Zodiac

Zodiac is yet another title by one of my favorites, Neal Stephenson.

In Snow Crash, Stephenson dragged us through the virtual reality of Cyberpunk. In The Diamond Age, he yanked us through a nanotechnological world of post-cyberpunk sci-fi.

Now he gives us another time period and another genre—the time of Zodiac is now, and the style of Zodiac is noir.

Those of you who are familiar with noir already know that it came from the film noir movement, a style of film making that was infested with grittiness, both in the film quality and in the stories the films told. They had a propensity for violence, vulgarity, and a cynical, edgy feel that made them ideal for detective stories and mysteries.

Some of you may recognize the name Guy Noir, Private Eye, a popular character from NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion. All his exploits are captured in a farcically noir setting, full of busty women and intrigue. The old Loony Toons, where Daffy Duck ends always ends up saying Wait A Minute, I AM Dick Twacey! Both are light hearted mockeries of the Noir style.

Too be frank, I don’t much care for noir, especially as it is transferred into literature. It lends itself towards narrative devices that should be used with care, and infrequently. The substitution of people’s features for their names, for instance (a man with a pinstripe suit might be referred to as if his name is “Pinstripes,” and a man with a mustache becomes “Whiskers”) is a classic noir concept. Other tricks of the trade include: swearing a lot for no apparent reason; not fully describing anything beyond four letter words, to deepen a sense of mystery; having a cynical main character who runs a constant inner monologue of sarcastic thoughts about everyone and everybody throughout the entire course of the book.

In sum, Noir has a tendency toward non-descriptive, underdramatic writing, and tries to make up for it by having lots and lots of attitude. It is the antithesis of Pollyanna, that is, the standard romance novel, which has far-too descriptive and melodramatic writing. Too much of either one is not entirely good.

Zodiac applies noir styles to Neal Stephenson’s writing. Stephenson, I would normally say, has more attitude in his writing normally than any other novelist I’ve read today, but also a fair amount more brilliance in the art of description. When he dresses himself up in a grainy trench coat for a romp in noir, not too much changes. He gets more attitude, as one might assume. And he gets less descriptive—although only in quantity of metaphors. Even in Zodiac, when he describes something, he does it fiendishly well.

The plot he weaves is a detective story, too, in accordance with tradition—with a cynical, sarcastic main character named Sangamon Taylor who has an unusual propensity for figuring out the mystery in the nick of time, and a cast of gritty characters who you can never quite tell are good or innocent until the very end.

There’s a twist though: Taylor is no normal detective. He’s an environmentalist, and the crimes he busts are toxic—like companies dumping toxic waste into Boston harbor. Picking up the book, I was worried. I thought that Stephenson, who I always saw as a paragon of mere commentary in a world of messages, was finally trying to persuade me of something, and I was in for a moralistic tale of saving whales.

Nothing of the sort here—if you like a detective story, you’ll love this. Stephenson tells a story of crime, murder, and confusing science that would make even Sherlock Holmes sweat. There’s real mystery here, and a real sense of horror when you realize that a whole lot of the chemistry and biology Stephenson talks about through the detective work—as always, presented in a brilliant way that even the layperson might fully appreciate—is actually accurate.

It all starts when Taylor, being the professional corporate pain-in-the-rear that all environmentalists are, discovers some PCBs in the Boston Harbor—a form of toxin that, unlike most unhealthy water-bound things, tends to kill people within a week, from insides-turning-to-jelly instead of years, from cancer, like most poisons to.

As he searches for the culprit, he manages to get on the bad list of half a dozen corporations, the FBI, perhaps the mafia, and a group of satanic druggies who misheard PCB as PCP, and have been on a jealous craze ever since. An, in the background, the looming threat of a contamination that would wipe out all marine life grows steadily larger in the background.

I tend not to like noir unless it’s at its best, and I liked this very much. The things that annoy me about noir still annoy me about the novel, but I’m willing to let them slide in light of all the good here. If you are a noir fan, this is a definite read. If you aren’t, pick it up anyway, or borrow my copy—it’s worth it, if only for the education.

Not as good as some of Stephenson’s other works, but still far better than most.

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