. Then another time he would have unpicked it again and taken out another hundred, and then a third, and then a fourth, and before the end of the month he would have taken the last note but one, feeling that if he took back only a hundred it would answer the purpose, for a thief would have stolen it all. And then he would have looked at this last note, and have said to himself, ‘It’s really not worth while to give back one hundred; let’s spend that, too!’ That’s how the real Dmitri Karamazov, as we know him, would have behaved. One cannot imagine anything more incongruous with the actual fact than this legend of the little bag.”
Page 700–701

Errata

When I read books that I downloaded from Gutenberg Project, I like to be helpful and provide corrections where I can. They have a very friendly and responsive errata-submission system.

Page 24:
  J’ai bu l’ombre d’un cocher qui avec l’ombre d’une brosse frottait
    replace “bu” with “vu”; J’ai [vu] l’ombre d’un cocher qui avec

Page 564–565:
  What a girl I am! Blurring things out!
    Replace “Blurring” with “Blurting”; What a girl I am! Blurting things out!

Page 700-701
  fifteen hundred roubles? why not fourteen hundred?
    Capitalize “why”; [W]hy not fourteen hundred?

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg (Read in 2014)

Published by root on in Art, Film & Literature

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

On page 173: In other places, we’ve seen tantrums/fits of others, as seen by Deborah. In this case, we are party to a tantrum as experienced from within, as inspired by Deborah’s rich inner life. She explains how her erratic, senseless hand motions are actually a private language, as are her babblings. To us, it is all just insanity; to her, it is structured and logical.

On page 175: Here, again, are more examples, of words and gestures that have meaning to those who understand them. Is there a difference between an insane person and someone who agitatedly speaks a private language—or a language not shared by his or her audience?

There are several instances where she writes that her senses just shut down. She sees in only two dimensions; she can barely hear anything; she sees only shades of gray and often through a pinhole, a keyhole, a slit. She cannot feel anything. She burns her flesh and doesn’t feel the pain. She eats but does not taste and does not remember having eaten.

She tells of watching other patients in this catatonia, being struck by other wild patients and not reacting at all. They only blink slowly. This is a communication failure between one without senses and one with a private language. It’s utterly fascinating when thought of in these terms.

It’s also a metaphor for how the so-called normal people interact with one another, making the same mistakes but less overtly and less catastrophically poorly. On a class, caste or national level, the catastrophic miscommunication is the same.

Citations

“'You are not so stupid and neither am I,‘ Furii said earnestly, trying to speak across the widening space. ‘There are many secrets to come and you know it. You are not parting with food that sustained you—all the secrets and the secret powers—and no other nourishment has yet appeared to replace it. This is the hardest time of all, harder than even your sickness was before you came here. At least that had a meaning for you, as awful as the meaning was sometimes. You will have to trust me enough to take on faith that the new food, when it comes, will be richer.”
Page 109
“ She believed that she and a certain few others were not of the same nganon as the rest of Earth’s people. At first Deborah had thought that it was only she who was set apart from human kind, but others of the un-dead on D ward seemed to be tainted as she was. All of her life, herself and all her possessions had been imbued with her essence, the poisonous nganon. She had never lent her clothes or books or pencils, or let anyone touch any of her things, and she had often borrowed or stolen from other children at school or camp, delighting, until their stolen nganon wore off them, in the health and purity and grace of the possessions.”
Page 127
“Deborah looked from the god and saw Carla still crying. It was part of the Deceit, it seemed, to believe that one knew the code, that after years of suffering to find a way to outguess it, the final step gave way and there was the old chaos, anarchy, and laughter.”
Page 149
“Perhaps it might be the one about seeing—that even when seeing every line and plane and color of a thing, if there was no meaning, the sight was irrelevant and one was just as well blind; that perhaps even the famous third dimension is only meaning, the gift which translates a bunch of planes into a box or a madonna or a Dr. Halle with antiseptic bottle.”
Page 158
“'What?’ Dr. Halle turned. Deborah looked at him in horror. Her words to Yr had pierced the barriers of the earth’s hearing. The clamor from the Collect built higher until it was an overwhelming roar and the gray vision went red. Without warning the full PUnishment fell like an executioner’s hand and the testimony of light, space, time, gravity, and the five senses became meaningless. Heat froze and light hurled tactile stabbing rays. She had no sense of where her body was; there was no up or down, no location or distance, no chain of cause and effect…”
Page 159
“When the lawgivers of D ward discovered that its patients were not so safe as they had thought, they swept the ward up and down with reforms to widen still further the distance between themselves and the patients. The fork that had been introduced on “D” a year before was now rescinded. The Age of Metal gave way to the Age of Wood and fire prevailed only within the precincts of the nursing station, the modern era. In the [P]leistocene beyond, Pithecanthropus erectus shambled and muttered gibberish, ate with its fingers, and wet on the floor.”
Page 163
“'Recreat,‘ Deborah said. ‘Recreat xangoran, temr e xangoranan. Naza e fango xangoranan. Inai dum. Agaei dum.’ (Remember me. Remember me in anger, frear me in bitter anger. Hear-draze my teeth in bitterest anger. The signal glance drops. The Game’—Agaei mena the tearing of flesh with teeth as torture—’is over.‘)
Page 173

“’No.‘ She tried to tell Furii, but the walls began bleeding and sweating, and the ceiling developed a large tumor which began to separate itself from its surface.

“‘Can you hear me?’ Furii asked.

“Deborah tried to say what she felt, but she could only gesture the Yri gesture for insanity: flattened hands thrust toward one another but unable to meet.

Page 175

“In the bathroom: ‘Blau—are you in there?’

“‘Here is cutucu.’ (The second degree of being hidden.) As she struggled to translate, finding it almost impossible to span the light years of distance between herself and them, the confusion of tongues only alienated her further.”

