I have even more to confess than Roxanne–I can say with neither pride nor shame that I’ve never read even a page of Harry Potter, nor seen a a minute of the films. With respect to the books, it’s not that I think they’d be bad per se, but that I have other priorities: I don’t have kids, fantasy is not generally to my taste, and there’s a lot of great fiction I haven’t read. With respect to the films, I presume it would be problematic to start with #3, and Chris Columbus is about as likely to make a good film as Hugh Hewitt is likely to write a good book.
Speaking of which, I do realize that I should be more open-minded about sci-fi (which Teresa has now taught me to pronounce “ski-fee”)/fantasy, and I will get to Ursula LeGuinn at some point. One problem, though, is that I tried some Neal Stephenson last year, and had an even stronger negative reaction that Kieran Healy (although, If I understand correctly, Crytponomicon is supposed to be better than Quicksilver, the latter of which I tried to read.) At least on the basis of the 300 or so pages or so that I got through, Quicksilver is by far the worst book with any reputation for quality I’ve ever read. It’s not so much a novel as a transcript from a game of “Trivial Pursuit: Historical Dates and Technologies Edition.” I’ll outsource the rest of my review to Deborah Friedell, who argues convincingly that things didn’t get any better:
For Stephenson is himself the most vulgar of literary empiricists. His book is nothing but research in search of a narrative, a gigantic collection of index cards. In the spirit of such an enterprise, Quicksilver has its own website, and on it (as well as in the acknowledgments for the novel) Stephenson announces his reading about the seventeenth century in bookstores and libraries. He is very vain about his homework. Not a page of this tome goes by without an e.g., an i.e., a re., an et al., an a.k.a., a viz., a dagger, a footnote, a map, or a monarchical family tree.
The novel’s characters are forever “reminding” each other of events about which one would presume they would hardly need reminders. (“‘Your side won the Civil War,’ Enoch reminds [Benjamin Franklin], ‘but later came the Restoration, which was a grievous defeat for your folk, and sent them flocking hither.’”) “You see” punctuates the narrative, as does “recited like a bored scholar,” “like a dutiful university student,” “it is more correct to say,” “as you know,” “as you must know,” “as you may know,” “as you know perfectly well.” Characters are forever making mistakes, forgetting names (“with that young fellow, what’s-his-name”) and dates, so that others may readily supply them (“No, no, James I died half a century ago”).
What is remarkable about Jack and Eliza’s exchange is its shallowness, its superfluity. (The same may be said of the whole book.) Stephenson does not seem to know what to do with his characters except to have them exchange facts. In the book’s appendix, Stephenson provides a dramatis personae listing more than a hundred names. It is a dire necessity in a book in which it is simply impossible to tell characters apart. Any number of these people could exclaim, “He must still be representing the late Charles II, who was crowned in 1651 after the Puritans chopped off the head of his father and predecessor. My King was crowned in 1654.” There is no evidence that Stephenson has given any thought to how a seventeenth-century woman might talk to a seventeenth-century man, about how her understanding of the world might infuse her speech. It is so much easier to get busy with names and dates, in the manner of high school history.
When Stephenson allows humor to creep in among the facts, the joke usually depends on his reader supplying a missing piece. A character drinking tea claims that no “Englishmen will ever take to anything so outlandish.” Nudge nudge, wink wink. Another character proleptically echoes Lloyd Bentsen: “I have met the Duke of Monmouth, I have roomed with the Duke of Monmouth, I have been vomited on by the Duke of Monmouth, and I am telling you that the Duke of Monmouth is no Charles II!”
When Stephenson tries to add romance to the mix, he is unable to lose his idiot-savant tone, and what results are the most embarrassing sections of the novel. “Monmouth got himself worked round to a less outlandish position, viz. sitting up and gazing soulfully into Eliza’s nipples.” Into the nipples? There is also an adolescent obsession with men titillated by lesbianism and women made fierce by menstrual tension. (“‘This may fire or it may not,’ she said in French. ‘You have until I count to ten to decide whether to gamble your life or your immortal soul on it. One … two … three … did I mention I’m on the rag? Four….’”) But these sections are mercifully brief: Stephenson always needs to hurry back to the matter of when and where Charles I was beheaded.
You may think that this sounds unfair, but trust me–if this doesn’t sound appealing to you, you don’t want to find out.