Secret Decoder Ouch (Updated)

Michael Dirda wrings his hands over being underwhelmed by Neil Stephenson’s latest:

Alas, I can’t even lope slowly alongside the herd. Oh, Anathem will certainly be admired for its intelligence, ambition, control and ingenuity. But loved? Enjoyed? The book reminds me of Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul from 17 years ago — much anticipated, in places quite brilliant, but ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull.

Alas, there’s worse. I also find the book to be fundamentally unoriginal. If you’ve read Russell Hoban’s brilliant Riddley Walker, you’ve seen punning word coinages done better and more poetically. If you’ve read Walter M. Miller Jr.’s sf classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, you know that monasteries are havens of civilization and science (in Anathem‘s case, of high-level mathematics and theoretical physics). Most of all, if you’ve read Gene Wolfe’s four-part Book of the New Sun, you can appreciate how this kind of grand encyclopedic vision, with mysteries at its core, can be brought off with far more elegance, wit and artistry. All these, by the way, are masterpieces — and not just of "their genre."

Wowza. Anyone read it yet? Is he right?

Updated: And a very different take from Martin Lewis at Strange Horizons today:

There has always been a strong pedagogic element to Stephenson’s work; not for nothing is The Diamond Age subtitled A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This book takes it to new levels. Here we have not just his infamous digressions—fascinating as always—but a narrative that is predominantly told in formal and semi-formal dialogue after the model of the ancient Greeks. Even after the novel is finished, even after the glossary, we are presented with three "calca," lessons in mathematics and philosophy for the reader that are only tangentially related to the story. All this, coupled with the boarding school atmosphere of the Concent, the adolescent voice of the protagonist, and the birds and bees approach to relationships, gives Anathem something of the air of a Young Adult novel. In fact, with its longeurs and constant debate, it occasionally resembles an unholy hybrid of The Republic and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and it can be every bit as tediously wearing as that sounds. As Stephenson signals from the outset, nothing is left unexplained.

Anathem may be a bildungsroman with teenage overtones but Stephenson’s sights are clearly set beyond the YA market. He gives the impression of a Geek Philosopher King who has set out to write a fictional version of one of those massive, iconic works of popular non-fiction such as Guns, Germs and Steel or Gödel, Escher, Bach and he has done an astonishingly good job of realising this ambition. The novel does have a tendency to get bogged down in detail and there are intermittent bouts of tone deafness on Stephenson’s part—both isues also present in his earlier work—but this doesn’t detract from the impact of his achievement. Since Anathem writes its own rulebook to be judged by, it has succeeded in making itself almost entirely critic-proof anyway.

See the comments section as well. I’m now back to looking forward to it.

11 thoughts on “Secret Decoder Ouch (Updated)”

  1. Hmmm. I’ve read it, and loved it, and I’ve read all of the other three books that he compared it to, too. (I detested Riddley Walker, didn’t really warm up to A Canticle for Leibowitz, and…OK, I’ll give him Book of the New Sun, which is in a league of its own.) I certainly didn’t find Anathem dull. I devoured it–it was one of those books I couldn’t wait to get back to after I’d had to put it down. It’s the first Neal Stephenson I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.
    So, no, (obviously) I don’t think he’s right!

  2. No, I don’t think he’s right. I’m particularly unconvinced by the charge of unoriginality. It seems to me that, for instance, the linguistic games have different goals in Riddley Walker and Anathem, and while Anathem clearly owes a debt to Leibowitz it’s hardly a retread (it’s telling that Dirda refers to the institutions in Anathem as “monasteries”: they are not). He has more of a point about Book of the New Sun, although the nature of the mysteries being revealed and the nature of the revealing seem substantially different between the two works.
    Oh, and as has been pointed out elsewhere, he’s got the name of the world wrong. It’s not Orth, it’s Arbre.

  3. It’s a demanding read for the first fifty pages or so, until you get used to the language. I’d recommend being mental well-rested before starting it.
    Beyond that, if you enjoyed Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, I think you’ll enjoy Anathem. If you found those earlier books tedious or overly digressive, Anathem will be more of the same, plus the funny words.
    I really liked it, though.

  4. Matt, while I loved Cryptonomicon, I found The Baroque Cycle immensely frustrating. One of the reasons I like Anathem so much, in fact, is that it seemed to me he’d finally managed to successfully marry style and setting to the type of story he wants to tell.

  5. I’m still reading it, and I have really enjoyed what I’ve read so far. Dirda’s complaint about ANATHEM being a replay of other classics isn’t really fair. I mean, he named any ritual an aut. So you know that he’s providing the reader with the tipoff to Wolfe’s “autarch.” By the same measure, you’d have to throw Will Self’s THE BOOK OF DAVE into the incinerator too, which likewise had RIDDLEY WALKER as its inspiration and also provides a vernacular that you must get used to. But I don’t so much mind the pilfering of ideas from other books because, in the case of Self and Stephenson, the results are a good deal of fun. And it’s not as if Self and Stephenson had recreated scenes wholesale for their respective volumes.

  6. Like Niall I think the charge of unoriginality is fundamentally mistaken, particularly with regard to Hoban and Miller Jr.
    The charge of being “grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull” is much more on target but this is (at least partially) because of deliberate choices on Stephenson’s part about the story he wants to tell. It is meant to be grandiose!
    I think the major Orth/Arbre gaffe is pretty telling. As a professional reviewer he’s obviously had to read this very long, very dense novel at a considerable pace. I don’t envy him this but I think it is reflected in the review.
    (My review is here.)

  7. I am much relieved to hear your opinions, because I’m looking forward to this one. Generally, I think Dirda is a critic whose taste I understand (and typically agree with — his cranky comments about whippersnappers on the Internet notwithstanding), but the unoriginal argument struck me as odd. That was one reason I pulled it out.

  8. And isn’t this the first review Dirda wrote before coming back from vacation? (Remember that he left savaging Adam Thirlwell on similarly strange reasons.) I mean, I like Dirda. But he can be needlessly cranky at times. And that crankiness, as Martin suggests, seems directed at books longer than 500 pages.

  9. In the LA Times (link above), Laura Miller calls it “philosophy as ripping yarn.” The same Laura Miller who wrote the Narnia book you’re reading.

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