A new Baroque?

by Carl Dyke

Today was ridiculously warm for December, so we grabbed books and headed outside. I decided to take another crack at Charles Stross’ celebrated scifi novel Halting State (2007), which I bought on the recommendation of the tuned-in folks at Crooked Timber.

I say another crack because I started it awhile back and only lasted about 20 pages before I had to put it down. I found the second-person-omniscient narration profoundly irritating, for one thing; not only did it ping my introversion something fierce, but it seemed like the kind of gratuitous technical contrivance that also put me off Updike years ago.

Today those elements took a back seat to the writing itself, which knocked me out with its grandiose overdetermination. The chapter was JACK: Steaming, and within a page I’d been treated to a half-dozen elaborate metaphors for being stoned. As if that were a new, unusual and special thing. (In second-person I get to decide if that’s true.) I survived this purple onslaught with just a bit of cringing and grunting, and was rewarded with more of the same about the pathetic collapsing techie life that had precipitated the binge. During the course of which, ironically I hope, the cliche’ of beating a dead horse was transformed by the magic of wanton prolixity into this sentence:

Questions were asked in the lumpy-looking construction site down Holyrood Road, and the ministers did wax worthy and serious and proceeded to apply the tawse of uptight self-righteousness to the rump of the dead equine of games industry self-regulation with gusto and vigour.

Well, at the risk of applying the tawse of uptight self-righteousness to the rump of post-post-modern egghead litracha, how is this anything but what happens when you take geeks who fancy themselves edgy and pay them by the word?

The book seems to be roughly in the genre of cyberpunk, which I quite liked in its Pynchon pre-history and its Gibson / Stephenson early phase. But I lost track for some years and may have missed important developments. I get it that every genre reaches an event-horizon where only the application of massive thrust will keep it from spiraling down to oblivion, although I don’t know if that’s the case here. And I get it that every social set has its characteristic embarrassing pleasures, and this one doesn’t happen to be mine. So I assume there’s a complex of taste mismatches here, and probably a network of referentiality I’m not attuned to. Obviously I don’t need to like this, but if it’s something I could learn to like I’d like to. Can anybody reading this help a brotha out?


5 Comments to “A new Baroque?”

  1. Serendipitously, I have a copy of Halting State in my Kindle library. To me, what you call grandiose overdetermination is a send-up—a calculated mockery of a species of corporate speak too often encountered these days, itself a style that we might label “Anti-Orwell” with reference to the famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” Part of the fun is seeing just how weird it gets. As the janitor becomes a “sanitary engineer” so “self-righteously beating a dead horse” becomes, “to apply the tawse of uptight self-righteousness to the rump of the dead equine.” Over the top? Yes. Deliberately so? Yes. An acquired taste that mature adults might want to avoid, like spiking grass with cocaine? Very likely.

  2. Yes, that makes sense and helps a lot; that calculated mockery was already well underway with the earlier guys so I buy that the meta has been cranked another absurd turn. And that makes it more than juvenile, kinda, although one of the things that bothers me about it is how it ventriloquizes and amplifies a kind of overwrought hipster expressivity with which I’m pretty bored. Of course this is a genre peril; when I was a kid I thought Heinlein was very wise, with his smart, sexy women amused by the bumblings of their well-intentioned and ultimately heroic men. Now it’s easy enough to see he was playing off the sensibilities of his audience, but it’s still pretty hard to take.

  3. Heinlein’s style? Or smart, sexy women amused by the bumblings of their well-intentioned and ultimately heroic men? Which is hard to take?

  4. Yyyyyessss! All of it, the whole syndrome. In fact it occurs to me what I’m reacting to here and in my DFW post is syndrome literature. But is there another kind? When we like something, is it because we’re so deep in the syndrome it feels like reality, or so far outside it feels like a dream?

  5. Personally, I have always found smart, sexy women amused by the bumblings of their well-intentioned and wannabe heroic men delightful.

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