Neal Stephenson: Quicksilver

He may be over it by now (as I have not read any of his more recent work), but I’m convinced that at the time he was writing Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle (of which Quicksilver is the first volume), the first thing Neal Stephenson did every morning right after getting out of bed was to shamble into the bathroom and stand there for ten minutes, just staring bleary-eyed into the mirror and bemoaning his fate that it was not Thomas Pynchon looking back at him.

If with Cryptonomicon Stephenson tried to write Gravity’s Rainbow, then the Baroque Cycle is his attempt at authoring Mason & Dixon, an exploration of modern technology and the effect it has had on the 20th century followed by a sprawling, weird, detail-obsessed historical novel. Unfortunately, Neal Stephenson was not only too late in both cases, but is also not nearly the writer Pynchon is, and therefore ended up failing rather spectacularly, producing a series of novels that, in spite of their massive bulk, seems rather flat and shallow if held up against Pynchon.

Admittedly, I am being somewhat unfair here – not every writer can be a Pynchon, and usually that is not something you’d hold against anyone. It is just that Stephenson so clearly, desperately wants to be Pynchon, making it impossible to not judge him by that standard, a standard which he just cannot measure up to. I already disliked Cryptonomicon, but that was at least was somewhat entertaining; while Quicksilver, when I first read it (shortly after it was released) was just a terrible slog to get through. I did made it to the end somehow, but didn’t touch another novel by Stephenson afterwards.

But sometimes I do get those strange urges, and a few months back I started ogling the Baroque Cycle again – I’m not quite certain, but I think the fault lies almost certainly (and doesn’t it always?) with Leander and her ongoing fascination with Baroque Opera. Whatever the reason, after some months of futile resistance the urge became irresistible, I got myself the e-book version of Stephenson’s trilogy and started – not without some misgivings – digging into Quicksilver. And ended up surprised at how much I was enjoying it – so much so, in fact, that I read the whole of the Baroque Cycle, all almost 3000 pages of it in almost exactly a month.

Which is not to say that I did not still have some problems with it. If one comes to this novel with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series fresh in one’s mind it is almost painfully obvious  to what degree Quicksilver fails as a straight historical novel. Not that I’d have thought even for a moment that Stephenson attempted to write one, but his attempts at mimicking the Baroque writing style are quite grating after O’Brian’s full immersion in his chosen period (and don’t even get me start on a comparison to Mason & Dixon). Stephenson seems half-hearted by comparison, his occasional usage of old spellings seems arbitrary (for example he inexplicably keeps writing “roofs” as “rooves” but is perfectly  happy to use a modern spelling for most words) and generally gives the impression of someone just wanting to show off (which I strongly suspect is the raison d’être for a lot of the extended, quite often tedious descriptions of all sorts of minutiae). But then, this is not really supposed to be a strictly historical novel – Stephenson liberally peppers his narrative with anachronisms, and the auctorial is distinctly contemporary and postmodern. Which has the rather unfortunate effect that the novel reads like it wasn’t able to take itself seriously – on the one hand, it is a serious historical novel with a plethora of period detail, on the other it seems more preoccupied with finding precursors modern concerns like programming languages and arbitrary signifiers; on the one hand it seems to want to say something important, on the other it’s just here to have some fun.

Quicksilver is separated into three parts, each with a different protagonist, each of which seems to also work as some kind of allegory – Daniel Waterhouse who is the protagonist of the first book, is a Man of Science, Jack Shaftoe, protagonist of the second, is a rogue and classical picaro, and Eliza (not sure we ever learn her second name), protagonist of the third book and a genius of financial manipulation. Personally, I rather liked the first books but I suspect that was mostly because I already had an interest in the history of science of that period, but most readers (and that would include me) tend to prefer the second, because it is there that Stephenson changes from trying to write serious literature (which, seriously, he is just no good at) to spinning a yarn of colourful adventure (which, it turns out, he is really good at). “King of te Vagabonds,” the Jack Shaftoe part of the novel is an inordinate amount of fun, taking our morally doubtful hero from Vienna to the Netherlands to Paris in a series of increasingly wild and improbable adventures in the true picaresque manner and lets the reader forget about the ponderous, slow-moving first part with several hundred pages of glorious entertainment.

Unfortunately, Stephenson then goes and ruins it all (well, part of it, anyway) with the third part where things just fall apart – for some reason, he decided to not tell his tale straight any more but instead approaches all the important events in his narrative at an oblique angle, only telling of them indirectly and second-hand, which gets really annoying after a while and again slows the novel’s speed down to a crawl.

I’m really not someone who scolds novel for being pretentious – usually, I find that it is just a convenient (and extremely flimsy) excuse for lazy readers to not have to read novels that are difficult or challenging in any way and which might possibly ask of them to think about what they are reading, or even only just pay attention to it. With Quicksilver, however, I think the shoe fits – this is a wonderful adventure novel (almost) ruined by its pretensions to be something more. Thankfully, Neal Stephenson seems to have realized where his true talents lie, and things improve steadily over the next two volumes.


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