Imagine 4 people in a room. Let’s name them: Jim, Neil, Tom, and Flarbb—because I can. Normally, if you’re trying to write a dialogue between these four people, it would either be narrowed between two for a standard back and forth. Like…
Neil and Tom walked to the other side of the room to gaze admiringly at a tall vase that didn’t house any flowers but should, because, what was the purpose of a vase if it didn’t house any flowers?
Meanwhile, Jim complained about Flarbb’s wife. “Betty cooked me dinner, again. Can you believe her?”
“She was just being nice,” said Flarbb. “She loves your company.”
Or, you add two more people by adding names.
“Quit ragging on Flarbb, Jim.” Neil gazed hotly at him.
Tom had to pull Neil back, worried about his friend and his history of violence. “Come on buddy. Let’s go back and look at that vase.”
Now, I imagine that’s everyone’s normal dialogue. Dropping names when the reader can pick up it’s only two people going back and forth. But, have you ever dropped everyone’s names? Read this by Neal Stephenson:
“Dr. Waterhouse, you must be warned, has fallen quite under the spell of Herr Leibniz—”
“—him that stole the calculus from Sir Issac—” someone footnotes.
“—yes, and, like Leibniz, is infected with Metaphysickal thinking—”
“—a throwback to the Scholastics, sir—notwithstanding Sir Isaac’s having exploded the old ways through very clear demonstrations—” (17)
What I like about this is that it quickly fills a room with voices without creating the people to go with them, effectively creating a noisy crowd, the kind that has to interrupt itself like fifteen times. I love it. I find it really difficult to juggle multiple characters since it’s hard to carry that many voices on a page without it sounding repetitious with all the names, like Jim told Neil who yelled at Flarbb, etc.
What I don’t love but hate—not really hate, but for the purpose of the title, let’s call it hate—is that none of these voices have faces. And I know you’re thinking isn’t that what you just said you loved, but dang nabbit, I’m not finished. None of these voices have faces, and this isn’t a one-time use thing that he does for the purpose of this ‘crowd.’ Stephenson actually does this a lot with all his characters, even the important ones.
“I defer to you, sir.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“But without seeming to be a Cavilling Jesuit, I should like to know whether Wilkins’s urine is a product of Art or Nature.”
“You saw the jar.”
“If you take the Rev.’ urine and pour off the fluid and examine what remains under the Microscope, you will see…” (123)
Now, this is just a random example, where Stephenson goes for 6 lines without naming people, and I don’t know what is the magic number for a maximum number of lines without naming anyone, but I have seen him go longer than this.
The reason this bothers me is because of the talking head syndrome. I like to see how characters are interacting, what their hands are messing with, how their faciial expressions are changing. I don’t like to read just voices going back and forth – for most of the time. There are exceptions like this one. But for the rest of the time, I get bored or distracted, especially since there are always names I don’t recognize, in which I’m too lazy to go back and figure out who this is and why we’re talking about them.
In summary, I’d say the love/hate thing accurately describes my relationship with this book. I’m on page 224 out of 335, which is only book one of volume one. (There’s three books in this volume.) And at times, it does go faster, but then I hit ruts like the one I’m in right now, in which it just drags and drags, and I don’t know why I’m reading about the things I do, but hopefully it gets better from here.
Oh well…Happy reading!
Stephenson, Neal. Quicksilver. New York, NY: William Morrow, 2003.