Quicksilver: A Review

(No spoilers here—this is a straightforward book review. Look for spoiler-laden commentary in a week or two.)

Baroque: Of, relating to, or characteristic of a style in art and architecture developed in Europe from the early 17th to mid-18th century, emphasizing dramatic, often strained effect and typified by bold, curving forms, elaborate ornamentation, and overall balance of disparate parts. (American Heritage Dictionary)

Neal Stephenson is nothing if not ambitious. Cryptonomicon, his previous novel and until recently his best, juggled interweaving plotlines in two different time periods, providing equally memorable portraits of Bletchley Park circa 1943 and Manila circa 1999, just to name a couple. In both theme and substance, the novel hewed pretty close to its titular subject of cryptography.

The Baroque Cycle—of which the 916-page Quicksilver is only the first third—is already vastly larger in scope. Cryptography still figures prominently, but only as one aspect of a work that encompasses the entire history of science, politics, and economics in late 17th century England and Western Europe. It is a historical novel in which the ancestors of Cryptonomicon’s protagonists stand side-to-side with real figures from Isaac Newton to Gottfried Liebniz to Louis XIV. We have Daniel Waterhouse, a young natural philospher and Puritan overshadowed by the likes of Newton, Hooke, and Wilkins, thrust unwillingly into the swamp of court intrigue. Later we are introduced to Jack Shaftoe, the quintessential Vagabond, and his traveling companion Eliza, both of whom find themselves caught between the decadent court at Versailles and the birth of capitalism in the markets of Amsterdam. And of course we have the alchemist Enoch Root, by all accounts the selfsame person as the one who appears three centuries later, none the worse for wear, in Cryptonomicon. And these are just the principles—Quicksilver is the sort of book that has a Dramatis Personae section at the back that you will need to refer to in order to keep track of everyone.

It’s difficult to convey just how much stuff this novel has in it. This passage, about Newton’s Principio Mathematica, may be a bit of coy self-reference:

APTHORP: My word, is that the cornerstone of a building, or a manuscript?
RAVENSCAR: Err! To judge by weight, it is the former.
WATERHOUSE: It explains the System of the World.
APTHORP: Some sharp editor needs to step in and take that wretch in hand!

On every page you’ll find an unexpected cameo, the basis for a now-taken-for-granted scientific principle, a fascinating historical footnote, or the origin of an English word. Stephenson has a strong track record in nonfiction, especially as a historical and cultural commentator. The same skills are in play in Quicksilver, where he manages to highlight the unexpected quirks of history while simultaneously grokking the zeitgeist.

Even though Stephenson’s work has nothing to do with fantasy, I can’t help but thinking of Tolkien’s notion of “recovery,” as described in “On Fairy Stories,” when looking at the way Stephenson handles his settings. For Tolkien, recovery meant a “regaining of a clear view”; he felt that one role of fantasy was to reinvigorate our perspective of everyday things by putting them into new contexts. (For example: once you’ve read about the Ents, you don’t ever look at that old tree in the backyard in quite the same way.) Whether he’s writing about WWII-era Sweden or Amsterdam in 1685, Stephenson accomplishes something like recovery by bringing out the teeming diversity, the barely-controlled chaos, and the messy beauty of each of his locales. The real world, as described by Stephenson, gains a large measure of the madcap energy present in the imagined future societies of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.

Impressive as the setting of Quicksilver is, Stephenson’s greatest step forward as a novelist is the quality of his prose. While it has always been serviceable, in this novel it is consistently strong, and punctuated with moments of brilliance, such as Daniel’s insight into the mind of his friend Issac:

Daniel saw in a way he’d never seen anything before: his mind was a homonculus squatting in the middle of his skull, peering out through good but imperfect telescopes and listening-horns, gathering observations that had been distorted along the way, as a lens put chromatic aberrations into all the light that passed through it. A man who peered out at the world through a telescope would assume that the aberration was real, that the stars actually looked like that—what false assumptions, then, had natural philosophers been making about the evidence of their senses, until last night? Sitting in the gaudy radiance of those windows hearing the organ play and the choir sing, his mind pleasantly intoxicated from exhaustion, Daniel experienced a faint echo of what it must be like, all the time, to be Isaac Newton: a permanent ongoing epiphany, and endless immersion in lurid radiance, a drowning in light, a ringing of cosmic harmonies in the ears.

But Stephenson is never so good as when he’s being funny, as with this description of the attire of the Earl of Upnor:

