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The many puzzles will continue...
May 9, 2013 5:14 AM   Subscribe

A blog discussion of Charles Palliser's intriguing novel, The Quincunx, began in 2003, and is still going. Despite a wealth of theories, the participants are still no nearer solving the book's key mystery - who is the hero's father?
posted by low_horrible_immoral (25 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Quincunx is on the list of books my mother tried to get me to read as a kid that I was way too young for. As a result I'm sort of terrified of it. All I remember is Equity and Profit having these discussions that went on for pages and pages. I had no idea it had the ability to spawn a ten year blog discussion. This has made me tempted to try and read it all over again, but I've never finished The Road to Wigan Pier either and that was a heck of a lot less intimidating in the sixth grade (just really boring).
posted by hoyland at 5:29 AM on May 9, 2013


Weird. My mom also read and loved The Quincunx when it came out, and tried to get me to read it (I was reading mostly doorstop epic fantasy at the time but had liked Pillars of the Earth). I never did.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:43 AM on May 9, 2013


This is absolutely incredible. A quick word-count suggests that the blog discussion currently runs to some 130,000 words. Whoa. I mean, I like The Quincunx well enough -- I'd reckon that it's one of the best realised works of historical fiction I've read -- but it's absolutely exhausting, in a numbing kind of way, and the very last thing I'd want to dive into after I closed its last page would be an equally forbidding autopsy of its labyrinthine plot.
posted by hydatius at 5:43 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Must read it again. Also Foucault's Pendulum.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 6:32 AM on May 9, 2013


Again? Jesus.
posted by hydatius at 6:35 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's been glaring at me from the bookshelf, spine intact, for about five years.

Not sure whether the book being amenable to this kind of dissection makes me more or less likely to read the damn thing.
posted by inire at 6:45 AM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I loved The Quincunx. Utterly fell into it and disappeared for a while. I should re-read it sometime.

Oddly, I don't remember being left wondering who the lad's father is. But then, it IS a giant tangle of a book with so many characters and subplots that there are charts in the back to help you keep track.
posted by hippybear at 6:48 AM on May 9, 2013


When I read it, most of The Quincunx sailed straight over my head. Same with Foucault's Pendulum. I say the Eco enriched my life for all that I understood perhaps 1/5 of what was being said. Can't say the same for The Quincunx. I'm ok with that, but I might yet read it again.
posted by Infinity_8 at 6:53 AM on May 9, 2013


inire: "It's been glaring at me from the bookshelf, spine intact, for about five years."

It's this.

I purchased the book years ago with what I thought was a formidable resolve to actually read it, but now in a more digital age, I weep for the damage it will cause to my forearms.

It's still glaring at me from the base of my bookshelf. "I am as constant as the northern star" "I'd give real money if he'd shut up."
posted by Sphinx at 6:58 AM on May 9, 2013


I liked this book when i read it back in the day, but it was bleaker than bleak iirc. The very first commenter had it right, Dickens, turned up to 11.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:38 AM on May 9, 2013


I love the way that this book has a bunch of mysteries that are solvable using the information presented in the book but aren't actually explained. (In fact if you read too fast you might not even notice that the mysteries exist.) The only other writer I've encountered who does this consistently is Gene Wolfe.

I read it when it first came out, and then again around 10 years ago, and I thought that question of the hero's father was pretty well resolved given the evidence in the book, although I guess I must be wrong if people are still debating it. What I was not able to determine on either reading was who committed the murder.

OK, off to read the blog...
posted by dfan at 7:44 AM on May 9, 2013


Is it weird that seeing this has prompted me to add it to my library queue? Maybe I'm just a sucker for punishment.
posted by marginaliana at 7:56 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the issue with the hero's paternity is that (not to be too spoilery) there is the obvious answer, another which comes out on deeper reading, and then yet more as you re-read and pick up more clues from the text. But not one of these answers can be said to be the right one, as neither the author nor the protagonist give us much help, or anything approaching a solution. It's mysteries all the way down. :)

And goodness yes, the murder is even more perplexing...
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 7:57 AM on May 9, 2013


After several months of travel in non-english speaking countries I found a bookstore that carried books in my language, and picked the Quincunx basically because it looked like the one that would have the most words in it.