Page 181
“The volcano’s fear-rage would still come and throw her against a wall with the force of its eruption, or send her running down the hall until she was stopped by a closed door or a wall. She was in pack every day, sometimes twice, and once tightened in, she would let the fight explode and overcome her as violently as it would. Yet … yet they were all kinder, all the nurses and attendants, joking even, and giving little gifts of themselves.”
Page 186

“'Well, we’ll give it a try.‘ She saw in his face that the burns were worse than he had remembered. When he was through, he said, ‘I tried to go easy. I hope it didn’t hurt too much.‘

“‘Don’t worry,‘ Deborah said, and rose the tremendous distance from the falling Anterrabae to be capable of a smile. ‘Someday, maybe it will.’”

Page 192–193
“All Deborah heard were the sounds of her own gasps of exhaustion as she climbed an Everest that was to everyone else an easy and a level plain.”
Page 207
“She yearned to play with all the toys of the earth, while Yr and the world’s darker parts fought it out inside her. To Earth’s usages and people she felt she could never come, but to the material things there was new access and freedom and great reward. A new patient asked her what she was, meaning her religion, and she found herself answering, ‘A Newtonian.’”
Page 211
“[…] Deborah began to feel the mood was less about Carmen’s suicide than an argument between the cynicism that was in each of them and the blind, small longing to fight.”
Page 219
“It was B ward’s nerve; a desperate hope that the false ‘fine-fine’ might see them through if only they acted long enough and tried to make it be the truth. Was it as frightening a clutching at convention on the outside?”
Page 220
“One day, coming from an exhausting session with Furii, Deborah saw a knot of people in the hall, and coming closer she saw that they were writhing, slow motion, like creatures under water. At the center of the knot, all but hidden by it, was Miss Coral. Because Deborah’s loyalty had not shifted with her commitment to the world, she had to choke back a guffaw. The bed-flinging genius of fulcrum, weight, and thrust was at it again! Deborah wondered how she had gotten off the ward. She was standing almost still in the middle of the melee, taking on five attendants by drawing them into battle with each other. Her rant was a low mutter, like an engine, full of long sibilances and obscenity. Deborah passed by and tossed a ‘Hell, Miss coral,’ more for the attendants than for the lady herself. Miss Coral removed her concentration from her war and smiled to Deborah.”
Page 240
“[In the courthouse building] she found others takign their high-school educations at one gulp—a group of hard-handed day laborers who sweated and grunted over their papers as if they were blocks of grnite. She was surprised and then humbled that they, too, though not prisoners or insane, had somehow missed beats in the rhythm of the world, and now were sharers with her in this necessary thing.”
Page 246
“On the field the boys were running with the late-afternoon magic of their ten-foot shadows. They seemed so young and strong and golden in the late sun. It had taken afll of her capacities, every drop of her will, to come as far as they had come laughing and easy. The wall between them was still there and it would always be there. She could see through it now, to where the world offered its immense beauty, but she would burn away all her strength just staying alive.”
Page 247
“She looked again at the faces on the ward. Her presence was making them struggle with Maybes. Suddenly she realized that she was a Doris Rivera, a living symbol of hope and failure and the terror they all felt of their own resiliency and hers, reeling punch-drunk from beating after beating, yet, at the secret bell, up again for more.”
Page 250

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris (Read in 2014)

Published by root on in Art, Film & Literature

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

Citations

“"No!” screams McKinley or Madison, Kennedy or Lincoln or beet-faced baby Reagan. Looking on, I always want to intervene. “Listen,” I’d like to say, “I’m not a parent myself, but I think the best solution at this point is to slap that child across the face. It won’t stop its crying, but at least now it’ll be doing it for a good reason.”
Page 14–15
“The people I hung out with in my early twenties were middle class and, at least to our minds, artistic. We’d all turned our backs on privilege, but comfortably, the way you can when you still have access to it. No one wanted to call home asking for money, but we all knew that in a punch our parents would come through for us. It was this, more than race, that set apart from Delicia, for how could someone on the bottom rung of the ladder not be outraged by the unfairness of it all?”
Page 42–43
“[…] It doesn’t take many people to muck up a roadside. A devoted handful can do the trick. One of the things I find repeatedly is a plastic Diet Coke bottle containing a meticulously folded Mars bar wrapper. I imagine this is someone’s after-work snack and that by putting the wrapper inside the empty bottle, the person feels he’s done his bit. And though he has turned two pieces of trash into one, until he learns to keep it in his car, I don’t think he’s entitled to pat himself on the back. Who are you? I wondered the first and third and fifth time I cam across one of these stuffed bottles. Do you think about the four hundred years it will take for this to decompose, or is this as inconsequential to you as flushing a toilet?
Page 160
“It’s not lost on me that I’m so busy recording life, I don’t have time to really live it. I’ve become like one of those people I hate, the sort who go to the museum and, instead of looking at the magnificent Brueghel, take a picture of it, reducing it from art to proof. It’s not “Look what Brueghel did, painted this masterpieces” but “Look what I did, went to Rotterdam and stood in front of a Brueghel painting!””
Page 165–166

Reamde by Neal Stephenson (Read in 2014)

Published by root on in Art, Film & Literature

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

Notes

  • The forces of good and evil were arbitrary. The forces of Brightness and the Earth-tones line up remarkably well with Devin and the Don, respectively
  • The game of T’Rain gets its style from World of Warcraft, but it’s economy from EVE Online, although it takes it a few steps further.

The sweeping, all-encompassing nature of the plot reminded me strongly of the Baroque Cycle (also by Stephenson). His attention to detail in some cases was at times tedious, but his dialogue and character development are top-notch. There are plenty of cool heroes here, with only a handful of them belonging to the 1%, unlike so many other escapist fiction these days.

The Cryptonomicon took us to Southeast Asia with hackers and programmers and dealt with ultra-secret code-crackers, chip-manufacturing plants and groups of people connected by tenuous though strands over decades.

