Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Baroque Cycle: How I Learned to Stop Loving and Start Worrying About Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is famously bad at endings. His books don't end so much as stop, sometimes so abruptly that one is left to imagine Stephenson's beleaguered publisher sneaking into his house in the dead of night, rifling through whatever manuscript he's currently working on until they reach a plausible stopping point and absconding with it into the night. One of these days, I suppose, when Stephenson becomes even more of a superstar than he is now, we'll start seeing the publication of massive addenda to his previous books, and find out how Randy Waterhouse or Nell made their way out of the messes Stephenson left them in, and what they did after.

Looking at the sheer heft of The Baroque Cycle (2,700 pages, give or take) and taking into account Stephenson's inability to conclude a story, the obvious conclusion is that he's taken this proclivity to extremes. Granted a large enough canvas, he just kept writing and writing and writing until he wore out even the indulgence of a publisher who'd seen him take Cryptonomicon to The New York Times bestseller list. This is, in fact, not the case. Surprisingly enough, The Baroque Cycle (for really, the three volumes are so obviously of a piece that they can only be considered as a single work) ends quite well. In fact, and in one of several obvious homages to The Lord of the Rings, it ends quite languorously, cheerfully wrapping up each of its plotlines and politely letting us know what happens to each of its many protagonists. If there's a problem with the Cycle's construction, it is rather that Stephenson keeps delaying its beginning.

Inasmuch as The Baroque Cycle can be said to have a plot, it starts in The System of the World, the third volume in the series. The previous two volumes--Quicksilver and The Confusion--are essentially scene-setting. The first introduces us to our main characters, their personal histories, their social circles, their friends and enemies, the prevailing religious, political and financial climates of their eras, etc. etc. ad nauseam. The second tells us how each of these characters came to be in the situation that the beginning of System finds them in. Reading the entire series, therefore, is probably not unlike watching the Star Wars prequels before watching A New Hope--some of the details are interesting, a few of them are important to the plot, but you'd like the story to start now, please. With some judicious editing, most of the pertinent information in Quicksilver and The Confusion could have been conveyed in 100-200 pages, which, coupled with the fact that there's plenty of fat to be trimmed in The System of the World, would have given us the entire story in one volume, roughly the same size as Cryptonomicon.

But not necessarily of the same quality. I'd like to be able to say that all of The Baroque Cycle's problems are structural, but this simply isn't the case. Even in The System of the World, it would be inaccurate to say that anything actually happens. Or rather, things happen, but in such tiny increments that one hardly notices an event until it's passed and everyone's started talking about it. Which is, obviously, life-like, but Stephenson isn't a skilled enough writer to make his mimicry of the real world as compelling as fiction. Stephenson's never been the kind of writer you read for his characters or for his nuanced portraits of human nature, but even by his standards, the Cycle is chilly and inhuman. Daniel Waterhouse, the character who is supposedly the heart and moral compass of the story, is fun enough as such things go--his sarcasm and refusal to take seriously matters that are of great importance to the leading figures, political and scientific, of his era are diverting, but they don't add up to an actual person. The less said about Eliza, the teenage harem slave/financial genius/policial savant, or any of the other female characters in the Cycle, the better. Jack Shaftoe is probably the closest the book comes to an actual person (unless one counts Roger Comstock, who steals every one of his scenes in all three volumes). In fact, my favorite segment of the Cycle is "Bonanza"--in which Jack spends years pursuing various treasures--which is practically extraneous to the story. But even in Jack's case the readers are kept at a distance--we see through his eyes but only rarely into his heart. The result isn't so much a story as it is a sequence of events, with very little to compel the reader to care except for Stephenson's ideas and his obvious intelligence.

At this point, Stephenson's fans would be well within their rights to point out that these are indeed the main reasons for reading his fiction, and that the flaws I pointed out in The Baroque Cycle have been present in all of his previous novels. For that matter, Cryptonomicon, one of my favorite books, one that I've reread in its entirety at least once and gone back to read favorite passages from on numerous occasions, has them all in spades: the meandering, plotless story; the flat, unconvincing characters; the emphasis on cleverness rather than emotion. Ever since I finished Quicksilver I've been wondering why the same flaws that were so detrimental to my reading experience in The Baroque Cycle were practically perks when I read Cryptonomicon.

