Apologies for the slight delay to the previously published schedule for my Baroque Summer project. (That is, if anyone’s reading along with me. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) I have made it to page 217, about a fourth of the way through Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, the first of his Baroque Cycle trilogy.
As often happens, the correct way of doing this became clear once I was already doing it. Mr. Stephenson has helpfully divided up the first and third volumes, Quicksilver and The System of the World, into three books. The publisher even tried making mass market paperbacks of each of Quicksilver Books One, Two and Three, until they realized, too late, that few people would choose to pay more for three MMPBs than they would for one TPB or used HC. When reading a book divided into three books, it makes MUCH more sense to read one book every ten days. I’ll blog today about the first fourth, but then I’m switching the schedule (again, if anyone’s with me; if you’re not, I’m just probably going to proceed pell mell, blogging madly as I go.) to match the structure of books 1 and 3.
What about book #2, The Confusion, you’re wondering? Well, Volume 2, The Confusion is an alternation between 2 books, so I can’t divine a much better way of splitting it up than doing about a third of it every ten days. Confusion, indeed.
Baroque Summer, revised schedule:
Quicksilver Book 1: June 10th
QS Book 2: June 20
QS Book 3: June 30
Confusion to p. 254: July 10
Cf to p. 556: July 20
Cf to p. 815: July 30
System of the World Book 1: August 10
SotW Book 2: August 20
SotW Book 3: August 30
So I’ll blog here today on Quicksilver through p. 217, but will be back again (I hope) on 6/10 to write about the entirety of Volume 1: book 1. Got it?
After maps, an invocation and a quote, Quicksilver opens on a witch hanging in 1713 Boston, attended by a mysterious man named Enoch the Red, later named as Enoch Root.
Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head. The crowd on the Common stop praying and sobbing for just as long as Jack Ketch stands there, elbows locked, for all the world like a carpenter heaving a ridge-beam into place. The rope clutches a disk of blue New England sky. The Puritans gaze at it and, to all appearances, think. Enoch the Red reins in his borrowed horse as it nears the edge of the crowd, and sees that the executioner’s purpose it not to let them inspect his knotwork, but to give them all a narrow–and, to a Puritan, tantalizing–glimpse of the portal through which they all must pass one day.
At Enoch’s request, a young boy named Ben leads him away from the crowd and to a man named Daniel Waterhouse. It is Daniel, not Enoch, who becomes the main character of this first book. The son of a Puritan, Daniel was early on swayed to the company of alchemists and natural philosophers. He meets and mingles with many famous historical characters, most notably Isaac Newton.
In 1713, Enoch persuades Daniel to return to England. From there, the chapters alternate between the past and 1713, usually between Daniel’s sea voyage and his youth. Throughout both periods, and in ways familiar to those who read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, fictional characters mingle with historical ones into an almost seamless yarn.
I saw almost because I do occasionally get the sense of the writer in the background shuffling his index cards, saying, “OK, I’m going to put this Newton anecdote here, and this Leibniz factoid there…” Nonetheless, Quicksilver does what the best historical fiction should–makes a new story out of something old, while simultaneously commenting on and revealing things that really happened such as the Bubonic Plague, the Fire of London, along with mythic characters like Mother Goose and Captain van Hoek.
The times were a heady mix of politics, religion, finances and nascent sciences. Daniel, as an intelligent naif, is an excellent avatar for the reader to navigate the twists and turns of the story and its many characters. Stephenson, though, manages a sprawling canvas with remarkable clarity. I’ve been taking notes as I’ve gone along, but wonder if I’d be OK if I didn’t–if I’d lose track of characters or plot points. Taking notes does seem to suck some of the fun out of reading what’s clearly a historical romp, as I found it did last summer with Infinite Jest. Yet I think a slow, careful reading the first time might make for a fast, fun reading the next time. And I’m fairly certain this one will be worth re-reading, not just for its nutrition, but for its tastiness. I often gape or laugh aloud when something is revealed. Thus far, I’m having a very good time.