This book also takes us to Southeast Asia but many other places besides, with a good part of it taking place in the Pacific Northwest, on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border.

I’m going to try to summarize what I remember having happened in this book because it was quite literally one of the wildest rides I’ve read, with what would have been ludicrous coincidences detailed in Stephenson’s style. Spoilers abound, so proceed with caution.

The story introduces the linchpin character, Richard Forthrast at a shooting range at his annual family reunion. Richard is older, unmarried and has a tremendous amount of living behind him. He also happens to own much of and still run a gigantic Blizzard-like company that manages an online world called T’Rain, which is similar to but in many ways superior to World of Warcraft.

At the reunion, he is reintroduced to his adoptive niece Zula, who is accompanied by her somewhat socially inept but technically talented hacker-boyfriend, Peter. These two would visit Richard later at his chalet/board-bum resort north of the border in Canada. Richard purchased the place as his base of operations when he used to run a successful pot-smuggling operation from Canada into the US, using a passage that he’d discovered through the mountains.

Peter meets an enigmatic man named Wallace at the chalet, a meeting observed with diffident suspicion by Richard and Zula. Zula is, at this point, working for Richard on terrain-generation algorithms, designed to make the online world of T’Rain more realistic and firmly anchored in a believable physical reality.

They part ways, with Richard staying in Canada and Peter and Zula heading back to Seattle. Wallace follows them, showing up at Peter’s apartment, demanding to know what’s going on with his data. It turns out that the USB stick that Peter used to transfer the credit-card numbers he sold to Wallace was infected with the Reamde virus. It’s a cryptolocker virus that has locked up not only the credit-card numbers but also a lot of other data that Wallace was keeping for a bunch of Russian mobsters, headed by Ivanov and his chief of security, Sokolov.

The writer of the virus added a twist to the payment mechanism: the only way to pay off the ransom and unlock the data is to enter the world of T’Rain and deposit an amount of in-game gold at a prearranged location. Zula, an amateur at the game, along with Wallace, a seasoned regular, try for an entire all-nighter to deposit what amounts to only a thousand dollars but are unable to do so because of a tremendous number of other players who are laying siege to the Torgai foothils where thousands of victims of the Reamde virus are all trying to deposit their ransoms. There are bands of players paid by the writers of the virus to protect depositors and roving bands of bandits trying to steal a tremendous amount of gold on the hoof.

Zula used her pull at T’Rain HQ to find out where the hackers and originators of the virus are located. It turns out that they are in Xiamen in the People’s Republic of China. Ivanov takes the reins and decides to fly his crew as well as Peter and Zula in a private jet to China after a brief stopover in Russia where they are joined by a Hungarian hacker named Csongor. Wallace is not invited along and is dispatched.

The Russians, the Hungarian, the American and the Eritrean/American set up shop in a half-built office building in downtown Xiamen and are confronted with the immensity and density of the Chinese city. There is a saying that if you are told of an Indian or Chinese city whose name you’ve never heard, there are good odds that the city has a larger population than New York or Los Angeles. Stephenson spends a good deal of time driving this impression home, but in a good way.

The hackers, Zula and Solokov canvass the neighborhoods, using local Internet cafés to try to pinpoint the nest of hackers responsible for Reamde by their IP address. They are eventually successful and meet up with Yuxia, a local Hakka villager working in the big city who happens to own a van. The Russians enter the building with their hostages in tow and through more detection discover that the hacker nest must be on either the fourth or fifth floor.

Deep breath. Here’s where things get really crazy.

On the fourth floor are the Reamde hackers. On the fifth floor is a nest of Islamist terrorists led by the Welsh Abdallah Jones, reknowned and hunted worldwide for many destructive acts of terror. He and his crew are planning an attack in or near Xiamen. In the building across the way is Olivia, an MI6 agent hot on his tail and gathering information about this next strike. She is a well-trained but is more about electronic espionage than hand-to-hand combat and weapons. She will have to learn fast.

Zula does not know this, but feels that sending Spetznaz soldiers into the nest of Chinese hackers is decidedly disproportionate to their crimes and sends the soldiers to the fifth floor instead. At this point, all hell breaks loose: most of the Russians and Islamists are killed in a shootout, killed either by Solokov, who is an amazing survivor or Jones, who is a ruthless and efficient survivor as well. The hackers scuttle out of the windows like cockroaches, introducing us to their leader, Marlon.

The firefight sets off the truly enormous amount of explosives that the Islamists had created, blowing off the entire top of the building and dropping much of it into the street. The explosion tears off the part of the floor where Olivia had set up camp and disables her entire operation and her temporarily unconscious.

And the others? Sokolov shimmies across cables to Olivia’s building and briefly meets her there, plucking her purse from the trash. Peter is killed in the stairway by Ivanov. Jones kills Ivanov and kidnaps Zula. Csongor, Marlon and Yuxia somehow meet and escape in Yuxia’s van.

Sokolov uses his awesome spy resources to get clothes and cash and makes his way to Olivia, who he is convinced is his only way out of the country in which he finds himself without an entry visa or passport. Zula is taken by Jones to the airport where they hijack Ivanov’s jet and head off for Canada, hiding beneath another jet to stay off the radar. Olivia ends up arranging for her departure, taking Sokolov with her. They split up when he is shunted off to a boat arranged by MI6, where he is ambushed. Olivia heads to the Philippines to try to find Jones. There she meets a CIA agent named Seamus, who is another cool Stephenson character. After an operation that fails to find Jones, she’s pulled off the case and heads back to England.