The first answer I came up with was humor. Cryptonomicon is funny. Laugh-out-loud, side-splitting, oh-my-God-I-can't-breathe funny. There are entire chapters in the book (wisdom teeth, Grandma's furniture, the trip through the jungle) that exist for no other reason than that Stephenson had a funny idea and decided to write it down. Do these chapters slow down the story? Sure, but they are well worth the delay. More importantly, humor is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. There's an irreverence to the story that counteracts the chilliness of Stephenson's characters. The Baroque Cycle, in comparison, is painfully earnest. There were almost no funny bits in Quicksilver, and only a few in The Confusion and The System of the World.

When I asked myself why a writer as inherently funny as Stephenson would choose to so disastrously tone down his humorous tendencies, I came up with the second, and more insidious, reason for the difference in my reactions to the two books. The Baroque Cycle is Stephenson's attempt at spelling out a political/social/scientific/economic philosophy. He sees the 17th and 18th centuries as a crucial turning point in human history in all of these disciplines: the beginning of the end of class-based society, replaced by a semi-meritocracy; the death knell of science as a set of esoteric mysteries and the foundation of modern scientific methods and institutions; the earliest glimmer of the notion that there might be better ways to settle political disputes than to make war; most importantly, a new way of looking at money--not as wealth, to be accumulated and hoarded, but as a means to an end, which must constantly be kept in motion in order to do the most good and spur the most change.

When Enoch Root lays out this philosophy in a dozen pages towards the end of Cryptonomicon, galvanizing Randy Waterhouse and preparing him for the book's nominal climax, readers are intrigued. Enoch's argument is lucid and fascinating, a different way of looking at human history, the role of money, and the inherent possibilities of technology. The Baroque Cycle is to this short, compelling interlude as a shovel to the head is to a gentle tap on the shoulder. Within a dozen pages in The System of the World, two different black hats (we can tell they're evil because one of them deals in slaves and the other is a psychotic priest who once burned down an entire galleon) take time out of their busy schedules to lament the very changes that, according to Stephenson, are our only path to a truly just and free society:
"Money, and all that comes with it, disgusts me." said Father Edouard de Gex ... "Within living memory, men and women of noble birth did not even have to think about it. Oh, there were rich nobles and poor, just as there were tall and short, beautiful and ugly. But it would never have entered the mind of even a peasant to phant'sy that a penniless Duke was any less a Duke, or that a rich whore ought to be made a Duchess. ... To nobles, clerics, and peasants--the only people needed or wanted in a decent Christian Realm--coins were as alien, eldritch, inexplicable as communion wafers to a Hindoo. ... But what has happened of late is monstrous. The money-cult has spread faster across what used to be Christendom than the faith of Mahomet did across Araby. I did not grasp the enormity of it until you came to Versailles as an infamous Dutch whore, a plaything of diseased bankers, and shortly were ennobled--made into a Countess, complete with a fabricated pedigree--and why? Because you had noble qualities? No. Only because you were Good with Money--a high sorceress of the coin-cult--and so were adored by the same sort of degraded Versailles court-fops who would gather in abandoned churches at midnight to recite the Black Mass."
De Gex goes on to envision a future free of money, in which all good Catholics labor for the greater glory of God and all bad Protestants, Puritans, Huguenots and Jews are at the bottom of the ocean, a future he intends to usher in by burning Eliza at the stake. Placing your opposing argument in the mouth of a raving lunatic is an effective (if not entirely honorable) rhetorical trick, so long as it's not taken too far. But of course Stephenson has taken it too far, and the result is less a book than a tract. Frequently during The Baroque Cycle, the narrative grinds to halt to accommodate several pages of laborious description or an info-dump on something that Stephenson found absolutely fascinating such as the workings of 18th century London prisons or how to produce phosphorus from urine, but these asides are not nearly as tedious as Stephenson's editorializing. An author with a lighter touch--or a less pressing agenda--would have recognized the inherent fascination of a story about a new scientific, political and economic system coming into being, and not peppered his novel with these ham-handed attempts to draw the readers' attention and guide their conclusions.

