Saturday, February 6, 2016

system of the world

The System of the World is the third and final volume of The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson, and baroque is right. I've never read a story so ornamented, festooned, and gilded as this trilogy. Stephenson seems to have gotten lost in the research of the period, and then in the minutiae of his storyline and its characters. There are letters, secret messages, stories taken from broadsheets, and the text of entire pamphlets and libels, discovered under the feet of the characters as they walked about London in the early 1700s; garlands, embellishments, ornaments, and flourishes, all, to the main story. Stephenson doesn't tell the story, so much as take us there. With all of the stink, coal soot, pockmarks, and horse dung hanging on to us as we wander with him, and learn the details of this story with him. The sub-plots all have sub-sub-plots, and Stephenson juggles them all masterfully.
And the cast of characters is enormous; I may have mentioned in my review of the first book that it included a Cast of Characters in the frontmatter. If I hadn't borrowed that volume from the library, I may have gone back to it a few times, as nearly everyone has a title, or two. Just keeping track of the Natural Philosophers alone is difficult enough, never mind the lords and ladies, French, English, German, and other wise, soldiers, pirates, vagabonds, and thieves, clock-makers, counterfeiters, jailers, and executioners. No character is so minor, that we don't learn a little bit about him or her, and perhaps their family.

I was reminded of Herman Melville in some of the detail Stephenson provided, altho I'm happy to report there are few whole chapters dedicated to the history, construction and use of harpoons. Stephenson himself honors two novelists in his acknowledgements--a multi-page affair in the backmatter-- Alexandre Dumas, and Dorothy Dunnett. I don't know Dorothy Dunnett, but I'm going to look her up based on this mention alone.

Not everyone is up for a 3000 page novel, so you need to in it for the long haul. This is a novel form that seems to be designed to entertain, night after night, in the years and centuries before television and movies. I can imagine dark, candle-lit nights, coal fires and quiet reading for an hour or two before bedtime. If you are that type of reader I'm looking at you Chuck then read this book. All three of them.

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