Sunday, February 20, 2005

Challenges For The Anhedonic Reader

Today is a good day to hunker down in the basement with a quart of coffee and the last two books in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

Now, a very important part of being a braying, pompous ass - especially on or near a college campus - is the ostentatious practice of reading lots of books that are not very much fun, or "fun", to read. Ever mindful of my duty, I put in five or six hours a day brandishing sundry Oulipo-or-even-worse tomes at passers-by. I stroke my chin and hold forth on Walter Abish's almost entirely ludicrous Alphabetical Africa. I duck a barrage of rotten fruit and maintain that the second half of Gravity's Rainbow makes sense. I sneer at Tim Cavanaugh's eloquent dismissal of Finnegan's Wake, and I do so because he's admitting that he's not hardcore enough.

So Stephenson is a refreshing change of pace, as his recent output is almost perfectly keyed to my brain's pleasure centers. This monstrous historical-fiction trilogy has everything I could possibly want: swashbuckling, courtly intrigue, a little light mathematical content, about five thousand characters with fucking silly names, and a nicely self-deprecating tone that keeps you from feeling like you're reading Tom Clancy. It's wonderful, and (sarcasm aside) it's Serious Literature to boot, I'm convinced - or would be, were it not for the enormous grin plastered across my face while I'm reading it. I feel like I'm twelve years old devouring sword-and-sorcery paperbacks again.