When I finished The Confusion, I announced that I was angry at Stephenson for compelling me to read what I knew was a bloated, overlong, plotless story, but more importantly, for compelling me to enjoy every minute of it. The Confusion is still my favorite of the three volumes that make up The Baroque Cycle, probably because of "Bonanza", but looking back I can see that 'enjoy' was probably too strong a word. I don't want to say that I read The Baroque Cycle out of a sense of duty, or that I regret reading it, but neither is it accurate to say that I needed to know what would happen next. I don't honestly know why I read the entire Cycle, except that for all its bloat, I didn't dislike it. At the same time, I don't want to criticize Stephenson too harshly. I did take pleasure out of The Baroque Cycle, and I'll almost certainly be reading whatever he comes up with next (probably another entry in the Cryptonomicon universe). Even when he's strident and criminally under-edited, Stephenson is one hell of a writer. He needs, as Huygens tells Eliza halfway through Quicksilver, to readjust himself, take stock of his goals and how he's been missing them, but whether or not he does, I'll still be there.

Not for much longer, though.


Rich said...

Thank you for your assessment. I saw the paperback edition of Quicksilver discounted at the local chain bookstore here as a publisher's remainder and was tempted to pick it up, but successfully held off for now. But if I do, I think I might just put the volume and its mates along with my survival supplies, to have something to read in the event that civilization goes on hiatus for a couple of weeks. Life feels too short right now.

I liked Cryptonomicon enough to find out what I could about alternative tunings and temperament systems. Those are the kinds of details I liked.

Riz said...

Thanks for the uself post, I think I'll hold off the Barique series and add Cryptonomicon to my reading list.

Riz said...

Uself? I mean useful. Blasted touchscreens!

Allan VanNostrand said...

Mostly agree. The Daniel Waterhouse character was extremely boring and not very likeable. Jack's character is a disappointment in the finale. Bob Shaftoe was vastly underutilized and Enoch Root moderately so.

Christopher Inman said...

I am reading the third book at the moment and found this opinion because I was checking the copyright of the cycle because I found in Leibniz biography a reference to when a book was published on Leibniz's calculator (2004) which Stephenson had become acquainted with while writing Cryptonomicon and which got him writing Baroque. Since I had successfully ignored Leibniz my whole life but am compelled to read him now because of the Cycle, I cannot agree that reading the Cycle may be put off. Also, dispute his shortcomings, I am finding enough extraordinarily funny stuff to get me through the molasses. The diabolical danger is becoming compelled to research the entire period from Kepler to Kant.

Christopher Inman said...

The above is supposed to say despite not dispute, and morasses not molasses.

Pierre von Mondragon AKA said...

I've read it 5 times, as far as I'm concerned it is the greatest work of literature I've ever encountered, and all the things the OP didn't like, I thoroughly enjoyed, yea, even the partisanship. I phant'sy that there isn't a better character than Jack in all of literature, and if the imp of the perverse made me say that, so be it! Favourite digression, wootz steel manufacture, Favourite fight, either Geronimo in the eye of the needle or Dappa's trial by cannon combat... Fun Fact, I narrowly avoided citing the Newton Leibniz showdown as factual history in an academic setting only last week, close escape...

SeanB said...

Yes, the first two books set the scene. It's long slog, but The System of the World is worth it. Like Pierre said, Jack is one of the greatest characters in all of literature.

Much like LOTR, the book is better the second time around. Once you know where it's going, certain things make more sense and become more interesting.

Unknown said...

The Baroque Cycle is my favorite of all of Stephenson's work. I think it's brilliant.

Kevin Mann said...

