Baroque Cycle: King of the Vagabonds

Previously, on the Baroque Cycle Reading Group:

And now:

King of the Vagabonds coverWell: I wasn’t expecting that. King of the Vagabonds is recognisably by the same author and in the same style as Quicksilver, but for the most part it reads less like a continuation of a story in progress than it does the start of something new.

We take a slight skip back in time, to 1665 London (pre-plague, pre-fire) to meet the oh-so-literally “half-cocked” Jack Shaftoe, one of seven brothers in a working-class family. Soon enough the eldest brother is dead, thanks to a blackly-humorous accident during an attempt to steal a boat’s anchor, but via his execution Jack and another brother, Bob, find themselves paying work as hangers-on. Specifically, they are paid to hang on the legs of execution victims in order to hasten their death. Jack’s character and circumstances established, we jump forward to 1683 (mid-way between the two Waterhouse narratives in book one), and find that Jack has become a vagabond (and, offscreen, a widower and father), although he signs up as a mercenary just in time for the Battle of Vienna. During the battle, for reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, he ends up chasing an Ostrich into a harem and there rescues an actual female character. Eliza is (1) young, (2) a native of Qwlghm, (3) extremely smart, (4) extremely beautiful, and (5) generally all-around perky; and after her rescue she and Jack travel across the continent together, each spending a good deal of time lecturing the other about their personal history. They spend some time in Leipzig, where they participate in “the Doctor’s” scheme to sell shares in a silver mine, before eventually fetching up in Amsterdam. There Eliza becomes a businesswoman and helps to finance the Monmouth Rebellion; meanwhile, Jack goes for a wander around France, ostensibly with the goal of raising some money to care for his children.

For a while, I was convinced that King of the Vagabonds is hands-down better than Quicksilver; having finished it, I think it’s no less flawed, but at least it’s flawed in different ways, and has some strengths that Quicksilver lacked. As I said, the novel is recognisably of a piece with its predecessor — it has the inconsistently anachronistic language, the engagement with famous figures and events, the skewed perspective on what matters about these things — but they’re put into what to my mind is a better and broader context. The single thread, while it lasts, helps the whole story feel more focused and coherent, while the continent-spanning scope of the story provides a more useful backdrop. There are also fewer, or at least less violent, authorial prods about the Meaning of the Story, and a bit more demonstration. The underlying concerns are the same, but you could say that Quicksilver was Theory and King of the Vagabonds is Practice.

And thanks to the dynamic between Jack and Eliza, King of the Vagabonds is also a much more readable book – at least in its first half. Neither character has what you’d call great depth, and Eliza in particular is unconvincing as a person; sometime there’s a comparison to be written of her, James Morrow’s Jennet and (though she is from a slightly later period), Adam Roberts’ Eleanor as willful historical women interested in the workings of the world, written by men. (For what it’s worth, to my mind Eliza is more convincing than Jennet but less so than Eleanor.) Moreover Stephenson’s character decisions (particularly the contrivance by which Jack and Eliza are separated at the end of the book) tend to the worst excesses and implausibilities of soap-opera plotting. But while it lasts, the relationship between Eliza and Jack is lively and engaging and makes many things forgivable. I think it’s no coincidence that they separate the novel loses its way dramatically, and that the sections dealing with them individually – and Jack’s adventures in particular — are far less interesting than anything they get up to together.

The simple fact of having two non-historical characters talking to each other means that you can have, for instance, Eliza expressing disbelief at Jack’s encounters with the high-born and famous. It grounds the story — there isn’t the sense, which there was in Quicksilver, that there are only famous people in the world, even though quite a lot of famous people eventually turn up – and as a result, I believe in the verisimilitude of Jack and Eliza’s experiences much more than I ever did in those of Waterhouse. And because they offer a radically different view of the world — from their lower-class perspective, you wouldn’t know that Waterhouse and the Royal Society exist — the encounters they do have with historical figures (who tend to be of rather higher class) feel more like the atypical events they should be.