Csongor, Marlon and Yuxia tail Zula and Jones to the docks but can’t rescue her and they end up hijacking a boat and heading for the open sea. They cross the sea on wind power and wind up in the Philippines, where they are robbed of the rest of Ivanov’s money but still have enough cash to get to a hotel and an Internet café. It is here that Marlon starts his mission in T’Rain to start gathering the millions of dollars in ransom that his exceedingly powerful character—Reamde—has stashed all over the Torgai foothills. Stephenson does a lovely job describing the game world, how Marlon gathers his compatriots and Csongor starts a new character in T’Rain—he’s never played before—and helps Marlon by finding a broker/priest to handle his huge transaction.

Richard, meanwhile, has not been idle and has been feverishly searching for Zula. Olivia has flown to Seattle to pursue a hunch that Jones flew to Canada with his stolen plane and has met up with Richard to compare notes. Another thread that runs through the novel is a war that has cropped up in the game world, between the forces of Brightness and the Earthtone coalition. These roughly line up with the two main authors of the history and narrative of T’Rain. One is a Cambridge Don (double D) who is roughly analogous to J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, living in his own castle and being very literary and erudite. The other is nicknamed Skeletor and lives in the Midwest, churning out a tremendous amount of pulp content with less regard for continuity or canon. This part, while exceedingly interesting, has a lot less to do with the main action part of the plot.

Once Richard and his chief of technology discover what’s going on, he pulls out his for all intents and purposes indestructible character Egdod to kick some ass and take some names. He sends an asteroid down with an ancient spell, a spell that has been used just once before, but Seamus shows up at the same Internet café, joins the game with his powerful character and gets Marlon to trust him so that he can “pull” him out of danger. Egdod manages to squash a lot of terrain and characters, but misses Reamde, amazingly enough.

But then, just as Marlon arrives with his gemstones, having fought his way to the main trading floor and found a priest to make his transfer, it turns out that the priest is controlled by an administrator, who lets Egdod know that Reamde has been located. Egdod shows up like an Old Testament God and plucks Csongor and Marlon out of the market and gives them an ultimatum: they tell him what happened to Zula; Marlon gets to keep his cash.

That’s kind of the end of act 2. Jones and Zula were traveling around Canada in a fortified RV, joined by many of his cell members located in Canada and the U.S. Zula tells Jones about Richard in order to save her life, thinking that Jones will ransom her off to her rich uncle. However, Jones is more interested in Richard’s well-publicized knowledge of ways of sneaking into the States. So the Islamist wagon train heads off to Richard’s chalet/compound in British Columbia. They catch Richard in his chalet just as he’s caught Marlon and kidnap him, heading off over the border with the first party of terrorists. The others are left behind with Zula. At the same time, Zula makes her long-planned escape and meets up with Chet, Richard’s business partner, who rescues her on his motorcycle before being critically wounded. They press onward on the route that Chet knows quite well too, chasing after Jones and Richard.

Olivia has in the meantime met back up with Sokolov, who has sneaked into the U.S. (of course) and they are headed to Richard’s brother Jake’s isolationist/gun-nut compound in northern Idaho just south of the border where Richard’s secret passage pops into the U.S.

Seamus gets a military flight to take Marlon, Csongor and Yuxia into the U.S. as well and they also drift northward, working on the same hunch that Jones and Zula will be crossing the border in that area. Yuxia and Seamus hire a helicopter to reconnoiter the area, leaving Marlon and Csongor behind in an SUV. When Yuxia and Seamus don’t return quickly enough, Marlon and Csongor head toward Jake’s compound as well, although they get there by tailing suspicious Islamists rather than heading there on purpose.

Richard escapes as well, Chet blows up a very dangerous sniper with a claymore suicide-bomb, Zula meets up with Richard and Sokolov and Olivia save the say, gathering in Zula into their party. There is a gigantic mêlée at Jake’s compound and in the surrounding woods with Jones finally getting his just desserts and everybody else pulling through.

The epilogue shows Sokolov and Olivia in England and everyone else at the next family reunion or joining in via video call. And they all lived happily ever after.

Citations

“Factory workers watching widgets stream off the assembly line, inspecting them for defects, out to be able to metaphrase their work into something was more neuron[-]grabbing, such as flying up a river valley on a winged steed, gazing into its limpid waters at the rocks strewn up its channel, looking for the one that contained traces of some magical ore.”
Page 97

This seems to be the crux, the reason, he wrote this book. its a potentially revolutionary idea.

“A shadow appeared in one of them: the silhouette of a man. He vaulted over the windowsill, performed a shoulder roll, and alighted on the office floor in a low crouch. In the same movements he unslung a Kalashnikov from his shoulder and brought it up ready to fire.”
Page 228
“And so,“ Jones concluded, “things are about to get ubly. Not that they were pretty to begin with. But, during the journey, you might wish to consider how you can keep them from really getting out of hand. I would suggest an end to pluck, or spunk, or whatever label you like to attach to the sort of behavior you were showing back on that pier, and a decisive turn toward Islam: which means submission. Just a thought.”
Page 273

““There’s vodka in the bar,” The spy Olivia said that in Russian. Sokolov guessed now, from her accent and from her freewheeling approach to dispensation of alcoholic beverages, that she was British.

““Thank you, but I am a Russian of somewhat unusual habits and will not be taking this opportunity to get drunk.”

“She was a little slow to take that sentence in, but she got the git of it. Her Russian was, perhaps, slightly better than his English. They would have to switch back and forth and watch each other’s faces.

“I am going to take every opportunity I can find,“ she responded, and went over to the bar—really just a cabinet with a few bottles in it—and took out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

““You should not become heavily intoxicated,” he said, “since further action may be required soon.”

“The look she gave him made it evident that she was at some pains to avoid laughing in his face.

“Where had he gone wrong?

“By assuming that she would trust him.

“It was a logical assumption. If the spy Olivia were more experienced, she should know right away that trusting him was the correct move. She could trust him because he was completely fucked and he needed her—a Chinese-looking person who could pass for a local—to help him.

“Why then no trust?

