Thursday, January 25, 2007

A eulogy for a hauntingly sad naval officer

Wherein best munchie food ever


John Derbyshire, at National Review Online, read Cryptonomicon and had this to say:
I must say, I liked Cryptonomicon. Not many people can carry off a style as florid as Stephenson’s, and even he doesn’t carry it off all the time. My own advice to a fiction writer would be: keep it plain and brief. Stephenson is elaborate and l — o — n — g. He can pull it off, though. The famous six-page account of a guy preparing and eating a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal didn’t work for me...

No problem with that, but I think Derbyshire missed a subtext with the Cap’n Crunch soliloquy that a lot of people missed--though this knowledge doesn't stop you from complaining about the length.

Derbyshire's comment also reminded me of an article in the Village Voice back in late 1999 (looked, couldn't find it) discussing high and low culture in literature and also pulled out the Cap’n Crunch section as an example of low culture. This was definately incorrect. What Stephenson was doing here--and the book is filled with these Easter eggs--was paying tribute to one of the legendary characters of the hacking era: John Draper. As a central underpinning of Cryptonomicon is how information is transmitted, secured, and hacked, this is very relevant.

BoingBoing recently ran an update on Draper, so click for more information. This wiki page also has some good links. Probably the best history of computing revolution in the 60s and 70s and the rise of the hacker ethic is Steven Levy's Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.

So, when reading Cryptonomicon and it takes Randy six pages to eat a bowl of Cap’n Crunch is it necessary to know that John Draper used a toy whistle from a Cap’n Crunch box to make the Ma Bell phones do anything he wanted them to do? No. You could take it as a writing tic of Stephenson's that you either love or hate. Or it's just another example of how Randy processes information. If you don't get the easter eggs, it shouldn't lessen your understanding of the book. It also isn't necessary to know that Commander Schoen, the code-breaking genius in the bathrobe, represents Joseph J. Rochefort, who broke most of the Japanese ciphers. Nor do you need to know that when Lawrence is biking around the Pine Barrens, what seems like a weirdly hallucinogenic dream is actually the crash of the Hindenburg:
He stared down upon the world’s globe, not the globe fleshed with continents and oceans but only its skeleton: a burst of meridians, curving backwards to cage an inner dome of orange flame. Against the light of the burning oil those longitudes were thin and crisp as a draftsman’s ink-strokes. But coming closer he saw them resolve into clever works of rings and struts, hollow as a bird’s bones. As they spread away from the pole they sooner or later began to wander, or split into bent parts, or just broke off and hung in the fire oscillating like dry stalks. The perfect geometry was also mottled, here and there, by webs of cable and harnesses of electrical wiring.


if you pick up on these easter eggs, they're like a private joke between the author and reader. But more than a joke, they also add layers of depths that raise Cryptonomicon above a WWII thriller and a modern hunt for Nazi gold. It becomes the historical background for the rise of the modern information age.

Or maybe it's just a guy eating cereal. Sometimes it's best not to get too carried away with these things.
The apartment only has one closet and when its door is open it appears to have been bricked shut, Cask of Amontillado-style, with very large flat red oblongs, each imprinted with the image of a venerable and yet oddly cheerful and yet somehow kind of hauntingly sad naval officer. The whole pallet load was shipped here several weeks ago by Avi, in an attempt to lift Randy’s spirits. For all Randy knows more are still sitting on a Manila dockside ringed with armed guards and dictionary-sized rat traps straining against their triggers, each baited with a single golden nugget.

Randy selects one of the bricks from this wall, creating a gap in the formation, but there is another, identical one right behind it, another picture of that same naval officer. They seem to be marching from his closet in a peppy phalanx. "Part of this complete balanced breakfast," Randy says. Then he slams the door on them and walks with a measured, forcibly calm step to the living room where he does most of his dining, usually while facing his thirty-six-inch television. He sets up his San Miguel, an empty bowl, an exceptionally large soup spoon—so large that most European cultures would identify it as a serving spoon and most Asian ones as a horticultural implement. He obtains a stack of paper napkins, not the brown recycled ones that can’t be moistened even by immersion in water, but the flagrantly environmentally unsound type, brilliant white and cotton-fluffy and desperately hygroscopic. He goes to the kitchen, opens the fridge, reaches deep into the back, and finds an unopened box-bag-pod-unit of UHT milk. UHT milk need not, technically, be refrigerated, but it is pivotal, in what is to follow, that the milk be only a few microdegrees above the point of freezing. The fridge in Randy’s apartment has louvers in the back where the cold air is blown in, straight from the freon coils. Randy always stores his milk-pods directly in front of those louvers. Not too close, or else the pods will block the flow of air, and not too far away either. The cold air becomes visible as it rushes in and condenses moisture, so it is a simple matter to sit there with the fridge door open and observe its flow characteristics, like an engineer testing an experimental minivan in a River Rouge wind tunnel. What Randy would like to see, ideally, is the whole milk-pod enveloped in an even, jacketlike flow to produce better heat exchange through the multilayered plastic-and-foil skin of the milk-pod. He would like the milk to be so cold that when he reaches in and grabs it, he feels the flexible, squishy pod stiffen between his fingers as ice crystals spring into existence, summoned out of nowhere simply by the disturbance of being squished.

