I Review Neal Stephenson’s Zany, Prescient Novel Snow Crash (And Comment on the Impending Film Adaptation)
Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash opens with an extended scene in which the book’s protagonist races to deliver a pizza on time for the mafia. The scene is thrilling and ridiculous, establishing the book’s frenetic, ironic tone and painting a rough outline of Snow Crash’s milieu. Like many sprawling works of speculative fiction, Snow Crash is more interested in rendering its milieu in vibrant, hyperkinetic color than it is concerned with delivering plot and character development. Snow Crash’s plot is the sort of joyfully convoluted careening mess that makes a reviewer (okay, this reviewer) shudder at the thought of having to successfully paraphrase, so I’m not even going to make an earnest effort. Let’s get to that milieu and the cartoon characters who inhabit it.
Snow Crash is set in the early 21st century, primarily in Los Angeles, which is no longer part of the United States. Actually, there isn’t much of a United States to speak of, really—and not even a municipal Los Angeles, per se. Instead, the terrain is totally privatized. Privatized roads, privatized spaces. People (who can afford to) live in franchised burbclaves protected by hired mercenaries or private militias or robots that keep out the undesirables. (The white folks who live in New South Africa want “racial purity,” while some franchise nations, like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong are open to anyone who can trade information). Authority is for sale. Conditions are so laissez-faire that the Mafia is truly a Legitimate Business now (complete with their own CosaNostra Pizza University). In fact, all business is legitimate; several times in Snow Crash, a character will refer to “the old days when they had laws.” Without regulation, hyperinflation is the norm; the homeless use trillion-dollar bills to light their campfires.
There’s a hard-edged griminess to the world Stephenson conjures in Snow Crash, but the book is never grim or dour, and instead embraces the anarchic-capitalism it proposes. Perhaps this is because Stephenson’s heroes are such radically exceptional people. The book’s hero is named Hiro Protagonist, the kind of Pynchonian goof that characterizes Snow Crash’s zany tone. Hiro meets the book’s other protagonist, a fifteen year old blonde who goes by Y.T. (“Yours Truly,” although most of the folks tend to hear “whitey”). Y.T. is a Kourier, a skateboarding delivery person who harpoons vehicles to catch a free ride. She helps Hiro deliver that pizza in the opening scene and the two team up after Hiro gives her his business card. It reads: “Last of the Freelance Hackers / Greatest swordfighter in the world / Stringer, Central Intelligence Corporation. Specializing in Software related Intel. (Music, Movies & Microcode.)” Did I neglect to mention that Hiro carries two samurai swords with him wherever he goes?
Hiro’s pretty handy with those swords, but his real skill is hacking, and he spends a good deal of time in the Metaverse, a virtual reality-based internet space where avatars go to bars and chat and sell &c. It’s sort of like a mix between Facebook and World of War Craft. In 1992 (earlier, I suppose), Stephenson’s way ahead of the curve. Here, he describes avatars:
Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.
There are plenty of passages like this, where Stephenson pegs some aspect of internet culture ten years before it actually happens. (I couldn’t help but think about Wikipedia during Hiro’s conversations with a program called Librarian). It’s probably fair to say that the Wachowskis lifted as much from Snow Crash as they did from William Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogies.
While I’m there, I might as well lazily point out that Snow Crash would fit neatly at home on a shelf with Neuromancer or Mona Lisa Overdrive. There’s also a heavy dose of Philip K. Dick weirdness in Snow Crash, particularly when the book settles into its major metaphysical plot about ancient Sumerian gods and goddesses and linguistic viruses and the Tower of Babel. Stephenson’s Snow Crash is zanier than William Gibson’s dark depictions or Dick’s mindmelted milieux, and it would hardly do to call what he does here light—but there is something joyful, playful about his satire. I invoked Pynchon earlier and I’ll do it again; parts of Snow Crash also reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest. Both IJ and SC obsess over the minutest details of speculative technologies and how people might react to such technologies. This is often what sets Snow Crash heads and shoulders above run of the mill cyberpunk. In just one instance, Stephenson parodies the language of bureaucratic speech at length; Y.T.’s mom, who works for what’s left of the Federal Government, is subjected to a memo about toilet paper usage that goes on for pages. The passage is hilarious, and adds absolutely nothing to the plot development—it simply helps to flesh out the contours of the world that Stephenson has imagined.
All of this detailed imagining unfortunately comes at the expense of a plot that only coheres through massive exposition dumps. About a third of the way into the novel, the major conflict is finally established, but only through a dialog between Hiro and the Librarian that reads almost like a catechism. As the book reaches its climax, Hiro actually explains what’s going on to a few of the other major characters—and the reader, of course. It’s a cringe-worthy moment, the sort of rhetorical weakness that smacks of genre fiction; even worse, the plot’s action ultimately hangs on some fairly basic hoary old tropes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever played a video game. The book lags under a juvenile obsession with weapons and badassery in general. And the book’s resolution . . . well, let’s just say that Stephenson sticks the ending, but it all feels too pat and too slight after the dazzling weight of the world that he’s established. Still, at its finest, Stephenson’s prose is zippy, shining, hilarious stuff, and his employment of multiple character perspectives moves the book with an addictive energy. Snow Crash is beach reading for folks who like some humor with their dystopia.
