OCTOBER 27, 2003
By Neal Stephenson
(William Morrow, 927 pp., $27.95)
Click here to purchase the book."I don't read a lot of fiction," Neal Stephenson has boasted to The
Onion. "I read a lot of technical stuff." Stephenson's new novel is
evidence that a fiction writer who avoids other people's fiction
might not be entirely lacking in advantages. For one thing, it is a
surefire way to prevent an anxiety-of- influence attack. Whatever
its faults, Quicksilver does not count literary derivativeness
among them. And the time Stephenson has not squandered on reading
seems to have been efficiently channeled into typing. At 918 pages,
his best-seller Cryptonomicon, which appeared in 1999, was three
times the size of many contemporary novels, and now he has produced
the even longer Quicksilver-- the first novel of a projected
three-thousand-page "Baroque Trilogy," with the second and third
installments scheduled for publication within a year.
There may be another, perhaps even more tempting, motive behind
Stephenson's failure to declare an early and abiding love of
Proust. Perhaps he believes that a writer who draws his prose
solely from observation and informationgathering is a less tainted
and more faithful commentator on the human lot than those who have
spent much of their lives having the world mediated for them by
art. Such a writer can claim to be, in some wildly strict sense,
realistic; and he will certainly be unique, even a prodigy. But the
truth is that such a writer is a freak. For the literary tradition
is not an embarrassment to writing; it is, along with the quality
of his or her spirit, a writer's greatest asset, a gift as a much
as a burden.
Stephenson is decidedly not a prodigy; but his babe-in-the-woods
routine has proved irresistible for some, who are hailing his
seemingly innate ability to meld the products of exhaustive
historical research with what they see as a brilliant,
idiosyncratic sense of humor and adventure. Time's critic has
declared that Stephenson has a "once-in-a-generation gift," and
that Quicksilver "will defy any category, genre, precedent or
label--except for genius." This is promotional copy disguised as
literary criticism. There is nothing category-defying about this
Although Quicksilver has moments where it diverges into fantasy and
science fiction, most of the novel is easily categorized as
historical fiction. Its subject is one Daniel Waterhouse, a curious
but far from brilliant scientist, whom Stephenson plops Forrest
Gump-like into a Who's Who of early modern English thought. The
novel begins in 1713, with the apparently amaranthine Enoch Root (a
mysterious figure who appears also in the twentieth-century world
of Cryptonomicon) convincing our hero to leave his home in
Massachusetts Bay so as to end the discord of England's scientists
over who first invented calculus. Newton discovered it first, but
Leibniz published it first, and it is up to Daniel Waterhouse to
patch these momentous things up.
Will he succeed where history failed? That may be fodder for
Stephenson's next tome. This one takes us back, through
Waterhouse's flashbacks of his youth, to a catalogue of great
events in seventeenth-century England--the great fire, the plague,
the era's ongoing political and ecclesiastical struggles for
ascendancy--as they intruded upon the experiences of Waterhouse. We
also meet the heroine, Eliza, a "beautiful, saucy young blonde,"
who lets us know at several points that although she escaped from a
Turkish harem with her virginity intact, she is nevertheless quite
skilled at "using all the most ancient and sophisticated practices
of the Oriental world to slowly drive [her partner] into frenzied,
sweaty, screaming transports," because she did her "practicing on
women." This is the sort of character that makes one suspect that
the greatest influences upon Stephenson's work have been comic books
Mainly we observe the goings-on of what becomes London's Royal
Society, an organization dedicated to spreading the good tidings of
the "New Philosophy"--a method of inquiry that would subject
everything in the known world, from human language to optics and
the heavens, to empirical study. Stephenson is adept at conveying
the Royal Society's intellectual vigor, its sense that all was open
to study and to debate, that the world was new and ripe for
analysis. But what draws Stephenson to the Royal Society is surely
its veneration of fact.
For Stephenson is himself the most vulgar of literary empiricists.
His book is nothing but research in search of a narrative, a
gigantic collection of index cards. In the spirit of such an
enterprise, Quicksilver has its own website, and on it (as well as
in the acknowledgments for the novel) Stephenson announces his
reading about the seventeenth century in bookstores and libraries.