An obvious example is the Doctor – and conveniently he also ties in, I think, to the question of historical uncertainty that we talked about last time. Specifically: The Doctor’s identity seems to be obvious, but he is only actually confirmed to be Leibniz long after he’s left the stage. For a while, when he’s introduced, it’s at least plausible that he could be Newton, or even Waterhouse. This uncertainty of identity – not to mention the pop-culture echo, which I’m sure is deliberate – positions Leibniz as a figure of wonder, rather than the near-equal he was in Quicksilver. His pronouncements are on the edge of plausibility, and the edge of comprehensibility to Jack and Eliza: “It is a mathematical technique so advanced that only two people in the world understand it [...] People will use it to build machines that fly through the air like birds, and that travel t other planets” (431). Later, another character summarizes “what the Doctor wants” this way:

“To translate all human knowledge into a new philosophical language, consisting of numbers. To write it down in a vast Encyclopedia that will be a sort of machine, not only for finding old knowledge but for making new, by carrying out certain logical operations on those numbers — and to employ all of this in a great project of bringing religious conflict to an end, and raising Vagabonds up out of squalor and liberating their potential energy — whatever that means.” (476)

Because this is being said by someone who finds the Doctor outlandish – as we do – rather than by someone like Waterhouse who might accept these concepts without blinking, the self-conscious improbability of it is easier to bear. Moreover, because it’s embedded in a more conventional historical narrative, its extraordinariness is more powerful. This paragraph, and a couple of others like it, actually reminded me of nothing so much as Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Tapestry sequence, in which modern concepts are transmitted back through time with the hope of changing the course of past events. Almost all the attempts fail, but they fail in ways that highlight the contingency of history; and the “great project” here sounds like it could be exactly that sort of intervention. We should know how this story ends, because it ends with us; but we start to wonder whether that’s the right ending. (Tangentially, it seems odd to me that Baxter skipped over this entire period in his series; it seems ripe for the sort of story he was telling.)

I’ve mentioned the broader canvas of the book a couple of times. There’s a sense that there’s a whole continent in play, and a world beyond that, all gradually being knit together by the developing systems of the age, most notably trade. Against this Jack and Eliza are figures in a landscape; and when, for instance, deus-ex-Enoch turns up and drops some more hints that he’s engaged in (or the motivator behind) Leibniz’ utopian project to lift humanity up and better us, they seem truly improbable because of the vastness against which they are cast. That said, I have to admit there’s a whole level of information in this novel that I’m missing, because my eyes glaze over at the gossipy way in which Stephenson tends to have his characters relate Royal politics and high-level shenanigans. But for whole pages at a time, the sprawling messiness of the Baroque Cycle seems like it might actually be worth something, it seems that the absurd — I can’t think of a better word for it — excess of historical detail might be intended to draw just such a contrast between the landscape and the figures in it. Unfortunately, that theory gets dashed late in the book, when Stephenson suddenly elides part of Jack’s story to get him back to Eliza, and has him comment on it as like “a play, where only the most dramatic parts of the story are shown to the audience, and the tedious bits are assumed to happen offstage” (578), as though Stephenson actually believes that everything he’s told us up to that point is important and directly relevant to the story of Jack, when it so patently isn’t.

I suggested that King of the Vagabonds was the practice to Quicksilver’s theory, and I think it inverts the earlier novel in another way, too. If Quicksilver was about the developing systems of the world, King of the Vagabonds asks simply: what does it mean to be free? And in particular, what does it mean to be free when the world’s web is tightening around you? Jack’s answer, for most of his life to the point we meet him, has been the freedom to roam, the freedom of the vagabond; through his experiences with Eliza (after freeing her), he comes to appreciate the importance of economic freedom. And of course Leibniz’ maths would give humanity as a whole more freedom, freedom to do and act in the world. In its approach to examining this question, King of the Vagabonds feels less like an attempt to convey a historical agenda, and more like an attempt to translate its period for a particular audience. When Jack claims that “I know the zargon [zargon being to this book what phant'sie was to Quicksilver, i.e. annoying] and the code-signs of Vagabonds who, taken together, constitute a sort of (if I may speak poetically) network of information, spreading all over the world, functioning smoothly even when damaged …” (387), it’s still transparently artificial, but because it’s even further removed from the reality of what’s being described than were similar statements in Quicksilver, it’s easier to see it as a gloss.

