Monday, September 10, 2001

Review - Necronomicon

Necronomicon - Neal Stephenson
It is with some justice that I can claim to be fairly objective about this book. I read it coming from Neal Stephenson’s earlier title, Snow Crash, an accessible scifi in the vein of an updated William Gibson novel. It glitters with linguistic talent and big guns, and I like each of those equally well. Necronomicon, however, is rather a different kind of story. Firstly, it is Dickensian in length, weighing in at 900+ pages. And secondly, it is not set in the near future at all, but rather in the WWII period and in the present day. Thirdly, instead of featuring big guns, it largely features cryptanalysis, hacking, and quasi-historical war stories. I dislike all novels of Dickensian length- except Dickens. This, coupled with my enthusiasm for it to be like Snow Crash made me likely to be critical of its failure to live up to either Dickens or his earlier work.
So why am I going to rave about the book? Well, there are only three reasons to read it. The characters, the plot and the ideas. The characters are drawn deftly and swiftly, seeming in many cases to be familiar stereotypes (the burly marine sergeant, the geeky overweight hacker &c.) We are eased into them in this way and they seem to occupy a space between ideas and reality; not fully individualized, so as to be part of the book’s scheme of ideas. Nevertheless, like much else in the novel, this early typical quality is deceptive, and we quickly find there are complexities and depth to the characters which realizes them engagingly. Deeper characterization is partly achieved through the ease with which the narrator picks up the idiom and style of the main character. Thus the tone and moral observations thrown in by the never-very-objective narrator shift from gung-ho pragmatism when telling Bobby Shaftoe’s life in USMC, to theoretical digressions on the possible mathematical patterns evident in everyday life events when telling Waterhouse’s life as a cryptanalyst.
Like Snow Crash, Necronomicon reeks of talent with language. Neal Stephenson seems to revel in the command he has over it, and in its power to play with multiple meanings and shifts in tone. He dives into each sentence and tells it extremely, never content with dull descriptive terms or everyday familiar perceptions. Links are forged between things and ideas in the metaphoric energies of the text, just as the characters are continually finding links between symbols, mathematical patterns, words, events and political machinations. This parallellism extends to the structure of the novel as well. The chapters leap around from event to event, plot line to plot line (there are at least four), and shuttle between the two time zones. At the same time the plot gives us layer upon layer of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy. The reader will find themselves trying to find out what is going on, struggling to keep up with the data flow. This is, of course, good practice in the thriller genre, but in a book about encryption and secrets it places us all the closer to the characters; we share their experience at some level.
- Tim Savin