“Because he had crashed though her office window at a particularly difficult moment and aimed an assault rifle at her and then broken into her apartment, probably.

““How did you get in here?” she asked.

““Plan D,” he said in English.

““And what is Plan D?”

““The fourth plan I attempted. It took me all afternoon.”

“He could have explained it, but it was idiotic to be discussing things in the past when they needed to discuss the future.”

Page 279–280
“So those characters should get placed on some kind of watch list. Whenever they log in, we track them. Watch what they’re doing. Check their IP addresses. Are they still in Xiamen? Or moving around? Do they have coconspirators in other places?”
Page 390

Interesting. the police need a search warrant, but the proprietors do not. The data is not protected there. Your rights in meatspace do not transfer to cyberspace.

“Well, until we can prove that there’s no connection between them and Zula’s disappearance, corporate policy has to change, “ Richard said.”
Page 390

Then corporate policy was always a whim, not a legal requirement, so it can be bent for personal reasons.

“”…and then sneak out and get to an MC without being ripped off,“ Richard concluded. In the back of his mind, he was worrying about how he was going to explain this to John—definitely not a T’Rain kind of guy. “Which could actually be difficult to pull off, if the Torgai falls under the control people who know what they’re doing. I mean, with that kind of money at stake, there would be plenty of financial incentive to set up a heavy security cordon.”

““A Weirding Ward costs about one gold piece per linear meter,” C-plus said, referring to a type of invisible force-field barrier that could be erected by sufficiently powerful sorcerers.

““Cheaper if you harvest the Filamentous Cobwebs yourself,” Richard retorted, referring to the primary ingredient needed to cast a Weirding Ward.

““Not as easy as you make it sound, given that the Caves of Ut’tharn just go placed under a Ban of Execration,” countered Corvallis, referring, respectively, to the best place to gather Filamentous Cobwebs and a powerful priestly spell..”

Page 395
“The American national security apparatus is very large and unfathomably complex,“ was all that Uncle Meng would say. “ It has many departments and subunits that, one supposes, would not survive a top-to-bottom overhaul. This feeds on itself as individual actors, despairing of ever being able to make sense of it all, create their own little ad hoc bits that become institutionalized as money flows toward them. Those who are good at playing the political game are drawn inward to Washington. Those who are not end up sitting in hotel lobbies in places like Manila, waiting for people like you.”
Page 449

“He looked Olivia straight in the eye and said, in a mild but direct tone of voice, “Do you want to fuck?”

“She must have looked a little surprised.

““Sorry to be so blunt,” he went on, “but surviving one of these things always makes me incredibly horny. This, and going to funerals. Those are the triggers for me. So I just thought I would ask. I feel like I could rip off a great one just now. Tip-top. So I’m just checking. Just on the off chance you might be in the mood for something, you know, totally hot and meaningless.”

“Olivia could well imagine it: the mischievous grin spreading across her lips, scampering back to the guest cabin, crowding into the shower, and getting banged senseless by this hormonally enraged man-child.

““Um, I sor of am actually,” Olivia said earnestly, “but I think it’s a temptation I can resist for now.” Feeling that this required more explanation, she added, “I was specifically told not to, actually.”

“He looked impressed. “Really!”

““Yeah.”

““Someone actually bothered to issue you an order forbidding coitus with me.”

““Yeah. More I think directed at me and my reputation than yours.”

“He looked crestfallen.

““But I’m sure yours is amazing! Your reputation, that is.”

“[…]

““We had to land some distance away and go in on foot and surprise them.”

““‘Surprise’ being, I guess, quite a mild term for how you approached these blokes.”

““It’s an incomplete term. They were definitely surprised.” Seamus had removed all the little screws he could find. He paused, looking at the laptop, still all together in one piece. “Jones has been known to booby-trap these things and then leave them lying around,” he said. “But this one was not left lying around. It was being used when we entered the hut.” He popped the back off. Olivia couldn’t help flinching. But there were no lumps of plastique inside.”

Page 457

Here Olivia discusses Abdullah Jones with Seamus.

“"For a man who doesn’t want to die, he puts himself in some quite dodgy situations,“ she pointed out.

““Oh, I think he’s conflicted,” Seamus said. “Someday he’s going to be a martyr. Someday. This is what he keeps telling himself. Then he looks around himself, at the wack jobs and goat fuckers he has to work with, and he sees how much more he has to offer the movement by staying alive. Putting his expertise to work, his languages, his ability to blend in. And so the day of martyrdom keeps getting postponed.”

““Convenient for him, that.”

“Seamus grinned and shrugged. “I actually don’t know whether the mani s a coward, or really trying to use his skills in the most productive way by staying alive.”

Page 457–458
“Huge geometric reshapings of mountainsides that she guessed must be mining projects. Canyons lined with marble the colors of honey and blood. Spindly steel-wheeled irrigation systems poised at the edge of barren cleared fields, like sprinters at the starting line, waiting for the season to being. Mountains marching in queues from directly overhead to the horizon, one after another, as if to say, We have more where these came from. Deciduous trees budding out on the mountains’ lower slopes, engulfing the lone dark spikes of conifers in a foaming, cresting wave of light green. Above that, the mountains’ upper slopes jumping asymptotically into curling cornices of fluffy white clouds, as opaque as cotton balls. Sometimes the clouds parted, giving glimpses of places higher up, the trees dusted as if the fog were condensing and freezing on them, just letting her know that they were only scurrying around on an insignificant low tier, and that above them were stacked many additional layers of greater complexity and structure and drama, both sunlit and weather lashed.”
Page 463

The description starts off quite strong, evoking recognition in those of us who have seen what he’s describing and know it to be just as he describes. But, at around the sentence starting with the word “Sometimes”, you feel that he could just lay off already and go find an editor. We get it already. The mountains are impossibly big and remote. Brevity would be appreciated here and has been done better by other authors—I’m thinking of Silverberg or Zelazny, who could also evoke that feeling of I-know-just-what-you’re-describing but with far more concision.

