The New York Times Book Review called Neal Stephenson's most recent novel "electrifying" and "hilarious". but if you want to know Stephenson was doing twenty years before he wrote the epic Cryptonomicon, it's back-to-school time. Back to The Big U, that is, a hilarious send-up of American college life starring after years our of print, The Big U is required reading for anyone interested in the early work of this singular writer.
The Go Big Red Fan was John Wesley Fenrick's, and when ventilating his System it throbbed and crept along the floor with a rhythmic chunka-chunka-chunk. Fenrick was a Business major and a senior. From the talk of my wingmates I gathered that he was smart, yet crazy, which helped. The description weird was also used, but admiringly. His roomie, Ephraim Klein of New Jersey, was in Philosophy. Worse, he was found to be smart and weird and crazy, intolerably so on all these counts and several others besides.
As for the Fan, it was old and square, with a heavy rounded de-sign suitable for the Tulsa duplex window that had been its station before John Wesley Fenrick had brought it out to the Big U with him. Running up one sky-blue side was a Go Big Red bumper sticker. When Fenrick ran his System--that is, bludgeoned the rest of the wing with a record or tape--he used the Fan to blow air over the back of the component rack to prevent the electronics from melting down. Fenrick was tall and spindly, with a turkey-like head and neck, and all of us in the east corridor of the south wing of the seventh floor of E Tower knew him for three things: his seventies rock-'n'-roll souvenir collection, his trove of preposterous electrical appliances, and his laugh--a screaming hysterical cackle that would ricochet down the long shiny cinderblock corridor whenever some-thing grotesque flashed across the 45-inch screen of his Video System or he did something especially humiliating to Ephraim Klein.
Klein was a subdued, intellectual type. He reacted to his victories with a contented smirk, and this quietness gave some residents of E07S East the impression that Fenrick, a roomie-buster with many a notch on his keychain, had already cornered the young sage.
In fact, Klein beat Fenrick at a rate of perhaps sixty percent, or whenever he could reduce the conflict to a rational discussion. He felt that he should be capable of better against a power-punker Business major, but he was not taking into account the animal shrewdness that enabled Fenrick to land lucrative oil-company internships to pay for the modernization of his System.
Inveterate and cynical audio nuts, common at the Big U, would walk into their room and freeze solid, such was Fenrick's System, its skyscraping rack of obscure black slabs with no lights, knobs or switches, the 600-watt Black Hole Hyperspace Energy Nexus Field Amp that sat alone like the Kaaba, the shielded coaxial cables thrown out across the room to the six speaker stacks that made it look like an enormous sonic slime mold in spawn. Klein himself knew a few things about stereos, having a system that could repro-duce Bach about as well as the American Megaversity Chamber Orchestra, and it galled him.
To begin with there was the music. That was bad enough, but Klein had associated with musical Mau Maus since junior high, and could inure himself to it in the same way that he kept himself from jumping up and shouting back at television commercials. It was the Go Big Red Fan that really got to him. "Okay, okay, let's just accept as a given that your music is worth playing. Now, even assuming that, why spend six thousand dollars on a perfect system with no extraneous noises in it, and then, then, cool it with a noisy fan that couldn't fetch six bucks at a fire sale?" Still, Fenrick would ignore him. "I mean, you amaze me sometimes. You can't think at all, can you? I mean, you're not even a sentient being, if you look at it strictly."
When Klein said something like this (I heard the above one night when going down to the bathroom), Fenrick would look up at him from his Business textbook, peering over the wall of bright, stolen record-store displays he had erected along the room's center-line; because his glasses had slipped down his long thin nose, he would wrinkle it, forcing the lenses toward the desired altitude, in-voluntarily baring his canine teeth in the process and causing the stiff spiky hair atop his head to shift around as though inhabited by a band of panicked rats.
"You don't understand real meaning," he'd say. "You don't have a monopsony on meaning. I don't get meaning from books. My meaning means what it means to me." He would say this, or some-thing equally twisted, and watch Klein for a reaction. After he had done it a few times, though, Klein figured out that his roomie was merely trying to get him all bent out of shape--to freak his brain, as it were--and so he would drop it, denying Fenrick the chance to shriek his vicious laugh and tell the wing that he had scored again.
Klein was also annoyed by the fact that Fenrick, smoking loads of parsley-spiked dope while playing his bad music, would forget to keep an eye on the Go Big Red Fan. Klein, sitting with his back to the stereo, wads of foam packed in his ears, would abruptly feel the Fan chunk into the back of his chair, and as he spazzed out in hysterical surprise it would sit there maliciously grinding away and transmitting chunka-chunka-chunks into his pelvis like muffled laughs.
If it was not clear which of them had air rights, they would wage sonic wars.
They both got out of class at 3:30. Each would spend twenty minutes dashing through the labyrinthine ways of the Monoplex, pounding fruitlessly on elevator buttons and bounding up steps three at a time, palpitating at the thought of having to listen to his roommate's music until at least midnight. Often as not, one would explode from the elevator on E07S, veer around to the corridor, and with disgust feel the other's tunes pulsing victoriously through the floor.