Thursday, September 29, 2005

Post-Confederate Gravy Eater

Before he was famous, Neal Stephenson (one of my all-time favorite authors) wrote novels under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. Now that he has ridden the bestseller charts and won critical acclaim, these earlier novels are being reissued, now with his name prominently featured on the cover. I recently finished the novel "Interface" and decided to share my thoughts.

There are two main reasons I love Stephenson: his unapologetic love of words, and his deliberately bizarre plots. I've long thought that The Baroque Cycle was a perfect name for his most recent series, because he does work in a Baroque style, constantly adorning his stories and his sentences until they burst at the seams. Sometimes the result is ponderous and weighty, as in the Cycle; other times it makes his books feel kinetic, as in Snow Crash. So I was happy to see that, despite the presence of a co-author, both of these traits were very much in evidence here.

The language is certainly not as advanced as it would become by the time of Cryptonomicon, but you can certainly feel him paying attention to it. Stephenson enjoys mixing up his narrative forms, a la Melville, and, for example, late in the book much information is conveyed in the form of irate Letters to the Editor sent by a psychopath to the Washington Post. Most of the story is told in conventional third-person attached narration, with each chapter following a certain character. The dialog is frequently funny, and many of the names are very Dickensian. The primary opponents for the GOP nomination, for example, include Rep. Nimrod T. O'Neil and the Reverend Doctor Billy Joe Sweigel. As always, Stephenson is unapologetic about his names, inviting the reader to just smile and enjoy the ride.

The plot's direction feels more like Stephenson, although the subject matter is not. It is an interesting mish-mash of political thriller and science fiction tale, with some interesting Cryptonomicon-esque business drama included. The core of the story starts out simple - hugely popular Illinois governor William Cozzano wants to run for President but suffers a stroke that leaves him aphasic - and from there branches out into a whole universe of people influenced by his situation. This includes his daughter; an angry Indian neurophysician who drives a monster truck; a high-tech entrepreneur; a telegenic bag lady; the leaders of a secretive cabal of superinvestors; and many more. The broad outlines of the plot become predictable after the first few chapters; what remains surprising are the new characters roped into the plot and how they advance it. This includes the most offensive focus group meeting ever, as well as a shooting rampage that leaves you cheering for the serial killer and some incredibly cynical (yet more believable than ever) negative attacks in the campaign cycle.

Stephenson is notorious for writing bad endings, or not even having endings in his books. Those who have read him before will be pleasantly surprised by the amount of resolution in this book; those who have not will probably find it abrupt. One thing I found interesting is that, while I personally found great shades of grey throughout the book, it felt like there was a very artificial black-and-white judgment forced on at the end. You can tell which group of people are supposed to be villains, but some of them are so likeable and funny that it feels a little shocking when they got their just deserts. Not all the "good guys" make it out all right, either, but that's to be expected. As with many of his books, you arrive at the end with a pleasure at the story and writing that carries you past the sadness at unpleasant things happening to characters you've come to like.

I certainly wouldn't recommend this to someone who hasn't read Stephenson before, simply because it isn't his best work. If you're curious, I'd personally recommend Snow Crash (skip the chapter with Raven and YT). Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle (starting with Quicksilver) are arguably better, but you won't want to invest the amount of time those books take until you've made up your mind about his writing. I also love The Big U, another fun and easy read, but am in the minority on this, as Neal himself now hates that book.

I always have trouble coming up with "conclusions" for these posts. My five-paragraph-essay indoctrination demands that I wrap things up. Interface is well worth checking out if you're a fan of Stephenson's books, and don't be too surprised if it turns into a movie one of these days.

UPDATE 9/30/05: Oh, I almost forgot the strongest point in which this book excels over Mr. Stephenson's others. Unlike all of his other books (well, except for "In the Beginning... Was the Command Line," "Interface" does NOT include a freaky and psychologically distressing sex scene. That fact alone may prompt some to put this in the "Best Neal Ever" slot.


  1. Replies
    1. Heh... a person who eats gravy, I suppose. Gravy is a rich and heavy sauce. It's eaten around America, but is probably most strongly associated with the southern states. In this book, "Post-Confederate Gravy Eater" is the name Neal gives to a demographic group of voters, kind of like "Soccer Mom" or "Nascar Dad". He never defines it, but I imagine a group of overweight white Southerners.