He is very vain about his homework. Not a page of this tome goes by
without an e.g., an i.e., a re., an et al., an a.k.a., a viz., a
dagger, a footnote, a map, or a monarchical family tree.
The novel's characters are forever "reminding" each other of events
about which one would presume they would hardly need reminders.
("'Your side won the Civil War,' Enoch reminds [Benjamin Franklin],
'but later came the Restoration, which was a grievous defeat for
your folk, and sent them flocking hither.'") "You see" punctuates
the narrative, as does "recited like a bored scholar," "like a
dutiful university student," "it is more correct to say," "as you
know, " "as you must know," "as you may know," "as you know
perfectly well." Characters are forever making mistakes, forgetting
names ("with that young fellow, what's-his-name") and dates, so
that others may readily supply them ("No, no, James I died half a
century ago"). Here is a typical exchange:
"He'd been pestering me with letters.... He'd been doing it for
years--ever since sending letters had become possible again."
"What made it possible?"
"In my neck of the woods--for I was living in the town of Saxony,
called Leipzig--the peace of Westphalia did."
"1648!" Ben says donnishly to the younger boy. "The end of the
Thirty Years' War."
"At his end," Enoch continues, "it was the removal of the King's
head from the rest of the King, which settled the Civil War and
brought a kind of peace to England."
"1649," Godfrey murmurs before Ben can get it out....
"But what was the first thing that Cromwell did after winning the
"Granted all men, even Jews, the right to worship wheresoever they
pleased," says Godfrey, as if reciting a catechism.
"Well, naturally--that was the whole point, wasn't it? But other
than that-- ?"
"Killed a great many Irishmen," Ben tries.
"True, too true--but it's not the answer I was looking for. The
answer is: the Navigation Act."
Interwoven throughout the dialogue lies the defensiveness of the
narrative: Stephenson seems to know, however guiltily, that nobody
speaks this way. And so a young Benjamin Franklin has his words
tagged with "says donnishly," his friend Godfrey's with "as if
reciting a catechism"--as if such distancing devices will in any
way overcome the reader's impression that what she is reading is a
record of last night's research. Stephenson's book is based on a
huge confusion of didacticism with realism, which occurs on nearly
every page. And the defensiveness of the narrator ultimately
infects the consciousness of the novel's characters--not
ironically, but clumsily.
"Why'd the Papists hate this country so much?" Eliza inquired.
"Mummy told me there are many Protestant lands."
"It is not the sort of thing I would bother to know about, as a
rule," Jack said, "but, as it happens, I've just come from an
almost equally ruined land where every peasant knows the tale, and
won't leave off telling it. That country is called the Palatinate
and its lords, for a few generations anyway, were Protestant
heroes. One of those lords married an English girl, name of
Elizabeth--the sister of Chuck the First."
"Charles the First--isn't he the one who ran afoul of Cromwell,
and got his head chopped off in Charing Cross?"
"The same--and his sister fared little better, as you'll soon see.
Because right here in Bohemia, some Protestants got weary of being
ruled by Papists, and threw several of 'em out a castle window into
a dung-heap, and declared this country free of Popery. But unlike
the Dutchmen, who have little use for royalty, these Bohemians
couldn't imagine having a country without monarchs. As Protestant
monarchs were in short supply hereabouts, they invited Elizabeth
and this Palatine fellow to come here and rule them. Which they
did--for a single winter. Then...."
Stephenson does seem to want to keep his people consistent. Jack, a
vagabond, should know little of European history, and so he must
offer the awkward "It is not the sort of thing I would bother to
know about, as a rule." But a writer who cares about keeping it
real cannot have it both ways. Either Jack is the sort of person
who knows about the marriage between Elizabeth Stuart and the
Elector Palatine, Frederick V, or he is not. Either Eliza is
ignorant of Charles I or she knows very well that he is indeed "the
one who ran afoul of Cromwell, and got his head chopped off in
Charing Cross." That Jack calls Charles I "Chuck" does not render
his speech plausible, any more than Eliza can be made both knowing
and ignorant with a prefatory "Isn't he the one who ...?"
