Sunday, September 07, 2008

Michael Dirda on Anathem

Michael Dirda reads Neal Stephenson's Anathem - and isn't all that thrilled by it. [Full review]

To sum up: Reading Anathem is a humbling experience. Wow, you say to yourself, this guy Stephenson really knows a lot of stuff about philosophy and physics. And he's really ingenious, too, neatly counterpointing Earth/Orth history, creating a series of elaborate puzzles that can only be solved by Encyclopedia Brown and his monastic buddies, and transcribing intellectual conversations that sound like really nerdy Caltech grad students schmoozing at 3 a.m. or Cambridge dons pontificating at high table while they wait for the Stilton to come round.

The sad thing is this: None of these more than 900 pages can have been easy to write, or even to outline. Stephenson truly is gifted in the range of material he can draw on and play with. But he is also the sort of ambitious writer who tends to go too far, which is certainly preferable to playing it safe. Still, this novel is at heart artistically simplistic, despite its techno-razzle dazzle. Sigh. The word "Anathem" -- which here refers to either a piece of religious music or an act of excommunication -- is a portmanteau of "anthem" and "anathema" -- in other words, it suggests a song of rejection. I just hate to be singing it.

2 comments:

Nymeth said...

You know what I like about him? The fact that he actually sounds sad to haven't found merit in this novel. The fact that he acknowledges both the author's efforts and his own disappointment. It's so unlike those critics who seem to relish in trashing a novel, who only grudgingly admit to having enjoyed a book very rarely, who seem convinced that books need to be difficult to have some merits, and that if they are read with pleasure then something must be wrong.

Dark Orpheus said...

Nymeth - That's why I love Michael Dirda. :)

There's so many critics who approach their job like a pest exterminator. Sometimes they sound so unkind and self-righteous in their reviews, you wonder if they even enjoy reading.

Then there are the ones like Michael Dirda, who reminds you that a book reviewer should be someone who loves books, and it is the best job in the world, because you get pay to read books, and to write and share about them with the rest of the world.