I recently picked up Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, the first volume in a three-volume piece of historical fiction entitled The Baroque Cycle. I had read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon a few years ago and found it interesting and fairly engaging, if not earth-shattering stylistically. It was well enough written, with a good story and tight enough prose, but it fell short of a standard set for me at the time by David Foster Wallace. It was a good enough book, but it lacked something I couldn’t put my finger on, a sort of polish. Where DFW and others made me want to go out and write books of my own, Stephenson didn’t.
I’m finding the same to be very much true of Quicksilver, so much so, in fact, that I’ve put the book down 170 pages in. Again, it’s well enough written, but it feels to me as if the prose tries too hard to be clever or engaging without being either to a very great degree. I found myself dragging myself through the book in hopes that there would be a payoff later (and I’m sure there would have been, if not a grand one), when, given a severe limitation on my reading time right now, I can’t very well justify reading a book unless it’s doing the tugging.
At the same time that I bought Quicksilver, I bought a book entitled You Bright and Risen Angels, by William T. Vollmann. I found this book by watching the “others who bought this title also bought this one” feature at Amazon.com. I wanted to branch out and try somebody I hadn’t heard of who it seemed stood a chance at least of being somebody I’d find interesting. And interesting this book is. It’s another (very) loosely historical novel that treats of the history of electricity (taking many liberties), a supposed war between insects and human beings, the taming of the West, and other things I haven’t gotten to yet. Marked by midstream changes of point of view and generally unconventional prose, it promises to be an engaging, if not a straightforward or traditional, read.
As I was reflecting on this last night, and trying to take particular note of some of the things I was liking about this book that I didn’t like about Stephenson’s, it occurred to me that the strangeness of the prose itself was a big factor. I enjoy reading things that are hard to decipher. That’s why I find DFW and William Gaddis to be so worthwhile.
A substantial part of the enjoyment we derive from reading is anticipating what’s going to happen next in the plot, trying to figure out what the author’s got up his sleeve and how he’s going to get us from point A to point B (if we’ve already figured out, as careful readers often do, what point B is ultimately going to be). Authors like DFW, Gaddis, and, apparently, Vollmann provide additional enjoyment because they keep you guessing not only with regard to plot but also with regard to the very method of storytelling. In J R, Gaddis forbids you to read in a conventional way: You have to learn to read the book as you go along, picking up cues about how to understand the action as the book progresses. DFW, with his footnotes and fragmented endings and $40 words, keeps you guessing about what he’s doing so that the fun includes not only trying to interpret the story but also trying to interpret how he’s telling the story. So too with Vollmann, as in this book the narrator seems to have a rotating point of view, as the story itself takes on a weird form, I find myself trying to figure out where he’s going, why he’s telling the story in the way he is. And it’s fun.
This is not to say, by any means, that fiction that’s not so hard to read isn’t worthwhile. I do find myself leaning toward the less traditional stuff of late, however. When I consider the 800 or 900 pages that Stephenson spread Quicksilver (only the first third of a longer work, recall) across and I weigh the satisfaction I anticipate deriving from it against the satisfaction I would derive from a harder book of comparable length, there’s simply no comparison. It occurs to me to draw a comparison here between running a marathon and competing in a triathlon: Both are worthwhile and difficult endeavors, but one might be considered more broadly satisfying to some because its completion calls for a greater variety of skill and engagement.