And you can see the same sort of approach in Stephenson’s descriptions of 17th-century Amsterdam:

In the end, it took Jack several minutes’ looking to allow himself to believe that he was viewing all of the world’s ships at one time — their individual masts, ropes, and spars merging into a horizon through which a few churches and windmills on the other side of it could be made out as dark blurs. Ships entering from, or departing towards, the Ijsselmeer beyond, fired ripping gun-salutes and were answered by Dutch shore-batteries, spawning oozy smoke-clouds that clung about the rigging of all those ships and seemingly glued them all into a continuous fabric, like mud daubed into a wattle of dry sticks. The waves of the sea could be seen as slow-spreading news. (477)

Stephenson clearly fell in love with this setting — more, I would say, even than with London — and though there are awkward bits in paragraphs like this (is that “on the other side of it” really needed? For starters), you get occasional perfect images, such as that last line. “The waves of the sea could be seen as slow-spreading news”. It’s a clear and very precise evocation of the Amsterdam of Stephenson’s imagination: a place of fluidity, a place of trade, and a place where information is king. If the Baroque Cycle can be reduced to anything, this early in reading it, it seems to me that it’s reducible to this: that it’s an expression of information theory; that it’s at pains to show how every human transaction can be described as an exchange of information; and that the process of modernization is the process of learning to recognise and use that fact.

Next up: Odalisque. Date: Friday 6 June. In the meantime, I’m reading the Mundane Interzone, and expect to post about it this time next week.

13 Responses to “Baroque Cycle: King of the Vagabonds”

  1. Jonathan M Says:

    Tangential at best but seeing as I never reviewed the works and you’re all “discussing” them…

    Without falling into Farah’s absolutely correct assessment that the books make you want to read his sources, I think the treatment of Leibniz as a character is really central to the way that Stephenson frames history.

    Leibniz is a natural philosopher, with the access arguably more on the latter than the former. His mathematical and scientific contributions are now far less widely studied than his (funnily enough) baroque metaphysics, aside from the BC his most famous fictional outing is in Voltaire’s Candide in which he is parodied as a ridiculous stereotype of a philosopher whose theories about the world are in no way troubled by actual evidence.

    However, Stephenson not only glosses over the “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” and the details of monadology, he also really stresses Leibniz’s scientific and mathematical work, effectively presenting him as Newton’s continental equal… a man of astounding foresight and erudition. Every inch the proto-scientist.

    To me this is a reflection of the Baroque Cycle’s attitude to history as it effectively presents the change from the medieval to the modern world as being far smoother than that presented in many traditional intellectual and scientific histories. It effectively does for Enlightenment philosophy what Adam Roberts’ Palgrave history does for SF… it goes back through history reclaiming people as modern whereas in fact they arguably weren’t.

    Even Newton (as you’ll see), who is the poster child for the clash of the modern and the medieval is presented as being basically a modern scientist but easily distracted or sucked into his medieval mindset as though he were a character in a Tennessee Williams play who has to struggle against the madness and the vapors.

    I suspect his interpretation is defensible but as someone who sat through a whole term’s worth of lectures on Leibniz, I was surprised to see him championed as a scientist, especially when empirical philosophers such as Hume or Locke arguably fit the mindset a bit better… but that’s just personal preference :-)

  2. kevmcveigh Says:

    I have a 7 hour journey to make tomorrow by train/bus including lots of hanging around. (Monday’s return should take me 3 1/2 Hours, and hitching the same route for the Clarke only took 6 hours) The plan is that Quicksilver will be in the bag. It won’t be the only book* i take though so maybe I will, maybe I won’t….

    *Thomas Love Peacock’s The Misfortunes of Elphin (unless I finish it tonight), HG Wells’ Food Of The Gods (picked up free at a carboot sale last week) and some short fiction will all be competing.

  3. Nick Hubble Says:

    I’ve figured why people do this sort of thing – it’s kinda interesting to see how other people’s minds work completely different from your own.

