Quicksilver: High Culture with a dash of Pop Culture

8 Feb

By Andrew Schuster

It is difficult to classify Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver as simply “Pop-Culture” or “High Culture” due to a number of characteristics it contains.  Quicksilver is a liberal mix of pop-culture and high culture ideologies that combine to give it a unique standing.  Some scenarios seem to be a legitimate throwback to the age the book is set in by relating to actual experiments, people, and events.  Other scenarios, however, tend to feel more like the author is trying to force us to see how clever he’s trying to be by featuring prominent historical figures that don’t necessarily relate to the story.

An aspect this novel exhibits that moves it towards the high culture end of the spectrum is its attention to period based history and knowledge.  Even though some of the facts aren’t actually accurate, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology existing upwards of 100 years before it’s founded, the mood of the era is definitely established very skillfully.  The age of enlightenment and knowledge is believably upon the characters in this novel; on the political front there is an uprising of people against a former tyranny of Kings with beheadings mentioned fairly often while in the scientific community the men of the Royal Society and Isaac are slowly uncovering the mysteries that we today take for common knowledge.  Ranging from the numerous dissections that Wilkins, Daniel, and Hooke make to the light experiment that Isaac conducts with his eyes, the stage is very well set for the story to unfold before the reader.  This immersion, however, can become overbearing quickly if it is too heavily packed.

Neal Stephenson loads a lot of backstory, factual or not, into a very small amount of space and this shows a desire to show the audience just how much he can pad a story.  The aspect of specifically appealing to the audience comes from pop culture.  Ideals set out today pretty much force a story to appeal to an audience because if it can’t be sold then it isn’t worth much to a publisher.  The over indulgence in description while also unnecessarily adding certain historical figures makes some parts feel a little over-saturated and less believable.  Ben Franklin being the little boy Enoch was talking to at the start of the novel was rather awkward as well as the random appearance of Mother Goose in Daniel’s talk with his family felt misplaced.  Milking the concept of being relatable takes some of the effect away from the story.

A final success to mention on the high culture characteristics of Quicksilver is its very symbolic and deeply interpretive moments that give the characters a different dimension.  A notable example of this is Isaac Newton’s possible homosexuality that is hinted at during numerous points such as when he only had “eyes for his beloved” during the scene with the apple tree in Isaac’s childhood.  Instead of outright saying he’s gay, the author places key clues within the novel that reveal a different side of Isaac and better explain many of his actions.  What at first glance seems like a distaste of being around Daniel, it instead is revealed that Isaac fears the thoughts that transpire due to the fact that he is attracted to Daniel.  Depth to such a scale is evidence of caliber in the high culture area.

Neal Stephenson manages to make quite a riveting tale in his historical fiction, which manages to take the calculus controversy and add a meaningful story to it.  Making a large and believable universe out of the history surrounding the controversy and is done in such a way that truly allows the author’s ability to shine.  Over indulgence in relating to the audience in meek ways takes away from the experience, but not enough to make the book unbearable.  Finally, the author’s ability to explain complex emotions through indirect methods helps give a true understanding while also leaving meanings of certain scenarios to be interpreted differently.


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