[BOOK REVIEW]Sprawling thriller sometimes loses its wayAlthough Neal Stephenson may have some faults as a writer, one thing you cannot fault him for is his vivid imagination. This 1,100-plus page tome weaves together at least three different plot lines and blends military action, number theorists’ labors to make and break military ciphers, the hunt for buried Japanese gold and other treasure in the Philippines and modern financial derring-do. It does, as one reviewer noted, “almost defy description.”
But its length is not an unalloyed virtue. Stephenson has problems sustaining the pace, and I found myself bored on occasion as I plodded through it. The temptation to skip ahead was irresistible when he wanted me to plod through a 28-page passage, the text of an e-mail, full of cutesy-pie prose and set in the ugly Courier type that you see in Windows Notepad or on documents typed on an IBM Selectric typewriter.
Riffle through the pages ― ah, he saw some gold in the northern Philippines ― riffle on and pick up the plot later. The same thing occurs in other places, such as a long discourse between two jailed men who converse about Greek gods and goddesses while one surreptitiously decrypts a message from the other.
Judiciously edited, this could have been one of the better recent thrillers. Stephenson, unlike Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code,” makes no grand assertions about historical or geographical accuracy, but his characterizations of Alan Turing, the layout of Manila and the geography of the Philippines are on the mark, although existing alongside a fictional sultanate in the South China Sea. Swashbucking Marines, clever cryptanalysts, Japanese soldiers enduring the jungles of New Guinea and sultry Filipina maidens make their appearances, and the plot slowly moves on toward a denouement.
“Slowly,” though, is often the operative word. It is hard to sustain suspense over so long a volume, and at some points my attention flagged badly. The end of the book has a baffling twist, and I still do not know what to think about it. I suspect that the foreshadowing is hidden somewhere in the previous 500 pages, but as interesting as most of this book is, it is not the kind of story that makes me enthusiastic about rereading such a large swath of it.
In short, this is a good but flawed novel. It’s a pity that there was not some judicious, if extensive, editing to tighten up the book.
By Neal Stephenson
Avon Books, 2002 (paperback)
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by John Hoog
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