A film adaptation of Snow Crash is supposedly going into production soon, with British director Joe Cornish taking charge. I liked Cornish’s last film Attack the Block, and Snow Crash clearly has a highly-imagistic, cinematic feel to it—but I think a film is not the way to go. Simply put, Snow Crash is too big, too larded with characters and details (so many that I failed to touch on in this review) to translate well onscreen. I think an eight part miniseries on HBO (or a similar network) would be perfect, even if it came at the expense of special effects—-a miniseries would give the filmmakers time to build Stephenson’s nuanced world. I’m afraid otherwise we’ll get a travesty like the adaptation of The Golden Compass, or something like The Hunger Games film, where all but the most basic plot points are elided. But I suppose a miniseries is not as lucrative as a blockbuster film. I hope the filmmakers at least split the book in two. In any case, I’ll be interested to check out the results.
There’s a part in William Gaddis’s big novel The Recognitions where Basil Valentine talks about how forged paintings are always outed as fakes over time because they ultimately illustrate not the original genius of the artist, but instead show how the current zeitgeist interprets the artist. Film adaptations of books aren’t painted forgeries, but they are highly susceptible to the same critical limitations that Valentine discusses. We can see this plainly in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, a messy, vibrant, flaky film thoroughly shot-through with the aesthetic spirit of the nineties. I like Luhrmann’s R&J, despite its many, many faults. One of its great saving graces is that it seems aware of its own spectacle—it unselfconciously acknowledges itself as a product of its time, as just one of many, many adaptations of Shakespeare’s deathless work.
Lurhmann has taken a stab at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He’s not the first. Others attempted to turn Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the jazz age into a movie in 1926 (the film is lost), 1949 (there’s a reason you never saw it in high school), and 1974 (I’ll come back to the Redford Gatsby in a moment). Most recently, a 2000 anemic TV production featured Mira Sorvino as Daisy and Paul Rudd as a terribly miscast Nick Carraway. Up until now, high school teachers across the country who wanted to foist an adaptation on their students (and maybe free up a day or two of lesson planning) have had to choose between the 2000 A&E production or Jack Clayton’s 1974 Francis Ford Coppola-penned debacle—this is the one I was subjected to in high school. It features Robert Redford as Gatsby, Sam Waterston as Nick, and Mia Farrow as Daisy, and none of them are terrible, but the movie is dull, overly-reverential of its source material, and heavy-handed. It also looks incredibly dated now, its evocations of the 1920′s jazz age petrified in gauzy ’70s soft-focus shots. It just looks and feels very 1970s.
Judging by its trailer, Lurhmann’s Gatsby is making absolutely no play at all for timelessness. Just as his earlier mashup, 2001′s Moulin Rouge!, essentially uses the Belle Époque as a sounding board for transgenerational spectacle, Lurhmann’s Gatsby looks like another thoroughly interpretative gesture, a hyperkinetic, hyperstylized film that makes no bid at realism. This is what 2012 thinks 1922 should look like (or at least this is 2012′s ideal, shimmering, sexy version of 1922.) Here’s the trailer:
Overwrought, frenetic spectacle is exactly what I would expect from Luhrmann. There’s a transposition of meaning here, where Gatsby’s famous party turns into a rave of sorts, where Daisy’s phrasing of “You always look so cool” takes on anachronistic dimensions. But the trailer seems faithful (if hyperbolic) to images described in the book. By way of comparison, let’s look at the first shot in the trailer, the car full of young black people treating said car as a party scene. Here’s the text:
As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . .”
Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.
The energy of the scene is expressed—and magnified—in Luhrmann’s shot, but it’s impossible to say yet whether or not the invocation to change expressed in this citation will transfer to film.
It’s also obviously too early to make any pronouncements on the casting, although I’ll submit that you could find a worse Jay Gatsby than Leonardo DiCaprio (who I think, for the record, was great as petulant, whiny Romeo in Luhrmann’s breakthrough film). I’m not sure about Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, but there’s a certain, I don’t know, emptiness to him that may work well in our unreliable narrator. My big concern is Carey Mulligan, who I think is very sweet and I will admit to having a mild crush on—is she right for Daisy Buchanan, one of the meanest, most selfish creatures in literature? The other Buchanan, husband Tom, is portrayed by Joel Edgerton with a kind of seething rage here in the clip. Dude looks positively evil—cartoonishly so (which is really saying something, because Luhrmann seems to turn everything into a cartoon). Edgerton’s Tom presents as the glowering obstacle to the pure, positive love between Daisy and Gatsby. And here might be the biggest trip up with the film: The trailer seems to be advertising a love story.
Now, of course reading is an act of interpretation, a highly subjective experience dependent on any number of factors (see also: the opening paragraph to this riff). But good reading and good interpretation is generally supported by textual evidence, and the textual evidence in Gatsby reveals not so much a love story, but a bunch of nefarious creeps and awful liars who ruin the lives of the people around them with little thought or introspection. I mean, really, the principal characters are basically vile people (hence the reason your high school English teacher loved to point out Nick Carraway’s signature unreliability as a narrator—he glosses over so much evil). But again, it’s just a trailer, and trailers are made to make people buy tickets to movies, and people will pay to see a love story. We’ll have to wait for the film to assess Lurhmann’s interpretation. For now, it’s enough to suggest that the trailer achieved what it needed to—as of now, The Great Gatsby is still trending on Twitter. This is buzz; this is what a trailer is supposed to create. And if a byproduct of that buzz is to get more people reading or rereading, that can’t be a bad thing.