What is remarkable about Jack and Eliza's exchange is its
shallowness, its superfluity. (The same may be said of the whole
book.) Stephenson does not seem to know what to do with his
characters except to have them exchange facts. In the book's
appendix, Stephenson provides a dramatis personae listing more than
a hundred names. It is a dire necessity in a book in which it is
simply impossible to tell characters apart. Any number of these
people could exclaim, "He must still be representing the late
Charles II, who was crowned in 1651 after the Puritans chopped off
the head of his father and predecessor. My King was crowned in
1654." There is no evidence that Stephenson has given any thought
to how a seventeenth-century woman might talk to a
seventeenth-century man, about how her understanding of the world
might infuse her speech. It is so much easier to get busy with
names and dates, in the manner of high school history.
When Stephenson allows humor to creep in among the facts, the joke
usually depends on his reader supplying a missing piece. A
character drinking tea claims that no "Englishmen will ever take to
anything so outlandish." Nudge nudge, wink wink. Another character
proleptically echoes Lloyd Bentsen: "I have met the Duke of
Monmouth, I have roomed with the Duke of Monmouth, I have been
vomited on by the Duke of Monmouth, and I am telling you that the
Duke of Monmouth is no Charles II!"
Stephenson seems to have a sense that since he is writing a novel he
should occasionally use actual literary techniques, and so he
spreads similes around plentifully--and thoughtlessly. A character
controls his inventory "like a miser counting his coins." Another
hurries like a "prisoner clawing a hole through a wall."
Stephenson's imagination becomes vigorous only when it becomes
crude: a character has "a look of self-righteous horror on his face,
like a vicar who's just surprised an altar boy masturbating in the
Although Stephenson does not seem to have met an archaic contraction
that he does not like--'twas, 'tween, 'tis, phant'sy, and so
on--for the most part his characters speak in twenty-first-century
American vernacular. This anachronism is a wise choice for
Stephenson, because he has a tin ear. Rightly diffident about his
ability to use language to convey emphasis, he is forced to rely on
heavy italicizations, on ?! and !?, to do the job. The few attempts
to convey seventeenth-century speech that are not simply quotations
from original sources are hilariously off the mark. Toward the end
of the novel, for example, one character begins addressing all
other men as "guv'nor," which would be exasperating in any context,
and all the more so here because the word's origins are to be found
in the nineteenth century. But more frustrating than Stephenson's
anachronisms are his malapropisms. He is in love with the word
"nonplussed," which he uses to mean impassive. Like all
graphomaniacs, this is not a writer who cares a great deal about
When Stephenson tries to add romance to the mix, he is unable to
lose his idiot-savant tone, and what results are the most
embarrassing sections of the novel. "Monmouth got himself worked
round to a less outlandish position, viz. sitting up and gazing
soulfully into Eliza's nipples." Into the nipples? There is also an
adolescent obsession with men titillated by lesbianism and women
made fierce by menstrual tension. ("'This may fire or it may not,'
she said in French. 'You have until I count to ten to decide
whether to gamble your life or your immortal soul on it. One ...
two ... three ... did I mention I'm on the rag? Four....'") But
these sections are mercifully brief: Stephenson always needs to
hurry back to the matter of when and where Charles I was beheaded.
Not even when the characters in Quicksilver are by themselves is
Stephenson able to provide them with anything resembling
inwardness. At one point in the novel, a man is forced to travel by
horseback alone. He begins to speak, but what he offers is not a
glimpse into his consciousness. Instead he delivers a lecture to
his horse: "'All right, then: all of this land--' (stomping the
dune for emphasis) 'was part of Spain--you heard me--Spain! Then
these fucking Dutchmen turned Calvinist and revolted, and drove the
Spanish away, down south of the Maas and a bunch of other rivers
with hard-to-remember names--past Zeeland, anyway--we'll be seeing
more than we want to of those rivers soon. Leaving only a wedge of
Papist Spain trapped between the Dutch Republic on its north, and
France on its south. This Spain-wedge contains Brussels and Antwerp
and a large number of battlefields, basically ...'" and so on, until
the journey's end. The coarseness does not make the speech any
truer: the man is still giving his horse a geography lesson. He
does so because, like all the characters in this book, he has
nothing significant to say. And the poor reader is abandoned to an
intense sensation of solidarity with a bored horse.
By Deborah Friedell