Going for Baroque 

Massive in scope, Neal Stephenson’s ambitious new epic cycle proves a disappointment in its first thousand pages

Massive in scope, Neal Stephenson’s ambitious new epic cycle proves a disappointment in its first thousand pages

Quicksilver

By Neal Stephenson (William Morrow, 927 pp., $27.95)

At the risk of sounding obscenely self-evident, it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing wrong with long novels, per se. Some of the greatest works of all time are rather hefty tomes: Ulysses, Magic Mountain, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov. At the same time, though, many potentially good books have been ruined at the hands of verbose authors who needlessly string along the story, and the reader.

While Neal Stephenson’s 1999 novel, the 1,168-page Cryptonomicon, didn’t quite reach the lofty ranks of Thomas Mann and Fyodor Dostoevsky, it was still a pretty good read—a time-bending epic that jumped between World War II and the present, strung together by a fanciful, informed and incredibly enjoyable discourse on the history of codes and code-breaking. It managed to be both intelligent and intense, the sort of book you would stay up all night to finish, if only it were several hundred pages shorter.

The same, however, cannot be said for Stephenson’s latest, the bloated and boring Quicksilver. The 927-page volume is actually three books, which together serve as the first installment of what Stephenson has dubbed the Baroque Cycle trilogy. As the cycle’s title suggests, the books revolve around the Baroque era, the second half of the 17th century in Western Europe. If Quicksilver’s length is an indicator, Stephenson might be looking at a grand total of nearly 3,000 pages. And if its sheer dullness is an indicator as well, that’s 3,000 pages few people will have the patience to read.

Like Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver is epic in scope; its narrative ranges across Restoration England, Louis XIV’s France, the Dutch Republic and Germany, at a time when Germany wasn’t one country but nearly 300. The plot revolves around two sets of characters: a brace of alchemists and philosophers, some fictional, some historical (including Isaac Newton); and Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, a down-at-the-heels pair who, through a series of transcontinental adventures, manage to lift themselves from an Ottoman harem to the upper crust of Dutch society.

Much of the novel’s action is provided by the political tumult that rocked Western Europe in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War: the rise of the Protestant Dutch and Germans as a political force; the near-hegemonic power wielded by Louis XIV; and the English Civil War, Restoration and Glorious Revolution. It’s a startling departure for Stephenson, who made his mark during the 1990s as an award-winning sci-fi author. Nevertheless, he shows an honest interest in historical fiction, reveling in court intrigues and the minutiae of international diplomacy.

Stephenson’s overt nerdiness has always served him well. He’s never been very good with dialogue, or even plot, but his overriding strength is his ability to make otherwise mind-numbing topics come to life through his narratives, even as he risks veering too far into the arcane. In fact, if part of the pleasure in reading Stephenson is the joy he takes in explaining technology, another part is watching him walk the fine line between novelist and hack.

Unfortunately, that’s a line he crosses—and never returns to—with Quicksilver. As a prose stylist, Stephenson has improved greatly since even Cryptonomicon. But he wastes his talents on long discourses covering everything from 17th century international trade to courtly conventions at Versailles. To make matters worse, he doesn’t just write about Baroque Europe; he tries to write like Baroque Europe, with tangled sentence constructions and Ye Olde English spellings. It’s novel at first, but page after page of “theatrickal” and “aether” gets old pretty quickly.

Part of the frustration of reading Quicksilver stems from the sheer scope of Stephenson’s vision. Some elements of the book have seemingly little to do with the plot at hand—nearly 100 pages are set in colonial Boston—and are clearly meant to establish plot elements in the second two volumes of the Baroque Cycle. But that’s little comfort to the reader who has to slog through them, only to realize the payoff doesn’t arrive until the next weighty installment comes out.

What’s more, elements of Stephenson’s history are wildly off base. Granted, this is a novel, and he has the license to insert fictional characters into factual events and even to twist the truth to fit the story. But it’s a different thing entirely to say that the word “cabal” began as an acronym for Charles II’s five closest advisers, when in fact that’s a long since disproved urban legend. (The word actually derives from the Hebrew word “kaballah,” and only coincidentally works as an acronym.) It’s an extremely minor point, and in the case of most books, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. But Stephenson’s style is so pedantic, so dependent on knowing more than the reader, that it’s painful to see him get something wrong.

If Cryptonomicon is Stephenson at his best, Quicksilver is the author at his worst. Like a nerdy teenager, he’s all too eager to show off his intellect, and all too unaware that his audience might not be as interested in, say, 17th century mining technologies as he is. Which is a shame, because the climate of intrigue and discovery that pervaded the Baroque era is full of literary potential. Too bad Stephenson wastes it.

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