Today the milk is almost, but not quite, that cold. Randy goes into his living room with it. He has to wrap it in a towel because it is so cold it hurts his fingers.
Randy takes the red box and holds it securely between his knees with the handy stay-closed tab pointing away from him. Using both hands in unison he carefully works his fingertips underneath the flap, trying to achieve equal pressure on each side, paying special attention to places where too much glue was laid down by the gluing-machine. For a few long, tense moments, nothing at all happens, and an ignorant or impatient observer might suppose that Randy is getting nowhere. But then the entire flap pops open in an instant as the entire glue-front gives way. Randy hates it when the box-top gets bent or, worst of all possible worlds, torn. The lower flap is merely tacked down with a couple of small glue-spots and Randy pulls it back to reveal a translucent, inflated sac. The halogen down-light recessed in the ceiling shines through the cloudy material of the sac to reveal gold—everywhere the glint of gold. Randy rotates the box ninety degrees and holds it between his knees so its long axis is pointed at the television set, then grips the top of the sac and carefully parts its heat-sealed seam, which purrs as it gives way. Removal of the somewhat milky plastic barrier causes the individual nuggets of Cap’n Crunch to resolve, under the halogen light, with a kind of preternatural crispness and definition that makes the roof of Randy’s mouth glow and throb in trepidation.

The gold nuggets of Cap’n Crunch pelt the bottom of the bowl with a sound like glass rods being snapped in half Tiny fragments spall away from their corners and ricochet around on the white porcelain surface. World-class cereal-eating is a dance of fine compromises. The giant heaping bowl of sodden cereal, awash in milk, is the mark of the novice. Ideally one wants the bone-dry cereal nuggets and the cryogenic milk to enter the mouth with minimal contact and for the entire reaction between them to take place in the mouth. Randy has worked out a set of mental blueprints for a special cereal-eating spoon that will have a tube running down the handle and a little pump for the milk, so that you can spoon dry cereal up out of a bowl, hit a button with your thumb, and squirt milk into the bowl of the spoon even as you are introducing it into your mouth. The next best thing is to work in small increments, putting only a small amount of Cap’n Crunch in your bowl at a time and eating it all up before it becomes a pit of loathsome slime, which, in the case of Cap’n Crunch, takes about thirty seconds.

He pours the milk with one hand while jamming the spoon in with the other, not wanting to waste a single moment of the magical, golden time when cold milk and Cap’n Crunch are together but have not yet begun to pollute each other’s essential natures: two Platonic ideals separated by a boundary a molecule wide. Where the flume of milk splashes over the spoon-handle, the polished stainless steel fogs with condensation. Randy of course uses whole milk, because otherwise why bother? Anything less is indistinguishable from water, and besides he thinks that the fat in whole milk acts as some kind of a buffer that retards the dissolution-into-slime process. The giant spoon goes into his mouth before the milk in the bowl has even had time to seek its own level. A few drips come off the bottom and are caught by his freshly washed goatee (still trying to find the right balance between beardedness and vulnerability, Randy has allowed one of these to grow). Randy sets the milk-pod down, grabs a fluffy napkin, lifts it to his chin, and uses a pinching motion to sort of lift the drops of milk from his whiskers rather than smashing and smearing them down into the beard. Meanwhile all his concentration is fixed on the interior of his mouth, which naturally he cannot see, but which he can imagine in three dimensions as if zooming through it in a virtual reality display. Here is where a novice would lose his cool and simply chomp down. A few of the nuggets would explode between his molars, but then his jaw would snap shut and drive all of the unshattered nuggets straight up into his palate where their armor of razor-sharp dextrose crystals would inflict massive collateral damage, turning the rest of the meal into a sort of pain-hazed death march and rendering him Novocain mute for three days. But Randy has, over time, worked out a really fiendish Cap’n Crunch eating strategy that revolves around playing the nuggets’ most deadly features against each other. The nuggets themselves are pillow-shaped and vaguely striated to echo piratical treasure chests. Now, with a flake-type of cereal, Randy’s strategy would never work. But then, Cap’n Crunch in a flake form would be suicidal madness; it would last about as long, when immersed in milk, as snowflakes sifting down into a deep fryer. No, the cereal engineers at General Mills had to find a shape that would minimize surface area, and, as some sort of compromise between the sphere that is dictated by Euclidean geometry and whatever sunken-treasure-related shapes that the cereal-aestheticians were probably clamoring for, they came up with this hard-to-pin-down striated pillow formation. The important thing, for Randy’s purposes, is that the individual pieces of Cap’n Crunch are, to a very rough approximation, shaped kind of like molars. The strategy, then, is to make the Cap’n Crunch chew itself by grinding the nuggets together in the center of the oral cavity, like stones in a lapidary tumbler.

6 Comments:

Blogger Ahistoricality said...

Obviously I'm going to have to read Cryptonomicon at some point (the early semester crush has stalled my progress on The Confusion), but the Cap'n Cruch connection doesn't seem obvious from the excerpt. There's an interesting neurotic psychedelia going on, though, that OCD thinking style that's so common among the technical and academic classes....

1/25/2007 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger bill said...

That's the thing, it isn't obvious. It reads like a case of geeked out OCD and it works that they. There's nothing in there that points to Draper--either you know it or you don't. Works either way. I would guess that Stephenson's first intention was to provide an example of Randy's thinking style. Insight into how he thinks is important later one. It could have easily have been any other cereal, but Cap'n Crunch adds texture for those who get it AND it's likely that Randy would be very familiar with the Draper story.

In many ways this is a good companion to Umberto Eco's postscript to The Name of the Rose. It isn't in what I excerpted, but he discusses how a reader's knowledge and insights can change what the author intended.

1/26/2007 07:46:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

2nd sentence: they = way

1/26/2007 07:47:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

Confusion cranks up about halfway through. Most of the main characters in the Baroque Cycle have modern day counterparts in Cryptonomicon.

System of the World contains the best Monty Python reference.

1/26/2007 07:57:00 AM  
Blogger ZenPupDog said...

I — once a MetaWeb mod — still plan on annotating the damn book.

Thanks.

7/17/2012 08:04:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

thanks, ZenPupDog.

7/27/2012 07:23:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home