Plus, weather-lashed has a hyphen.

Another example follows in this much shorter citation,

“The coastline was fractally scalloped, consisting of shallow bays, miles wide, themselves indented with smaller indentations.”
Page 470

This is just redundant. I don’t know if the editor just gave up and didn’t bother reading the book or if he or she was expressly forbidden from tossing this overly garrulous and pedantic style. It would have sung more as “The coastline was miles of fractally scalloped bays.”

Despite his occasional garrulousness, Stephenson is wonder storyteller. And he hides short stories in his books, each carefully crafted vignette worth all the dry patches. It’s like Terry Gilliam said about good movies, that many of the great ones have only a few really good bits but those bits make the slog worth it. I’ve found that a similar maxim applies to some books considered to be classics (I’m looking at you, The Brothers Karamazov).

Here’s part of a little story he included about how a hacker of computers can use his skills anywhere to learn and improve.

“The Skipper had never been on a boat, other than passenger ferries, until the day the adventure had begun. Nonetheless he had, during the first critical forty-eight hours, acquired a command of basic sailing principles with a speed and fluency that had struck the Engineer as being almost supernatural. Much like a teenager who starts playing a new video game without bothering to open the manual, he tried things and observed the results, abandoning whatever didn’t work and moving aggressively to exploit small successes. A profusion of ideas spewed forth from his mind. There was no such thing as a bad idea, apparently. But, perhaps more important, there was no such thing as a good idea either, until it had been tried and coolly evaluated. It was clear how he had become the leader of a sort of gang back home: not by asserting his leadership but by being so relentless in his production, evaluation, and exploitation of ideas that his friends had been left with no choice but to form up in his wake.”
Page 470–471

Of course, this only works to a certain local maximum in real life. A learning process like this allows one to quickly become skilled in something but will almost never lead to mastery. Starting off learning tried and true techniques from masters allows you to skip a lot of trial and error that otherwise wastes precious time. It will take you a lot longer to get where you’re going on your own than on the shoulders of giants.

“She was, he realized, very beautiful, like a madonna in a church. When she was awake, her energy and the force of her personality shone through her face and made it difficult to know anything about what she really looked like, somewhat in the way that you couldn’t see the glass envelope of a lightbulb when it was turned on.”
Page 477

A lovely simile but again overdoing it, no? How about “what she really looked like, like the glass envelope of a lightbulb.”

His style kind of whipsaws between run-on and confusing to concise and evocative. Stephenson would do well to learn something about sentence length from William Gibson or his editor.

“Hilltops had been denuded of trees in some kind of draconian logging campaign and left covered with a khaki-colored pelt of low vegetation gashed with eroded gullies that had stained the formerly white beaches below them with shit-colored muck. A point came when they could no longer remember the last time they had been unable to see any buildings along the shore, and then they rounded a small headland, a beat-up prominence of brown rock shaped like a clenched fist, and came in view of a town of some size: a crescent-shaped beach, still several miles ahead of them, lined with buildings as much as eight stories high, which they gaped at as if they were lifelong jungle dwellers, and, nearer to hand, the usual agglomeration of smaller habitations and makeshift open-air markets along the waterfront, interrupted in the middle by a big pier reaching out into the sea and connected by hinged spans of diamond-tread stell to a facility on the short that was obviously a ferry terminal.”
Page 484

Phew. That was two sentences. The first one was three long clauses but it felt short next to the monster that followed it. Cervantes is blushing.

But then he manages to illustrate the culture clash between Csongor, who is Hungaria and Yuxia, Chinese, after he tells her of his three-person nuclear family who almost never see one another.

“Yuxia seemed taken aback that any family could be so small and poorly organized.”
Page 487
“[…] an Afghan whom Zula had last seen perched on the top of the RV with a sniper rifle and a pair of binoculars. […] if ever there was a man cut out for a long trek down the length of a mountain range in hostile territory, it was Jahandar. To the point where Zula had some difficulty in imagining how they had smuggled him this deep into a Western democracy. They must have drugged him, packed him in to a crate, shipped him over by air freight direct from Tora BOra, and kept him pent up on a mountaintop until now. Everything about his appearance—the hat, the beard, the glare, the battle scars—should have got him arrested on sight in any municipality west of the Caspian Sea.”
Page 514
“She had just betrayed her own uncle. He was now in the power of men who would certainly kill him as soon as he was no longer useful.”
Page 544

Here Stephenson plays with interesting juxtapositions of a character’s power (Richard’s “Egdod” character) versus his relative powerlessness in a real-life situation. Marlon is similar in that he has a lot of power and money in T’Rain but struggles to convert it to money and thus power in the real world. The currency of T’Rain seems arbitrary but Stephenson uses it to shine a harsh light on the bizarreness that we accept in our own money exchanges. Are they even so different if we discard our predilection for the known quantity?

“It would all work out fine if Sokolov could merely relate the story to the people Ivanov had betrayed.

“Not that Sokolov had any certainty of being forgiven. There were no guarantees. But this way he had a decent chance. Whereas if he sneaked around and tried to avoid them, they would surely take not of his lack of courtesy and approach him in a more suspicious frame of mind.”

Page 552

Stephenson is also pretty good a “guy banter”. Here we read how Seamus asked his friend Stan for help.

“Seamus asked Stan whether it wouldn’t be too much of a challenge to his intellectual faculties to track down the provenance of a certain instant message, and wondered whether Stan was too much of a pussy to get it done discreetly, without setting the whole counterterrorism network alight.

“[…]

“Why yes, Seamus responded, if it wouldn’t interrupt Stan’s busy schedule of watching gay bondage pornography videos on the taxpayer-provided high-speed Internet connection, he would very much like to know whether a certain young lady had bought any airplane tickets of rented any cars in Washington or British Columbia of late.

