On the Use of Irony in Cryptonomicon

In Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, there is nothing more derided than irony. It is seen as the enemy of the artist, an obstacle to creativity, and the antithesis of true production.

If there is a protagonist to Crypto it is Randall Lawrence Waterhouse. He is comparable in many ways to the author of the story. They both came from the American heartland. They both ended up in the Pacific Northwest. They both came of age at the time of the computer’s introduction. They are both highly educated. They are both “white male technocrats.” They are both nerds.

In the Tolkien, not the endocrinological or Snow White sense, Randy is a Dwarf. Tolkien’s Dwarves were stout, taciturn, vaguely magical characters who spent a lot of time in the dark hammering out beautiful things, e.g. Rings of Power. Thinking of himself as a Dwarf who had hung up his war ax for a while to go sojourning in the Shire, where he was surrounded by squabbling Hobbits (i.e., Charlene’s friends), had actually done a lot for Randy’s peace of mind over the years. He knew perfectly well that if he were stuck in academia, these people, and the things they said, would seem momentous to him. But where he came from, nobody had been taking these people seriously for years. So he just withdrew from the conversation and drank his wine and looked out over the Pacific surf and tried not to do anything really obvious like shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

In America, Randy’s nerdism “separated [his] Self from Other[s].” This was true both in terms of how he worked and in what his work created. His abandonment of this life, and his resultant sojourn to the Philippines, was motivated by an extension of this modus vivendi.

But what he’s really thinking is: why did I waste all those years in academia when I could have been doing great shit like this?

Yet when he arrives in Manila, he finds that his commitment to focused, nerdly behavior still sets him apart from the people around him.

As he goes by the cathedral, children follow him, whining and begging piteously until he puts pesos in their hands. Then they beam and sometimes give him a bright “Thank you!” in perfect American scented shopping mall English. The beggars in Manila never seem to take their work very seriously, for even they have been infected by the cultural fungus of irony and always seem to be fighting back a grin, as if they can’t believe they’re doing anything so corny.

They do not understand that he is working. That’s okay.

Both Randy and the beggar-children accomplish what they set out to accomplish. Randy does it with seriousness, whereas they do it with an ironic air. It is no coincidence that they are begging for money where Randy is setting out to earn it.

Randy does not begin the novel as the sort of person who could, like Bilbo Baggins, end up “perched [above] a bright, thick river of gold.” His adventures throughout the novel make of him such a man as could accomplish this thing. They help him to gain confidence, to take things seriously, to choose a goal and then to “lunge into it like a rabid ferret going into a pipe full of raw meat.”

It takes Randy some time to rid himself entirely of the decadent vice of irony. During his migration from bourgeois affluence to being “on the cover of both Time and Newsweek,” he must overcome myriad challenges of varying import. One such obstacle relates to whether or not he was recorded in telling a lie to his company’s primary investor, Dr. Hubert Kepler, known as The Dentist.

“He could still subject the recording to a voice stress analysis, to figure out if you were lying,” John points out. He relishes the sheer unbridled paranoia of this. He’s in his element.

“Not to worry,” Randy says, “I jammed it.”

“Jammed it? How?” Eb asks, not catching the irony in Randy’s voice. Eb looks surprised and interested, It is clear from the look on his face that Eb longs to get into a conversation about something arcane and technical.

“I was joking,” Randy explains. “If the Dentist analyzes the recording, he’ll find nothing but stress in my voice.”

Avi and John laugh sympathetically. But Eb is crestfallen. “Oh,” Eb says. “I was thinking that we could absolutely jam his device if we so wanted.”

“A tape recorder doesn’t use radio,” John says. “How could we jam it?”

“Van Eck phreaking,” Eb says.

If Randy had continued in his defensive, ironic fashion, he never would have learned about Van Eck phreaking. This technical procedure becomes pivotal to Randy’s eventual accomplishment of his goals, by which he surpasses even The Dentist in wealth and influence.

It is difficult to conjure such focus and intensity without need. The pursuit of great wealth and power would be, to the Randy of the beginning of the book, a surrogate activity. He could just as easily have become an ostrich farmer, or a devotee of traditional Nipponese archery (“quirky hobbies being de rigueur in the high tech world”). By taking on an ambitious project, it quickly became necessary for him to complete it, lest he risk not only the lesser assets he possessed before, but even his liberty and his life.

“And it might make you a lot of money along the way,” Amy reminds him.

Randy laughs. “At this point, it’s not even about trying to make money,” he says. “I just don’t want to be totally humiliated.”

