Book Review: "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson

January 8, 2009

What does Neal Stepenson write about? Anything he damn well wants, and Anathem is his latest long-winded, exploratory romp.

I saw Mr. Stephenson recently, at a sold-out book signing. He clearly didn’t want to be there; I think he hated the audience. Any other author and I would have been permanently disaffected, but Stephenson can get away with it.

Why do I cut him so much slack? Because I see him as a sort of literary performance artist. It doesn’t seem as much like he writes novels as that he is doing something perverse, wonderful and occasionally downright obnoxious.

Not everything he does works, and it certainly is not for everyone. Anathem is at best a fascinating other-world based on the worship of knowledge and the complexities of clocks, at its worst self-indulgent interminable exchanges (re-hashings of classical Western philosophy for the most part).

The New York Times criticized Anathem as not really being a novel, and they’re right. Stephenson has caused the format to burst. Anathem feels like it would be more comfortable in a non-linear layout, one in which the user could choose how immersed he or she wished to be in the narrative and the ideas. Expandable dialogues, links off to more details.

But I am one of those hopeless Stephenson fans. He has his finger on a certain pulse of humor that feels personal, like he’s writing just for me. So Anathem felt like indulgence. What fun! What a world! A world within a world, really: he takes monastic life and turns it on its ear.

Anathem’s world–Arbre–is one on which men and women work simply in walled cloisters, building and ruminating upon knowledge, isolated from the outside culture. Contact between the so-called Mathic avouts–those toiling simply behind the walls–and the regular hoi polloi occurs only during planned “aperts,” when the gates in the walls are opened as controlled by an elaborate (and, to me, fascinating) clock. These aperts happen every year, ten years, hundred years, thousand years; different portions of the cloistered society are allowed outside contact at different intervals.

Stephenson spends the first three hundred or so pages weaving this world behind the walls. It’s interesting to read, if you like the ideas he’s exploring and can deal with the absence of anything that can be called a plot. The life of our protagonist, Erasmas, is part monk, part scholar, part scientist, part dullard. He is merely a narrator of a richly-conceived landscape.

Don’t panic, though, it does all go pear-shaped and then we get science fiction, Stephenson-style, which is to say hilarious, rampaging, and peculiar of plot. And, in true Stephenson fashion, again, the book doesn’t know how to end right.

The most intriguing new element in this book is Stephenson’s exploration of the notions of consciousness, quantum events, and multi-cosmic theory. He riffs on the beauty–and perhaps the universality–of mathematics and other “true” forms of expression. It’s worth a read, for those who find their curiosity piqued.

If you hate Neal Stephenson, you will likely hate this book. If you are a fan, you will probably like it, especially if you are of the Cryptonomicon or Baroque Cycle persuasion.

4.0 stars

One Comment

  1. Erik says:

    Very interesting review. I’m through about 65 pages and was wondering if I should continue. I guess I’ll keep plugging forward.

    I love everything of his I’ve ever read. But this a whole different beast altogether.

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