Neal Stephenson: The System of the World

My favourite way of describing Neal Stephenson as an author is that his ambition vastly outstrips his talent; and the Baroque Cycle is a good point in case, I think. It is fairly obvious what he wanted to do here (mainly because Pynchon already did it before him) and it is even more blatantly obvious that this is not the chef-d’oeuvre describing the emergence of an age and short-circuiting that age with our present time that Stephenson wants it to be.

The first novel, Quicksilver had three protagonists, the second, The Confusion, had two of those, Jack and Eliza, with Daniel being mostly relegated to the background; so it is probably no great surprise that in The System of the World we see Daniel take center stage again, with Jack and Eliza moved to the wings. Also, this third novel takes almost exclusively part in England (and most of that in London – as world-roaming as The Confusion was, so confined is The System of the World), and generally this is by far the most focused novel of the Baroque Cycle, one could almost call it tightly constructed. But only almost, as this probably would just not be Stephenson if he would not go on long tangents at every occasion that offers itself, culminating towards the end of the novel in a moment-by-moment description of the “Trial of the Pyx” (basically, a test of the validity of British coinage) that rambles on and on and on over hundreds of pages (felt pages – actually it’s more like several dozen, but still absurdly long).

There also is some mumbling about the threatening chaos of quicksilver being contained into a solid system of the world – a weak and totally unconvincing bit of legerdemain to make readers believe there is some kind of Deeper Meaning at work in the Baroque Cycle rather than a random agglomeration of pointless facts by which of course nobody is taken in. The thing is that you just might get away with piling up heaps of facts and pieces of information in a non-fiction work, but if you want your text to work as a novel, you need to somehow connect that facts in a way that infuses them with significance – take a look at Moby Dick if you want to see how it’s done properly, or Gravity’s Rainbow (or really anything by Thomas Pynchon who is the supreme master of turning facts into metaphor). Neal Stephenson, on the other hand, just keeps shovelling facts, facts and even more facts into his novels in the hope that they’ll magically cohere into something meaningful – which of course they don’t. At best, the facts are curious in interesting in themselves, at worst they’re just a heap of boring pedantry that  – except for the, in this case really minor, difference of their being historical rather than made up – could have comfortably fitted in any of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels and that only distracts from what remains at heart a rip-roaring adventure story.

Thankfully, that heart beats strong enough in The System of the World to make itself felt through all the intellectual waste Stephenson piles on it, and its rhythm is compelling enough to keep the reader turning the pages even when they are filled with tedious descriptions of irrelevant detail. This third novel of the Baroque Cycle is to my taste at least the most entertaining, with two major struggles driving the plot forward – the rupture between Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Leibniz about the authorship of the calculus which Daniel tries to mediate on one hand, and the struggle between Master of the Mint Newton and master forger Jack Shaftoe in wich Daniel also is involved. It is mainly the second one (no surprise, as Jack plays a central part) which keeps things going and the reader interested as Daniel first hunts down the forger with a group of unlikely investigators (most of which turn out to have – at least! – a double agenda) and then once again becomes a mediator trying to unite the opposing factions in a common purpose. We get a big heist (targeting the tower), a duel (with cannons), a wild chase (with coaches) and quite a few colourful and exciting things more.

Summing up (or well, repeating my sermon for the umpteenth time), The Baroque Cycle could have been such a wonderful book if it wasn’t for Neal Stephenson’s delusions of grandeur. Someone really should rescue the fun adventure novel hidden in the trilogy by pulling an S. Morgenstern on Stephenson and make an abridgement with just the good parts.


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