The Baroque Cycle

The other night, I finished a 2,700-page novel. Well, it was three novels, actually, but they line up in a row: Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, which breaks down to Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. With generous allowances for setting it aside to catch my breath and read and write a few other things, the project took me a year.

Little of this would matter but for the fact that it soothes my ego to have survived the thing and actually followed and even understood most of it. Several very, very smart friends of mine got bogged down in the details of the first book — the narrative flow in all three meanders, to say the least — and never recovered. I’m a huge fan of Stephenson. Cryptonomicon is one of my all-time favorite books, and Snow Crash is mind-blowing. But this work is several orders of magnitude more complex; it’s not an overstatement to say you need a solid liberal arts education to get all of the details. There’s a pirate story, a love story (of sorts), philosophy, economics, geo-politics, chemistry, mathematics, and even a bit of law. When he dropped the acronym BATNA into the middle of a band of escaped slaves and pirates in 17th century Egypt, I had a hard time holding it together. In places, it’s a lot of fun, and in places, it’s really thought-provoking, and in places, it’s brilliantly written. All together, though, it’s not necessarily a great piece of literature, but I just loved the sweep of Stephenson’s ambition.

Interestingly, after nine years in law teaching I find myself reading far more fiction than I ever did as a practicing lawyer. I read a blend of things, actually, when I’m not reading law. Having set down The System of the World, I just picked up Garry Wills’s recent book on Henry Adams; during one break in the action from The Baroque Cycle, I read Michael Chabon’s wonderful Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. But as a practicing lawyer, I think that I got all of the fiction that I needed from my clients and their adversaries.