    ‘Neither character has what you’d call great depth, and Eliza in particular is unconvincing as a person’ – I don’t see this at all – Eliza’s story is unconvincing but I don’t think she is. As for depth, it’s not the right kind of story to have charcter depth is it? I don’t think it would work if they had depth (but then I wouldn’t value depth over what jack and Eliza have anyway). Part of the point might even be a refutation of depth: Jack’s qualities are attractive and human in a way that would be difficult to surpass. And then I liked it but I really loved it from after they split up …

    ‘Moreover Stephenson’s character decisions (particularly the contrivance by which Jack and Eliza are separated at the end of the book) tend to the worst excesses and implausibilities of soap-opera plotting.’ No way, man! And what soap opera would manage to link the rise of finance capitalism and slavery in this way? There is a greater (deeper?) point here.

    ‘Unfortunately, that theory gets dashed late in the book, when Stephenson suddenly elides part of Jack’s story to get him back to Eliza, and has him comment on it as like “a play, where only the most dramatic parts of the story are shown to the audience, and the tedious bits are assumed to happen offstage” (578), as though Stephenson actually believes that everything he’s told us up to that point is important and directly relevant to the story of Jack, when it so patently isn’t.’ – I suspect this (one of a number of references to players following on from the play in Quicksilver) is actually an acknowledgment of Jack’s own knowingness – he is speaking to the audience – and amongst the general mix is the idea that everything has been important, hence us the readers need to find a mode of reading that registers everything as important.

    ‘We should know how this story ends, because it ends with us; but we start to wonder whether that’s the right ending.’ – This, on the other hand, sounds bang on the money. I guess that this is the end to which we need to find the best possible mode of reading for the book.

    Somebody makes a comment about Stephenson in the ‘Wells vs james’ thread at the Valve (which you’ve linked below) about his ‘you can’t fool me I’m a moron’ approach. I think it should be ‘you can’t fool me, I’m a fool’ – that’s certainly how Jack comes over and the important thing is not to be fooled by it (!).

  4. Niall Says:

    Jonathan:

    I suspect his interpretation is defensible but as someone who sat through a whole term’s worth of lectures on Leibniz, I was surprised to see him championed as a scientist,

    Is he championed as a scientist per se? I’m not sure that, at this point in the timeline, there are many, if any, “true” scientists in the Baroque Cycle — they’re all sort of equidistant between philosopher and alchemist and scientist, working out what we now think of as “normal science”. I know less about Leibniz than I would like, but he was in my head as a sort of continental rival to Newton already. That said, I think you’re on to something with the idea of “reclaiming people as modern”.

    Kev: well, you’ve got until June 6th to catch up … [g]

    Nick:

    it’s kinda interesting to see how other people’s minds work completely different from your own.

    Oh yes. :)

    Eliza’s story is unconvincing but I don’t think she is.

    She’s just a bit too perfect, a bit too omnicompetent for me to really believe in. (As, in fact, Abigail said when this whole project was first mooted, although I don’t see the irony she does in Jennet, which is why I am even less convinced by her). You’re right that criticising her for lack of depth is a bit of a cheap shot on my part, but there isn’t even a suggestion of additional dimensions.

    And what soap opera would manage to link the rise of finance capitalism and slavery in this way? There is a greater (deeper?) point here.

    Certainly there’s meant to be, but my annoyance at the cliche of dumb-but-proud male refusing to listen to the woman who is clearly talking sense and who he knows is talking sense … well, the melodrama of it all just made me roll my eyes, I’m afraid.

    I suspect this (one of a number of references to players following on from the play in Quicksilver) is actually an acknowledgment of Jack’s own knowingness – he is speaking to the audience – and amongst the general mix is the idea that everything has been important, hence us the readers need to find a mode of reading that registers everything as important.

    Oh, it’s obviously directed at us, and I think that you’re right that Stephenson wants us to read as though everything is important. My point is that it’s hard to believe that everything is important when the writer has just skipped over a section that would be much more important (because it includes an important character decision) than much of the prancing around in France we’ve been enduring for the previous hundred pages (which include very few actual decisions, and several awful, overly prolonged descriptions of incipient madness). Or, I guess, my point is that everything isn’t important; everything may be interesting, but that’s a different yardstick.