Today, walking across Charing Cross, he was wearing a suit that appeared to’ve been constructed by (1) dressing him in a blouse with twenty-foot-long sleeves of the most expensive linen; (2) bunching the sleeves up in numerous overlapping gathers on his arms; (3) painting most of him in glue; (4) shaking and rolling him in a bin containing thousands of black silk doilies; and (5) (because King Charles II, who’d mandated, a few years earlier, that all courtiers wear black and white, was getting bored with it, but had not formally rescinded the order) adding dashes of color her and there, primarily in the form of clusters of elaborately gathered and knotted ribbons—enough ribbon, all told, to stretch all the way to whatever shop in Paris where the Earl had bought all of this stuff. The Earl also had a white silk scarf tied round his throat in such a way as to show off its lacy ends. Louis XIV’s Croation mercenaries, les Cravates, had made a practice of tying their giant, flapping lace collars down so that gusts of wind would not blow them up over their faces in the middle of a battle or duel, and this had become a fashion in Paris, and the Earl of Upnor, always pushing the envelope, was doing the cravate thing with a scarf instead of an (as of ten minutes ago) outmoded collar. He had a wig that was actually wider than his shoulders, and a pair of boots that contained enough really good snow-white leather that, if pulled on straight, they would have reached all the way to his groin, at which point each one of them would have been larger in circumference than his waist; but he had of course folded the tops down and then (since they were so long) folded them back up again to keep them from dragging on the ground, so that around each knee was a complex of white leather folds about as wide as a bushel-basket, filled with a froth of lace. Gold spurs, beset with jewels, curved back from each heel to a distance of perhaps eight inches. The heels themselves were cherry-red, four inches high, and protected from the muck of Charing Cross by loose slippers whose flat soles dragged on the ground and made clacking noises with each step. Because of the width of his boot-tops, the Earl had to swing his legs around each other with each step, toes pointed, rolling so violently from side to side that he could only maintain balance with a long, encrusted, beribboned walking stick.

Historical fiction must always forge a synthesis between contemporary diction and that of the time period in question; the greatest pitfall is falling into uncomfortable spikes of one or the other. Stephenson finds his balance and sticks to it, writing in his characteristic style but infusing it with a bit of elegance and a penchant for complex metaphors that Donne would find quite familiar. His courtly dialogue is full of actual, honest-to-goodness wit, a rare commodity. He deftly distinguishes each of the authorial voices in Book Three, a big chunk of which is a sort of epistolary mini-novel. And while we’re on literary forms, most of Book Two comprises a classic picaresque novel starring Jack Shaftoe, even as an actual picaresque novel, L’Emmerdeur, is accruing around his escapades. Stephenson retains his penchant for making sudden, even jarring jumps from scene to scene, and filling in the transitional details as he goes. If I had more patience, reading The Baroque Cycle as if it was a serialized novel, a couple chapters a month, would no doubt be a very good fit.

Cryptonomicon was often compared to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in reviews, on the rather thin ground of shared subject matter and a certain playfulness in the tone of the authors. A comparison between The Baroque Cycle and Mason Dixon is more apt, even though the historical periods they deal with are a century apart. Both works look to pivotal moments of the past and their role in forming our modern sensibilities; both do so while providing a dizzying array of detail, almost overwhelming the reader. Pynchon still holds his ground as a prose virtuoso, but Stephenson has closed that gap considerably, and maintains the clear edge when it comes to plot, in that he has one, as opposed to a series of disjointed vignettes. Advantage: Baroque Cycle.

Stephenson is fascinated in Quicksilver, and has been in the past, with the nature of genius. Issac Newton represents the ultimate example of this; he possess a once-in-a-generation mind without which, we are led to belief, humankind would have been wholly unable to take the next step in understanding the world. The same principle holds in politics and every other sphere—while shaped to some extent by broader forces, history, for Stephenson, is the story of actions of extraordinary individuals in times of pressure. While none of his protagonists match Newton’s intellect, each of them proves brilliant in their own right, not least because of their adaptability, survivability, and wit. Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon celebrated the apotheosis of the techno-geek as a mover and shaker in world events; Quicksilver shows this to be the case in the 17th century as well. “So now, as then” is a running theme of Quicksilver—the nature of human greed and cruelty, along with the power of dynamic individuals to instigate change, remains the same. It’s the technology that evolves, and while Stephenson is endlessly fascinated with that evolution, the backdrop is always the struggle that Enoch Root described in Cryptonomicon between the forces of Athena and the forces of Ares.

Now for the inevitable question: what of the ending? Stephenson ended Cryptonomicon fine, as far as I’m concerned, save the rather awkward insertion of Andrew Loeb, Jungle Warrior. But his poor track record with endings is a widely shared notion. This time, though, he has an out: Quicksilver isn’t supposed to end. It is, according to Stephenson, a continuous story divided into seven or eight volumes, and only divided into three books for the arbitrary purposes of publication. So we don’t have an ending yet, but even considering that, Quicksilver finishes reasonably well, at a clear moment in history and with definite turning points for two of its major characters, while still leaving plenty of unanswered questions for the future volumes. Stephenson has no interest whatsoever in the modernist aesthetic of the short ‘n’ sweet—he revels in the Dickensian sprawl, and his story seems more likely to take us not to the end of some geometrically arranged plot, but to the ends of the lives of his heroes, or perhaps their children. My criticisms of the novel thus far concern the plot, and thus have to be deferred—they all depend on what’s still to come, on what he does with those loose ends and the characters (one in particular) whose fates are left ambiguous.

Just how good is this book? I’ll reserve judgment until the Baroque Cycle is complete. One thing to remember is that, for all the history and philosophy it draws in, it remains, at heart (as the epigraph to Book One slyly reminds us), a romance: a rollicking tale of adventure and intrigue, a good solid yarn, not a treatise or even a novel of ideas. That Stephenson has been able to sustain such a tale, with this much historical detail and depth, for over 900 pages, is an impressive achievement; if he can keep it up for 1800 more pages, and bring it all together at the end, he’ll deserve to be called a genius every bit as much as the characters he write about.

UPDATE: More on Stephenson and Pynchon visavis prose style in this entry.