Risus sardonicus

by Henry Farrell on November 28, 2003

By sheer coincidence, I read Kieran’s “post”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/000897.html a couple of hours after I picked _Quicksilver_ up again (I’ve been too busy this semester to read big fat books, however tempting), and came across this passage (p.200-201, US edition).

bq. There, mounted up high on a weatherbeaten stick, was a sort of irregular knot of stuff, barely visible as a gray speck in the moonlight: the head of Oliver Cromwell. When the King had come back, ten years ago, he’d ordered the corpse to be dug up from where Drake and the others had buried it, and the head cut off and mounted on a pike and never taken down. Ever since then Cromwell had been looking down helplessly on a (sic) scene of unbridled lewdness that was Whitehall palace.

Pepys figures prominently in the narrative a couple of pages before; I suspect that his diaries are Stephenson’s source. So far, I’m enjoying _Quicksilver_ a lot more than I expected, given some of the rude reviews (Kevin Drum describes it as a “core dump”:http://www.calpundit.com/archives/002526.html). But then, my tolerance for long, semi-relevant digressions on this or that subject is probably a lot higher than that of the average reader. Will blog more on this when I’ve finished the damn book …



Sam Dodsworth 11.28.03 at 9:38 am

My problem with Quicksilver is that Neal Stephenson’s chosen not to play to his strengths. He’s really good at description and observation, but he’s decided to write Quicksilver almost entirely in dialogue, at which he’s competent but not inspired. Worse, he’s not really used to writing in dialogue, so there are a lot of clumsy scenes where implausably clever-but-naive characters have things over-explained to them – leading up to the sublime moment when Jack Shaftoe addresses several pages of historical background to his horse.

Not that he shouldn’t be allowed to develop as a writer, of course, but I think I’ll give the next few volumes a rest until he’s found his new voice.


Nasi Lemak 11.28.03 at 1:45 pm

What no-one seems to be saying in the reviews is the absolutely key thing I have to know before I pick this thing up: has Stephenson learned to do endings? All of his previous books have plots which get quite engaging by the five-hundred page mark and are enough to drag me past any of the duller bits. But they then just stop abruptly and/or go completely off the wall. (I know, very middle-brow to be concerned about plot.) So please: has anyone finished this and found the ending satisfying?


Sam Dodsworth 11.28.03 at 4:12 pm

Quicksilver doesn’t have an ending at all – it just has a “close of first volume”. Paradoxically enough, I found this better than his usual efforts because there’s no pretense of a conclusion. And I did get engaged enough in the plot to want to get to the end, even if I did skip a lot of the later tranches of exposition. “Zodiac” is still his best by far, though, in my opinion.


nasi lemak 11.28.03 at 5:32 pm

So has he entirely given up on endings (very wise), or is there to be a further volume?


Ophelia Benson 11.28.03 at 6:07 pm

Interesting about the dialogue as exposition thing. I haven’t read any Stephenson, but I’ve encountered that practice in other novels recently. It always seems so odd, to me – why do novelists do that? Ever? Surely it’s obvious that one *has* to do that in drama but that one of the many advantages of fiction is precisely that one does not have to convey necessary background knowledge in dialogue? Fer cryin out loud, doesn’t everyone know how awkward exposition is, how it sticks out, how obvious it always is that characters are telling each other things that really they know but we have to pretend they don’t for the sake of exposition? (The most recent example I’ve noticed – watching an old West Wing on Bravo, one from the first year, Mandy says something to Josh about the Democratic Leadership Conference. Oh yeah right, two operatives like that have to spell it out, as if they don’t say ‘the DLC’ about five times an hour.)

No point here, I’m just wondering what possesses novelists to artificially give themselves the limitations drama has.


Tom 11.28.03 at 8:30 pm

Cromwell’s head is, of course, currently at his alma mater, Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.

(Which is about the only interesting thing about Sidney Sussex college).


John Isbell 11.29.03 at 5:59 pm

Was going to say something interesting about Sidney Sussex, can’t think of anything. A porter once confirmed to me that they do indeed have his head and they used to get it out once a year for a college dinner, IIRC. Can that be right?
Actually it’s handy for downtown, unlike say Downing or Girton.


Nabakov 12.01.03 at 5:28 am

So when someone from Sidney Sussex dines at University College London, he or she could take Ollie along so he can bump heads with Jeremy Bentham. (even though the Auto-Icon now has a wax head, apparently they’ve still got the original squirreled away, out of reach of student pranksters but still handy if needed).

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