“A few minutes later came an email assuring Seamus that the lap dancer in question had indeed left an electronic trail a mile wide and that Seamus might be able to make use of the following data in tracking her down and getting his stolen kidney back: she had flown from Vancouver to Seattle this morning and rented a navy blue Chevy Trailblazer.

“Seamus sent a polite note back reminding Stan to zip his fly when finished and promising to buy him a drink during Stan’s next visit to Zamboanga, supposing that Stan had the testicular fortitude to come within a thousand miles of such a challenging locale.”

Page 571–572

It’s probably funnier in context, I guess. I liked it enough to highlight and can remember cackling at it when I was reading it but it’s not as funny now. YMMV. You’ll notice, however, that Stephenson’s hatred of hyphens endures.

“In the middle of the gridiron was a man-sized door. This had clearly been locked and vandalized, chained and vandalized, welded shut and vandalized, so many times as to threaten the integrity of the entire structure. Now it stood slightly ajar and Zula’s flashlight, shining through the grid, revealed that the graffiti and trash on its opposite side were only a little less prevalent.”
Page 598–599

I attached a note “Moria” to this citation, but am no longer sure what I was getting at.

“It was thirty miles as the crow flew, longer on the roads they’d be taking. There were no buses, they could make it before nightfall if they set a decent pace.

“Olivia now understood what Sokolov meant by We are wasting time. He was saying, I could do this ride in two hours. With you, pumping away on your little girl-bike, it will take four.

Page 606

Nope. Fifty probably sixty kilometers with hills on mountain bikes? With equipment on their backs? Even a machine like Sokolov isn’t doing that in two hours. Stephenson usually does meticulous research, but this estimate is considerably off. A non-experienced cyclist wouldn’t be able to hold a pace like that.

“"Two Chinese and a Hungarian, just basically parachuted into CONUS with no paperwork whatsoever.“

“The Hungarian is legit, he has a visa.”

““Two Chinese then.”

““Yeah.”

““Given that Chinese illegals are being shipped into the Port of Seattle by the containerload, it seems like it would hardly make a dent.

““That’s the spirit!” Seamus had said. “And these are not your baseline economic migrants. They’re going to be running major corporations inside of a fortnight.”

““Not without green cards.”

““I think I’m going to marry the girl. That would take care of her status.”

“Freddie had turned to look at him incredulously. “Does she know this?”

““She has no idea. Just a feeling.”

““A feeling on your part.”

““Halfway there. Pretty respectable progress.””

Page 608
“She found it odd that she was considered to be on a first-name basis with this family.”
Page 622

That makes her the shittiest spy ever because even the barest of research or familiarity with American culture would reveal that Americans are on a first-name basis with everybody. They act like last names don’t even exist once you start talking to them.

“[…] by the time they had gone inside, sat down around the table, held hands to say Grace, and tucked into a simple but generous and nutritionally balanced dinner.”
Page 645

Who talks like that? Stephenson evinces a love of guns and possibly also preppers in this book. What is it with the prepper’s obsession to prove that they are all dining so super-good away from civilization? The sentence jumped out at me as one I’d read in a true prepper’s book a few years back. It reminded me of that pedantic style that lovingly describes and counts up ammunition as well as provides mind-numbing detail about how food is prepared as if to prove that the author knows how to feed himself when the shit goes down. And don’t you think he doesn’t.

“She got to a point where she simply could not run anymore, so she permitted herself to drop into a brisk walk while she drank more water—[…]”
Page 652

That point comes pretty quickly unless you’re really well-trained, even if you’re being chased by jihadis. And Zula had just spent weeks trapped in an RV with no mobility and poor nutrition. Plus, she’s at altitude in the Canadian rockies and she lives in Seattle.

“Inside Sokolov’s pack was a smaller bag, just a thin nylon stuff sack, made to hold a wadded-up sleeping bag. Once Sokolov had found a convenient place to lie prone on the top of the rock, he pulled this out by its drawstring and set it down onthe rock. It clattered. It was full, she realized of hard heavy objects with corners. Once he had finished assembling the rifle, Sokolov zipped the bag’s drawstring open and dumped it out on the rock. It contained half a dozen curved plastic boxes: ammunition clips for the rifle. From their weight it was obvious that they were loaded.”
Page 661

What the fuck is that? Is he trying to build suspense? Are we supposed to be seeing this through Zula’s naive eyes? Oh, yeah, they’re not naive eyes. Her whole family is into guns and she just spent weeks trapped in a trailer with jihadis. She knows what a fucking clip looks like. She is not surprised that Sokolov has a bunch of them. Neither are we.

This is just another example of frightfully overwording something that could have been done in just a couple of words. Where is Stephenson’s editor? Are they being paid by the word? For example, “Sokolov took up a prone position on the rock, dumping a bunch of clips out of a stuff sack near to hand.”

“All this effort, all these risks taken and damages sustained, had achieved one thing for him, which was that he had killed exactly one of his numerous foes.

“Now, had he been a seventeen-year–old, he’d have harbored foolish and unrealistic expectations of what could really be achieved in a situation such as this one, and he’d have believed that the payoff for all that work and risk and pain ought to have been greater than bagging one enemy. Driven by that misconception, he would have been slower to abandon the log cabin, slower to give up on the hope of shooting the man who had hidden behind the outhouse. He would have adopted a combative stance toward the main group of jihadists who had come running back to the camp. As a result, they would have surrounded him and killed him. All because he was young and imbued with an unrealistic sense of what the world owed him.

“On the other hand, had he been a few years older than he really was, or not in such good physical condition, then all the running and diving and exposure to the elements would have felt much more expensive to him. Unsustainable. Disheartening. And those emotions would have led to his making decisions every bit as fatal, in the end, as those of the hypothetical seventeen-year–old.

