The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson


Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest are usually accounted long books, each logging in at 1000 plus pages, as well as erudite literary works.  Just for comparison, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle at 2685 pages is longer than GR and IJ combined.  The Baroque Cycle is published as three books, but it is really one long novel. 

I don’t want to make a pretense of being any literary scholar, so I want to confess right up front that despite reading the whole thing, including all 300 plus endnotes, I found IJ occasionally compelling but frequently tedious and rarely funny.  More grievously, I did not recognize GR as one of the greatest novels of all time, though it too had its compelling moments.  I’m afraid that I found the description of the V2 and its place of manufacture more interesting than most of the characters.

The BC lacks the high literary seriousness of these other works, being at heart a swashbuckling tale embedded in an elaborately minute examination of the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries and the birth of modern science.  Because the author is fond of using the words and spellings of his subject era, the vocabulary can be as intimidating as that of David Foster Wallace.

There are three principal and fictional characters, Natural Philosopher Daniel Waterhouse, vagabond Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza.  Readers of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon will recognize those first two family names as progenitors of the principals of that work.

Real historical characters get a lot of ink, especially Isaac Newton (Waterhouse’s alleged roommate at Cambridge), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, Robert Hooke, Louis IV of France, Electress Sophie of Hanover, and many others.

The plot is globetrotting, ranging from the siege of Vienna, to Amsterdam, to Algiers, Cairo, India, the Philippines,  Mexico and back to England.  London is the star, though, occasionally in mind numbing detail that I, with minimal familiarity of modern London, found often baffling.

Want to know the nitty gritty of how goldsmiths assayed the purity of coins in 1714?  You will find it here.  The gruesome details of Hooke’s biological investigations or how executions for high treason were carried out?  How Hooke rebuilt London after the great fire?  All that plus the detailed layout and management of Newgate Prison is here.

All in all, it is a great historical panorama, crafted with an erudition that puts Pynchon to shame.  It isn’t War and Peace, but it kept me busy and sometimes spell-bound for many a day.


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