Speed Metal

Now that I've made it through Quicksilver, a review seems in order.

I liked it.

It's hard to call this book a novel. Even at 900+ pages, it's missing normal novel traits such as a recognizeable plot. It wasn't clear to me until I was on around page 700 that the "Baroque Cycle" (of which Quicksilver is the first third) is really just one William Vollman-length book, rather than three linked Neal Stephenson-length books.

Quicksilver opens in the early 1700s with a couple of scenes that set up what looks like the beginnings of a classic adventure story: our hero is called out of retirement for one last mission. There's a brief digression while he flashes back to the 1660s to set up his back-story . . . and then the digression eats the novel whole: there's nothing but flashback.

So okay, no plot. Reviewers have also been ripping Stephenson apart for anachronism, cartoonish violence, adolescent sexuality, and his frequent discursive asides on silver-making, the London Bridge, Cartesian dynamics, and so on.

Me, I more or less take these for granted. That what you get with a Stephenson book. You know you're going to get an earful on the mysteries of currency speculation; you know you're going to have to deal with a scene in which the plucky heroine is threatened with rape and does something plucky about it. Such is the price of admission.

For that price, you get plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, because Stephenson is a brilliant stylist. He knows how to throw a paragraph together so that the sentences pile on with sublime absurdity. I expected plenty of these moments; I wasn't disappointed.

But I also got something extra: for once in his career, Neal Stephenson has created a fully-rounded protagonist, a credible character with an appealing complexity. This from a man, mind you, who named the lead of one of his earlier novels "Hiro Protagonist."

Daniel Waterhouse, the figure at the center of Quicksilver is an indifferent Puritan during the flamboyant Restoration, an average scientist in the company of geniuses, a mid-level notable at a court of schemers and fops. He is a man caught up in intellectual, religious, and political currents far beyond his control, and something of a coward. But he has a pensive thoughtfulness that Stephenson develops wonderfully, and over the slow course of the novel, what at first seems like a dull passivity becomes a more subtle form of courage.

Quicksilver is, in its non-novelistic way, an attempt at tying together the various forms of turmoil that defined the 17th century, and using Waterhouse as a vantage point for this business succeeds quite handily. There are other, more picaresque, parts to the narrative, ones with more adventure and thrills, but I found them less memorable. It's Waterhouse's slow growth -- and the emphasis is on slow, in a book of this length -- that really works.