Representing routine redux

August 13, 2004

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the lack of literary representations of repetitious routine — in other words, the inability of contemporary artists to say anything meaningful about work and its central place in our actual daily lives. This past weekend, Laura Miller published an excellent essay [registration required] in the New York Times on a similar topic. The major fictive work that came to both of our minds as a counterexample was Cryptonomicon, which I just re-read a few weeks ago.

I’ve always had two big questions about Cryptonomicon. First, whether anyone who isn’t already a Unix user (or at least very interested in computers) could possibly read it with comprehension and enjoyment; and second, whether writing about topics such as Van Eck phreaking and the construction of one-time pads is a specifically post-modern literary technique — or a jarring series of distractions from the classic narrative and emotional arc that a well-constructed novel is supposed to have. I really wish I could force some of my old grad school colleagues and wannabe-novelist friends to read it, so I could interrogate them about their reactions… but it would be inhumane to cram such a massive tome down their throats if they were basically unwilling, since book recommendation should be practiced only between fully consenting adults.

To the first question, I’m always comfortable following Barthes in acknowledging that every document puts up its own series of baffles and filters for the purpose of finding its own audience. Stephenson’s may be more extreme than most… but I wouldn’t even say that Unix is intrinsically a more divisive or less captivating topic than the Russian aristocracy or river-rafting trips on the Mississippi. Probably what’s most new is the unhurried lovingness with which Stephenson sifts through his “factive” interludes. He displays no authorial awareness whatsoever that his audience might want to skip these parts… and in fact, to skip all the descriptions of dental surgery, mining engineering, walks through Manila to collect GPS data, and the kinds of legal problems that might beset the founders of Silicon Valley startups — that would be to miss the entire point of the book. There is no sense in which there is a story without the digressions; and therefore I think we have to conclude that the treatment of technical subjects is a new formal technique, not simply an extension of the 19th century novelists’ investment of description with emotion. I mean, even Dickens didn’t really tell you what Scrooge did to make all that money, or precisely how to pick a pocket — he just sketched out what it might feel like to be a boy thief or an embittered miser. In contrast, Stephenson (modulo a few abrupt “and now we’re on a submarine… and now we’re in Australia” transitions) specifies each tool and method by which technê saved humankind’s bacon, and in the process erases the distinction between plot and description. It turns out there is even a word for the type of writer who find larger meanings by obsessively cataloging the minutiae of everyday life: Digressionist, which is also called Maximalism.

Even among Maximalists though, Stephenson is probably unusual in the extent to which he interjects factually-correct information into his novels. The Maximalist Máximo, David Foster Wallace, specializes in excruciatingly precise depictions of the experience of physical and psychic handicaps like drug dependency — but rarely of routinized paid labor. Another well-known Digressionist, Colson Whitehead, writes convincingly about work by dint of — not to put too fine a point on it — making shit up entirely. Neal Stephenson not only writes about extremely specific places and mindsets and designs, but he does so for an audience which is probably far more likely than any other to tell him that he done fucked up on some relatively trivial point. But by his stubborn Midwestern insistence on sticking close to the facts on the ground, I feel that ultimately Stephenson comes closer than any other artist to capturing the reality of a new subclass of those who not only love their work and are defined by it, but are increasingly dwelling within a habitus in which work is inseparable from play, adventure, or the larger meanings of a life.

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