Stephenson, Pynchon, and Style

“Do you seriously think Neal Stephenson is within shouting distance of Thomas Pynchon as a prose stylist?” Friend and reader Christopher DeJong tossed that question my way after reading my review of Quicksilver, where I briefly compare that novel to Mason Dixon, noting that “Pynchon still holds his ground as a prose virtuoso, but Stephenson has closed that gap considerably.”

I’ve been chewing on the question of the relative merits of their books for a while: if Pynchon’s prose is so good, why do I enjoy reading Stephenson’s books more? Because style isn’t everything, of course, and, as I’ve noted a couple of times before, Stephenson pays a good deal more attention to the telling-a-story part of storytelling, much to his credit. Literary fiction has suffered in the past several decades from a couple of trends: in traditional fiction, the emphasis of character over plot, and in experimental fiction (a la Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon), the deconstruction (using that term loosely) of narrative. Neither trend is intrinsically bad, but the de-emphasis of plot amounts to a selling-short of the very core of literature. In the long run, stories will always win out against character sketches, metatales, and rootless bursts of dazzling prose.

But I digress. The question before us today is much simpler. Nobody’s arguing that Stephenson is the better stylist—the issue is whether the difference between them exists Pynchon is that much better all around, or because they’re trying to do different things. Let’s look at a couple examples.

From Quicksilver, here’s a paragraph from the 1713 storyline, which describes Daniel Waterhouse boarding the boat that will take him back across the Atlantic:

Daniel leaves America, becoming part of that country’s stock of memories—the composted manure from which it’s sending out fresh green shoots. The Old World reaches down to draw him in: a couple of lascars, their flesh and breath suffused with saffron, asafoetida, and cardamom, lean over the rail, snare his cold pale hands in their warm black ones, and haul him in like a fish. A roller slides under the hull at the same moment—they fall back to the deck in an orgiastic tangle. The lascars spring up and busy themselves drawing up his equipage on ropes. Compared to the little boat with the creaking and splashing of its oars and the grunting of the slaves, Minerva moves with the silence of a well-trimmed ship, signifying (or so he hopes) her harmony with the forces and fields of nature. Those Atlantic rollers make the deck beneath him accelerate gently up and down, effortlessly moving his body—it’s like lying on a mother’s bosom as she breathes. So Daniel lies there spreadeagled for a while, staring up at the stars—white geometric points on a slate, gridded by shadows of rigging, an explanatory network of catenary curves and Euclidean sections, like one of those geometric proofs out of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. (p. 69)

And from Mason Dixon, a scene where the ship on which Mason and Dixon have booked passage comes under attack:

Altho’ Dixon is heading off to Sumatra with a member of the Church of England,—that is, the Ancestor of Troubles,—a stranger with whom he morever but hours before was carousing exactly like Sailors, shameful to say, yet, erring upon the side of Conviviality, will he decide to follow Fox’s Advice, and answer “that of God” in Mason, finding it soon enough with the Battle on all ‘round them, when both face their equal chances of imminent Death.

Dissolution, Noise, and Fear. Below-decks, reduced to nerves, given into the emprise of Forces invisible yet possessing great Weight and Speed, which contend in some Phantom realm they have had the bad luck to blunder into, the Astronomers abide, willing themselves blank yet active. Casualties begin to appear in the Sick Bay, the wounds inconceivable, from Oak-Splinters and Chain and Shrapnel, and as Blood creeps like Evening to Dominion over all Surfaces, so grows the Ease of giving in to Panic Fear. It takes an effort to act philosophickal, or even to find ways to be useful,—but a moment’s re-focusing proves enough to show them each how at least to keep out of the way, and presently to save steps for the loblolly boy, or run messages to and from other parts of the ship.

After the last of the Gun-Fire, Oak Beams shuddering with the Chase, the Lazarette is crowded and pil’d with bloody Men, including Capt. Smith with a great Splinter in his Leg, his resentment especially powerful,—“I’ll have lost thirty of my Crew. Are you two really that important?” Above, on deck, corpses are steaming, wreckage is ev’rywhere, shreds of charr’d sail and line clatter in the Wind that is taking the Frenchman away. (p. 38)

The most obvious difference here is that the Pynchon passage, like the rest of the novel, is filled with superfluous capitals and archaic spellings that are appropriate to the period (in this case, mid-18th century). But that’s only the surface of it—all the elements of his diction and sentence structure work together to achieve this effect. It’s not a pure pastiche of the way people wrote back then, though—there is something unmistakably edgey and even Pynchonesque about it. The style of Mason Dixon is a synthesis of old and new that hews remarkably close to the old. Stephenson, on the other hand, writes in a much more modern style, only occasionally dotting his prose with historical flourishes (none in the example above). This is, without question, the grounds on which Pynchon can claim indisputable superiority—he develops an idiosyncratic voice for the entire novel, unnatural, historical, but still readable, and sustains it with nary a gaffe for the entire novel. The number of people writing in English today who could pull that off convincingly could probably be counted on one hand, but we’ll never really know because so few authors would have the guts to even try.

Historical techniques aside, Pynchon is a lot more florid than Stephenson. His sentences tend to be longer, and are definitely more complex. The Quicksilver paragraph quoted above is unusually lyrical for Stephenson; usually he’s a good deal more prosaic. Both paragraphs demand close attention and access to a good dictionary from readers, but Stephenson rarely becomes difficult to follow because of the way he writes—rather, it’s because he’s tossing out so many unfamiliar historical descriptions, scientific terms, or what have you. Pynchon will do this too, but more often than not, if I have to go back and reread part of Mason Dixon it’s because I’ve lost track of the flow of a sentence that started two pages ago.

The distinction here is an old one; classical rhetoricians spoke of Asiatic versus Attic style—the former is ornate, lush, and detailed, while the latter is lean, clean, and direct. Stephenson is a master of Attic style—a fact that’s often obscured because, while his sentences are direct and elegant, their substance is often convoluted and complex. You can see it more clearly in his nonfiction—look at his explanation of the Metaweb for an excellent example. Pynchon, as an Asiatic writer, will elicit more “oohs” and “ahhs” for the power and grace of his prose, but will tend to lose his readers when he’s trying to be florid and tackling difficult material at the same time. Obviously, both authors will tend toward the Attic or the Asiatic at different points, but in general, Stephenson wants his language to transparently convey his message, while Pynchon demands a certain amount of attention for the language itself.

This makes it difficult, ultimately, to compare their level of accomplishment in terms of prose style. Even when we keep their different aims in mind, though, Pynchon still gets the edge, if for no other reason than he almost never hiccups. Stephenson still hiccups—look at that last sentence of his passage again. The rhythm of the sentence dances elegantly until it runs smack into “Newton’s Principia Mathematica”—a messy cluster of short syllables that clunks the sentence to an awkward close.

What’s remarkable about Quicksilver is how rarely Stephenson hiccups, in comparison to his earlier novels. His prose is consistently better despite the fact that his subject matter is considerably more demanding. There’s no question that Pynchon’s the better stylist, but, to get around to Chris’ question, if they’re not within shouting distance of each other, it’s partly because they’re playing on different fields.