It is a foolish person who undertakes a dangerous activity which has little or no chance of significant benefit to them. A person wishing to accomplish things must undertake risk only in pursuit of reward. In the undertaking of risk in pursuit of reward lies adventure, excitement, and Romance. Yet it is always difficult to voluntarily sacrifice ease and security for a situation of great risk but great reward, for this require not only courage, but also the intelligence to determine how courage must be best applied.

When a person has their goals, and knows how to accomplish them, all other things fade into the background.

[R]iding in a taxi through Manila would be one of the more memorable experiences of [Randy’s] life if this were the first time he had ever done it, but is the millionth time and so nothing registers. For example, he sees two cars smashed together directly beneath a giant road sign that says NO SWERVING, but he doesn’t really take note.

In this moment, life is not to him like an entertainment. Its myriad is not just a surrogate for the the hard, imminent life that man lived in the state of nature. It is just as hard, just as immediate, and, arguably, far more important.

When a person does not undertake risk voluntarily, and seeks only to avoid risk but not to work towards a particular reward, they shall not accomplish great things. Knowing this, they shall not approach life with the same adventurous spirit; they shall forsake irony, and do so out of necessity, but as their purpose is ignoble, so too is their life.

Beck checks his wristwatch. “He must want to kill himself very badly,” he says.

“Sergeant Shaftoe takes his duty very seriously. It’s kind of ironic. His cyanide capsule dissolved in the seawater.”

“I am afraid that all irony has become tedious and depressing to me,” Beck says, as a body breaks the surface nearby. It is Shaftoe, and he seems to be unconscious.

Obertorpedomaat zur See Karl Beck does not care about humiliation any more than he cares about making money. Right then, he simply doesn’t want to die.

He does not have the initiative in life. But it is not enough to have the initiative; one must make use of it. Towards this end one must have defined goals and designs to see them actualized. One cannot overreach, by setting goals beyond one’s abilities; but so too is there nothing praiseworthy in taking up goals which are less than what one might accomplish, however sweet and easy such a sacrifice might be.

“Those Filipinos need leadership [General Douglas MacArthur says]. They need coordination. And perhaps most of all, they need fighting spirit.”

“Fighting spirit, sir?”

“There are many reasons for the Filipinos to be down in the dumps. The Nips have not been kind to them. And although I have been very busy, here in New Guinea, preparing the springboard for my return, the Filipinos don’t know about any of this, and many of them probably think I have forgotten about them entirely. Now it is time to let them know I’m coming. That I shall return – but soon!”

Shaftoe snickers, thinking that The General is engaging in some self mocking humor here yes, a bit of irony but then he notes that The General does not seem especially amused.

“Stop the vehicle!” he shouts.

Shaftoe parks the jeep at the apex of a switchback, where they can look northwest across the outermost reaches of the Philippine Sea. The General extends one arm toward Manila, hand slightly cupped, palm canted upward, gesturing like a Shakespearean actor in a posed photo graph.

“Go there, Bobby Shaftoe!” says The General. “Go there and tell them that I am coming.”

Shaftoe knows his cue, and he knows his line. “Sir, yes sir!”

In Cryptonomicon, Randy accomplishes great things, things comparable in scale and import to the factual accomplishments of The General MacArthur. But to do these things he must take on a very new mindset. He must become a “scary hardass,” in the noble tradition of the “Spartans, Victorians, and mid twentieth century military heroes,” all of which might well define The General. To accomplish great things, he must be great.

“But that’s straight out of some nineteenth century Horatio Alger book!” Tomas sputtered.

“So? Just because it’s an old idea doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” Randy said.

It is an old way of life that Randy seeks to undertake. It is older than Alger, and America; it is older than Tolkein, old as those texts which influenced his Middle-Earth. Randy must choose a very specific philosophy, an aesthetic, by which goals may be judged, in order that one worthy of pursuing might be chosen. What Randy chooses is to call one thing “evil” and one thing “good,” and to make his good available to the world at large.

“Why does [Andrew Loeb] want to hurt you?” Enoch asks [Randy].

“Because he’s evil.”

Enoch looks tremendously impressed.

In Cryptonomicon, what Randy eventually chooses is to live epically. He sets himself epic goals, and with great patience, energy and forethought, he meets his goals with means which are equal to their epic ends. It is not easy. Many times he is almost unsuccessful. But to follow his triumphs and travails is more than just an adventure; it makes us desire to follow in his footsteps, to dream as he did, and to pay careful attention to how he worked to make his dreams a reality, that we might work towards our dreams all the better therefore.

It makes us consider what we want to make manifest upon this world. It is inspirational.

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