I complained most of the time I was reading Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver. A gift from my brother, it had worked its way up my reading list boldly and imperiously, passing patient copies of Margaret Atwood books or Lolita or The Red and the Black or those three Dostoevsky novels that I bought in a The Brothers Karamazov high but for which I haven't had time--worthy books that have been on my list for years--and then plopped itself down in slot one, followed by its two huge brothers in slots two and three. I resented it a little. Now that I'm finished with it, I don't quite know where I stand. I just know that I want to write this review quickly so I can start the second in the three book Baroque Cycle, The Confusion. Is that because I've become attached to the characters--the scientific Puritan, Daniel, whose budding talent at equivocation is rooted in not only his precarious political position but also the tension between his scientific mind and religious beliefs, half-cocked Jack, whose charisma, nerve, and slowly degenerating syphilis-infected mind result in the most hilariously entertaining chapters, Robert Hooke, who shows he cares by tying up his friends and cutting them open in their most tender regions, and Eliza, whose talents and charms overshadow even those of the political giants and scientific geniuses with which she, a former slave, rubs elbows (and other things)--or because I want to get the cycle over with? Probably a little bit of both. Possibly, to a greater extent, the former.
There are some great characters in Quicksilver. With a couple hundred characters (I know because I wrote a frickin' character list before discovering, upon flipping the page of the final chapter, that Stephenson had included one), it had better have some great ones. I'm going to talk about Eliza, because, at this point in the ever-winding never-quite-clear path of the cycle's plot, she's on my mind. At first, I was annoyed at her, because it seemed that Stephenson was doing the oh-so-popular weak and transparent attempt to appease feminists in an adventure story: Damsel in distress is saved from a violent situation that threatens her sexual purity by a man with a shiny phallic symbol of justice... but wait feminists, don't be angry, it's okay, because she's sassy! (*cough* Disney's Hercules *cough*) Fortunately for me and for the whole Cycle storyline or, rather, storyjumble (because Eliza is an awesome part of it), Stephenson develops Eliza's character beyond the humorous repartee between her and her rescuer into that of a skilled economist, developing scientist, and clever courtier who can stand and kick some ass on her own. I don't want to give spoilers, but she even tricked me a few times.
I can't review Quicksilver without discussing Stephenson's research. Thus far, the cycle has covered the years from 1660 to 1713, in various parts of Europe and British colonies, weaving the story of fictional characters into that of historical figures, like William of Orange, Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, John Locke, Gottfried Leibniz, and King Louis XIV. Stephenson does not merely show an awareness of monumental historical events like the plague, great London fire, and various political beheadings, but an in-depth understanding of all elements of life during (for the most part) the English Restoration: the minute court intrigues, the experiments and dissections of the scientists of the Royal Society, the style and substance of Restoration drama... the very echo of the dirty streets of London seems to spring into life in Stephenson's text. It's a bit unnerving sometimes. I'm fully comfortable acknowledging that fiction leads to truth--that's why I love it. I also readily acknowledge that history is often more about storytelling, dominant voices, and rhetoric than fact--that's why I love it. Yet for some reason, this historical fiction is alarming. I want to sort it into to piles of truths and stories in a way that makes no sense for someone whose entire education has been about embracing the truth in stories and the storytelling elements in truth. When I let go and just enjoyed the scenes, reading Quicksilver was much more fun.
Stephenson's innovative style helped reinvigorate my interest when the story felt stale. (While I'm on the subject of the story being stale, I must note that Stephenson's method of jumping from character to character and back and forth in time was often jarring but also occasionally disappointing. It was quite possible for me to read a gripping chapter that had me on the edge of my seat, wholly repentant for ever slandering Quicksilver, and then, to my dismay, discover that it was followed by three mind-numbingly slow chapters that I had to trudge through with the faint memory of that most recent good chapter as my only encouragement.) After spending hundreds of pages with one author, it's not unusual to find his/her writing monotonous, but Stephenson's playfulness combats such tendencies. While reading his more standard chapters, it was not unusual for me to stumble upon a description that pleasantly surprised me with its cleverness or delivery. And then Stephenson had less standard chapters: ones in which, out of the blue, characters and extras would perform an entire musical number or ones in which the main players would act out their scene in the style of Restoration theatre, with all the comical wordplay and whatnot. It was silly and sometimes made me wonder if Stephenson was just an immensely over-educated version of a college student posting whimsical parody stories on his blog for the amusement of his friends (but primarily himself).
It is difficult for me to come to a conclusion about Quicksilver, since it has yet to come to any conclusions. I hope that, by the end of the cycle, I do not feel as if I've been duped by a nerdy and clever internet blogger whose vision is limited to a bunch of characters doing a bunch of stuff on a historical backdrop. Because if The Baroque Cycle does go somewhere, I'm pretty sure it will be somewhere good.
"Talent was not rare: the ability to survive having it was."
"No man was more comprehensively doomed than him whose chief source of gratification was making favorable impressions on some particular woman."
"In the wilderness, only the most terrible beasts of prey cavort and gambol. Deer and rabbits play no games."
"The world was full of powerful men but as long as they played the same roles, they were as interchangeable as second-rate players speaking the same lines in the same theatre on different nights."
"To insist on everything's being reasonable, in a world that wasn't, was, in itself, unreasonable."
"Fame's a weed, but repute is a slow-growing oak, and all we can do during our lifetimes is hop around like squirrels and plant acorns."