“So, as loath as he was to be self-congratulatory, he saw evidence to support the conclusion that he was at precisely the rich age and level of physical conditioning to be undertaking this mission.

“Which, viewed superficially, seemed like a favorable judgment. But with a bit more consideration—and, as he hid beneath the tree and listened to the jihadists beating the bushes, he did have a few minutes to think about it—it was really somewhat troubling, since it implied that all the operations he had participated in during his career before today had been undertaken by a foolish boy, in over his head and surviving by dumb luck. Whereas any operations he might carry out in the future would be ill-advised excursions by a man who was over the hill, past his prime.

“He really needed to get out of this line of work.”

Page 692

On the one hand, this is neatly philosophical and thoughtful section but on the other it smacks of the same obsessive pedantry that makes Stephenson describe food and ammunition in such excruciating detail. Again, a lovely thought, a lovely idea conjured up by an introspective soldier of uncommon skill, but formulated in an overwrought, almost clinical way.

“This was a shoot-out. Nothing could be simpler. But he was making it too complicated by trying to use his wits to work the angles, figure out some clever way to doge around the essential nature of what was happening, to get through to the other side without getting hurt. His opponent, of course, simply didn’t give a shat what happened to him and was probably a dead man anyway—which gave Jones an advantage that Richard could match[1] only by adopting the same attitude. It was an attitude that had come naturally to him as a young man, taking down the grizzly bear with the slug gun and doing any number of other things that later seemed ill-advised. Wealth and success had changed him; he now looked back on all such adventures with fastidious horror. But he had to revert to that mind-set now or else Jones would simply kill him.”
Page 711
[1] An advantage is not matched but rather neutralized.
“They were greeted with the sight of Sokolov, dressed in a bathrobe, drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book through a pair of half-glasses that made him seem oddly professor-like. This elicited a cheer from the group in Iowa. He lifted up his coffee mug and tipped it toward them, then took a sip.”
Page 714

This is a pretty cheesy thing to do to a character like Sokolov, giving him the Bruckheimer/Bay treatment.

Errata

Page 147:
  Will it last? Because they had making money before, when the story of the world had actually made sense.
    Add “been” between “had” and “making”; they had [been] making money before

Page 173:
  And even though he did not play the game himself, professing to find the very ideal “frightful”
    Change “ideal” to “idea”; professing to find the very [idea] “frightful”

Page 326:
  glad of an opportunity to lie down and stop moving, even if she were wet and cold.
    Change “were” to “was”; even if she [was] wet and cold.

Page 504:
  So the main thrust of the investigation, as far you’re concerned, is the SNAG,
    Add “as” after “far”; as far [as] you’re concerned

Page 590:
  He was movingly awkwardly because of the Crocs
    Replace “movingly” with “moving”; he was [moving] awkwardly

Page 646:
  They only way to get past it was this arduous traversal
    Replace “They” with “The”; [The] only way to get past it was

Page 697:
  apparently he head heard John’s clothes rustling
    Replace “head” with “had”; apparently he [had] heard

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (read in 2014)

Published by root on in Art, Film & Literature

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

Citations

Eco’s research is legendary, if you can get past the pomposity,

“[…] but then, in 1970, in Buenos Aires, as I was browsing among the shelves of a little antiquarian bookseller on Corrientes, not far from the more illustrious Patio del Tango of that great street, I cam upon the Castilian version of a little work by Milo Temesvar, On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess. It was an Italian translation of the original, which, now impossible to find, was in Georgian (Tbilisi, 1934) […]”
Page 11-12
“Excluded as they were from the flock, all of them were ready to hear, or to produce, every sermon that, harking back to the word of Christ, would condemn the behavior of the dogs and the shepherds and would promise punishment one day. The powerful always realized this. The recovery of the outcasts demanded reduction of the privileges of the powerful, so the excluded who became aware of their exclusion had to be branded as heretics, whatever their doctrine. And for their part, blinded by their exclusion, they were not really interested in any doctrine. This is the illusion of heresy. Everyone is heretical, everyone is orthodox. The faith a movement proclaims doesn’t count: what counts is the hope it offers. All heresies are the banner of a reality, an exclusion. Scratch the heresy and you will find the leper. Every battle against heresy wants only this: to keep the leper as he is.”
Page 202–203
“The science Bacon spoke of rests unquestionably on these propositions. You understand, Adso, I must believe that my proposition works, because I learned it by experience; but to believe it I must assume there are universal laws. Yet I cannot speak of them, because the very concept that universal laws and an established order exist would imply that God is their prisoner, whereas God is something absolutely free, so that if He wanted, with a single act of His will He could make the world different.”
Page 206–207

“[…] Because the girl didn’t go with him for love, but for a pack of scraps. Certainly she is a girl from the village who, perhaps not for the first time, grants her favors to some lustful monk out of hunger and receives as recompense something for her and her family to eat.“

““A harlot!” I said, horrified.”

Page 250–251

Eco shows how quick the monks are to blame the woman, although she is clearly the party of whom advantage was taken.

“I arrived at Jorge pursuing the plan of a perverse and rational mind, and there was no plan, or, rather, Jorge himself was overcome by his own initial design and there began a sequence of causes, and concauses, and of cause contradicting one another, which proceeded on their own, creating relations that did not stem from any plan. Where is all my wisdom, then? I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.”
Page 483–484

“What you say is very fine, Adso, and I thank you.The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless. Er muoz gelichesame die leieter abewerfen, so er an ir ufgestigen…. Is that how you say it?

“[…]

“I dared, for the first and last time in my life, to express a theological conclusion: “But how can a necessary begin exist totally polluted with the possible? What difference is there, then, between God and primigenial chaos? Isn’t affirming God’s absolute omnipotence and His absolute freedom with regard to His own choices tantamount to demonstrating that God does not exist?”

Page 484