October 14, 2003

Painting the Lily...

I'm now into the second part of Quicksilver, and I'm bogging down. Frankly, I don't like this part as much. Stephenson has a sort of flippant style, and his charcters often give us some bit of modern thinking or jargon, as if they were actors pausing in their performance to wink at the audience. As if they were modern people playing some virtual-reality game set in the 17th Century. It's starting to pall as I move along in the book.

Here's an example; we are seeing a foppish courtier's clothing through the eyes of Daniel Waterhouse: ...The stocking/breech interface was presumable somewhere around his knees and was some sort of fantastically complex spraying phenomenon of ribbons and gathers and skirtlets designed to peek out under the hems of his coat, waistcoat. and allied garments... What's wrong with this? It's what we might say if we were trying to describe a portrait by Van Dyke. But a real person of the 17th Century would not see these things as incomprehensible; the ribbons and lace and the cut of the garments would make sense to him, even if he didn't wear that sort of thing himself.

It's the equivalent of someone in our time describing a necktie as: a lump of colored cloth at the center of his throat with two streamers of the same cloth descending to somewhere near the belt. And using contemporary words like "interface" is another way of winking at the audience over the heads of the characters.

That was tolerable in the first section, when the characers were often absent-minded-professor types, and where we know that the story is going to have a sort of happy ending, with Newton's physics culminating eventually in in our own modern world, and the Internet, and trips to the moon.

But in Book Two we are following the fortunes of Jack and Eliza, poor rascally vagabonds caught up in a terrifying and cruel world. They are wandering among brutal armies, and the horrors of war, and starving near-feral peasants. People just like them are seen hanging from gibbets from time to time. Yet among it all they are even more flippant and clever than the first group of characters.

For me it just doesn't work. The tone is off. The persistent air of detachment seems wrong when you are being slightly detached from truly frightful and ugly things...

Perhaps I'm being too critical, Stephenson is a heck of a good writer. And I just love a chance to go messing around in that period. I've read the Diary of Samuel Pepys, and Churchill's biography of his ancestor Sir John Churchill, son of Sir Winston. (I would advise the abridged versions.) On the minus side, those guys were much more interesting people than Stephenson's characters. On the plus side, there's just a lot of historical fun here--there really was a CABAL, but Stephenson has invented entirely new people to put into it. Crazy. I love it. And the description of the Fire of London...splendid. On the minus side again, Stephenson seems to feel he has to jazz up the 17th Century to make it interesting for moderns. Since I find the period immeasurably rich and complex, and utterly fascinating and charming, this just seems stupid.

A Dutch man-of-war firing a salute. Painting by Willem Van de Velde the Younger

Posted by John Weidner at October 14, 2003 8:41 PM
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