  5. Nick Hubble Says:

    But, Niall, I don’t just think that Stephenson is talking through Jack – I think jack is self refexively talking of his own self understanding as a player in a play. As readers we can take this as an audience understands the part being played has other levels behind it: actor, director, playwright. It is this structuring that is creating the equivalent of depth in the Baroque Cycle so far rather than modern psychological depth (which would be anachronistic). [on another tangent, would we say a picaresque book like Don Quixote lacks depth?] We say in the modern world that it is more important why somebody chooses a course of action than what course of action they choose – but maybe this is wrong. Certainly King of Vagabonds proceeds by priviliging the course of action over the reasons for the choice. At least let it run and see where it goes for a while. My philosophy of reading is ‘buy the ticket, take the ride’ – try and read as generously to the author as possible and see where it goes. At the moment it is fun but I do expect a pay off: if it all ends up a shaggy dog story then I will be a bit put out. But I think as a practical reading strategy for a nigh-on 3000 page ‘book’ it makes sense because if one starts suspicious then it might prove difficult to maintain motivation (I’m just generalising on reading strategies here; not criticising you because obviously you’re having to play the critic here as part of the reading group thing).

    As for the dumb-but-proud male – he is self-reflexively dumb but proud. Or rather he is neither dumb nor proud but actually acting according to a different set of guide lines – well as part of ‘Dick, Bob and jack’ he is out of a fairy tale (‘Lazy Jack’ perhaps if you know that one) and acts accordingly – whereas the other characters including Eliza are out of different genres/discourses. It’s interesting when the different genres clash and also the different levels of play/actor/director/playwright – there is a huge four dimensional structure here – and maybe you’re right that at the moment I am finding this interesting rather than anything else – but I can sense that it might all be important and I’m looking for the cryptographic key to unlock that importance.

  6. Paul Raven Says:

    “… the melodrama of it all just made me roll my eyes, I’m afraid.”

    But it’s supposed to! It’s a spoof, a pastiche, a deliberately ironic reappropriation of the picaresque. That’s why the characters appear to be talking to the audience – that’s exactly what they are doing! But the characters aren’t so much characters as they are ciphers … graaah, damn my crammed schedule, I so wish I was re-reading those books right now!

  7. Paul Raven Says:

    Supplementary – I like the way we all get our own digital doily by our comments! :D

  8. Niall Says:

    Hmmm.

    Nick: But, Niall, I don’t just think that Stephenson is talking through Jack – I think jack is self refexively talking of his own self understanding as a player in a play.

    vs

    That’s why the characters appear to be talking to the audience – that’s exactly what they are doing! But the characters aren’t so much characters as they are ciphers

    I might just let the two of you fight this out. ;-)

    (PS Paul, I think the Clutean word you’re looking for is “utterands”. :-)

  9. Nick Hubble Says:

    Well there’s not necessarily a contradiction depending on which definition of cipher you use.

    Clearly they’re not characters in the liberal humanist psychological depth model sense (which would be anachronistic for late 17C) but neither are they valueless – rather they have hidden values.

  10. kev McVeigh Says:

    Ok, managed ‘Quicksilver’ on the train. So I’m only a book behind.

    On historical accuracy, I heard somebody on Radio 4 recently complaining about the overbearing need for historical accuracy making a lot of modern fiction a ‘form of social history’ rather than storytelling. Whilst i don’t think one precludes the other, see Richard Powers’ The Time Of Our Singing for example, we all must have our favourite examples of the historical info-dump. Stephenson manages his way around that quite well, Ben Franklin may be gratuitous but those opening pages are sufficiently alive as to get through the potential morass of set-up.
    The use of a large number of fictional characters in a historical setting causes problems though. The use of one complicates accuracy, multitudes surely makes it impossible.

  11. Iris Barimen Says:

    Jack says several times that he used to sneak into plays as a boy. The little hanging play he and Bob do at the beginning of the book shows that he paid attention to what he saw. I think he sees himself as a hero from a play.

    As he goes through life he tells himself the story of Jack.
    “You may not know this, but you have a way of talking to yourself as you go about-telling yourself a story about what’s happening, or what you suppose is happening-for this reason I already know you are Jack.” (pp 141)

    This is why he left out he “boring part” of his story. Jack has consciously edited his story for Eliza. He’s probably been polishing his story for weeks.

    Picaresque novel, a popular subgenre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society. (wikipedia)

  12. Goodbye, Sir Arthur « Torque Control Says:

    [...] first three installments of the Baroque Cycle Reading Group, as plugged in my editorial. Next installment to [...]


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