As thorough as this passive-aggressive take on Stephenson is - and I say that with some admiration and plenty of respect - I think it might miss the point a bit. "Juuuuust a bit outside!" So sayeth the venerable Bob Uecker...
For me, and perhaps only me, what NS does better than anyone, ever, is give his own yin and yang some room to breathe. I can't speak for him, but I know how my brain works with ideas that are too complex to divide simply into either "good" or "bad" ones. Instead of giving in to the temptation to just pick a side and do what I call the Cosmic Shrug (defined briefly as that moment when one gives up on trying to make sense of Everything At Once and essentially haul the shoulders up to the ears in a figurative way and say, "Screw it. I believe This Thing because trying to reconcile that Other Thing with my religion/politics/personal morality is just too exhausting to contemplate." Such a thing is belief by attrition, and we all do it, usually subconsciously.
So Mr. Stephenson's genius is that he refuses to be intellectually lazy. He creates characters who have fascinating conversations about large and heady subjects. He doesn't shy away from any tangent, because whether we like it or not, that's where the real work gets done. Put differently, the devil is in the details. Clearly, he looooves him some details.
I too re-read his books consistently. And what I find (again, speaking only for myself) is that his intelligence is a sneaky type, and it requires a kind of submersion to fully integrate what he's sharing. If I am guilty of sort of skimming through some of the thicker sections in the first reading, subsequent journeys into his world always reward closer inspection. Some of the ideas are difficult to grasp without more life-experience or study.
Anyway, if I had the time to fully engage the arguing sides of my mind in the same way, I dare say I'd do a terrible job of expressing anything coherently. It would go back and forth without ever alighting on any kind of Truth. And what NS does is the miraculous opposite: he can see-saw all day long, but eventually, he's gonna smack one upside the head with some real enlightenment, if only we'll allow it. We can critique plot movement all day long, but in the end, it's kind of like a swimming pool in that we don't have to actually breaststroke from side to side; it's enough to be immersed in the coolness.

Kevin Mann said...

I really wish I could learn to close parentheses. Carry on!

Lee Morrissey said...

Daniel Waterhouse and Eliza are two thoroughly fascinating characters. If the Baroque Cycle has a weakness it's that it's way too short. Should be at least twice as long.

Dereks said...

I just completed the trilogy on my second attempt. The first one was about 6-7 year ago. I remember coming across this post at the time and the first sentence had stuck quite vividly in my mind. Note that this is the first NS book that I ever read.

Though I have an overall positive impression and plan to read his other works (the next one probably be the Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash), I tend to generally agree with Abigail's comments. ESPECIALLY the very first one about the bad ending.

I really think that the ending was here was botched up big time! It does huge disservice to otherwise very fair and ambitious work. Indeed, some parts of it are a slow read, but I agree that you have to be in the right mood to get through these - books pace is uneven, but that has to be taken at face value and it's neither bad or good.

[NB. I am sort of addressing the following @Kevin Mann. Also, SPOILERS below - stop reading if you have not completed the whole trilogy].

The ending for me does not really reconcile with this idea that "Mr. Stephenson's genius is that he refuses to be intellectually lazy." To me the ending was just that - at one point the author gave up, was lazy and chose to neatly, but very simplistically, almost hollywood-happy-ending style tied up all the loose plot lines.

I am battling with those questions for the past several days:

- Eliza promised that Jack would never see her face until the day he dies. Being stubborn and principled as she is, I can't explain their marry-go-happy reconciliation at the end. Even if she did forgive him, that clearly warrants a more detailed and explicative scene in the book.

- Why Kind Louis XIV was even meeting with Jack in the first place? Jack survived, but he failed the mission assigned by the King of France, didn't he? I can't see where is this addressed. The same essentially goes for Eliza.

- Furthermore, wasn't Eliza always feeling more at home in London, where the "New System" was forged and as a double-agent, waiting for her cover to be blown in Versailles. So why would she even go back there, especially after Hanoverian with whom she had such strong ties established itself in London? I can't even imagine her going into effective exile to some far Land and ignoring everything that would have been happening in London after 1714.

So yeah, I am totally on board that there are sparks of pure genius in NS work, but sometime he really loses it. Intellectually, I found the epilogue very disappointing.

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