That assessment turned out to be correct.
posted by ook at 8:00 AM on May 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think the issue with the hero's paternity is that (not to be too spoilery) there is the obvious answer, another which comes out on deeper reading, and then yet more as you re-read and pick up more clues from the text.
That makes sense - I probably got to level 2 and stopped sleuthing there.
posted by dfan at 8:01 AM on May 9, 2013


The very first commenter had it right, Dickens, turned up to 11.

That's not a commenter, it's the original poster (metafilter's own snarkout). That page is an archive of his post about The Quincunx and then the 500-odd comments it spawned, followed by many more comments to the post archiving the post, also about the book.
posted by kenko at 8:07 AM on May 9, 2013


Dickens, turned up to 11.

Yep. Palliser is basically attempting a Dickens novel with all the sentimentality and easy solutions stripped out. Or, if you like, it's what Dickens himself might have wrote if he had lived on for another century of accumulating moral despair, and if he had also kept up with the Marxist scholarship produced during that time.

So part of the book's difficulty is enduring constant social, economic, and moral degradation - rapacious real estate scams, the systematic destruction of women, graverobbing, mudlarking; flophouses, whorehouses, an insane asylum, the hellish "downstairs" of a London mansion, a Yorkshire Boys' School that makes Nicholas Nickleby's Dotheboys Hall look like summer arts camp at Bard College; and, moving ominously through and glimpsed behind the scenes, the bagmen, bullyboys, sharpers, class-traitors, speculators, lawyers, and overleveraged aristocrats whose collective scrabbling for the main chance is tearing England to shreds. And the hero's ultimate, terrible choice is between the masses of the poor and the ranks of the implicated.

The other difficulty comes from Palliser's rigor with his plot mechanics.

Now, in your average Dickens novel, there's a large amount of convenient coincidence . The hero might, say, decamp for Bristol at short notice, stroll into a random druggist's shop there, and find that the proprietor is a medical student of his acquaintance last seen living in London fifty pages before. Wherever you go, there you are, in company with the same thirty odd characters - usually for no good reason whatsoever.

The Quincunx has as many unlikely meetings and the same degree of character conservation as your ideal Dickens book, but Palliser takes an almost inordinate amount of care making sure that there's always a reason for these seeming coincidences. A recurring character might be a spy retained to keep tabs. Apparently friendly advice is the bait for an unlikely trap. The hero is ringed in by three or four competing conspiracies, and certain of his persecutors serve more than one master.

A nice benefit of this cathedral of plot architecture is that there's enough room in the interstices to hide an entire family of skeletons, as the linked blog attests. The downside is that the cathedral is raised on a massive foundation of paper, and there are times when the novel gets a little tedious while Palliser is getting everything just so.* Not to mention that the hero is often at pains to explain, at length, the more obvious or inconsequential mechanics of the plot, while the most important or dangerous significances utterly escape him.

Which is rather the point, Palliser would argue.

I could wish, though, that he had a little more of Gene Wolfe's subtler touch with unreliable narrators and intrinsic plots. There's more than enough to the book to justify a second or third reading, but I'm reluctant to start again.

*(Compare Martin, George R.R., A Dance with Dragons)
posted by Iridic at 8:59 AM on May 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


By the way, if you like behind-the-scenes literary puzzles that you have to figure out yourself, Palliser's Betrayals also has a bunch of them, although it's not as much fun as The Quincunx. His The Unburied is sort of Quincunx-lite, again with implicit puzzles ripe for solving, but this time (for better or worse) the solution is actually given to you at the end. I see he has a new novel, Rustication, coming out this year.
posted by dfan at 9:44 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


By the way, if you like behind-the-scenes literary puzzles that you have to figure out yourself, Palliser's Betrayals also has a bunch of them, although it's not as much fun as The Quincunx.

Abigail Nussbaum wrote an interesting review (but I repeat myself) of Betrayals, with a bit of discussion of The Quincunx in the first paragraph (she prefers the former to the latter) and draws a comparison with MeFi favourite House of Leaves.

A pertinent quote: "There is a small sub-class of novels that work best as a topic of communal discussion. House of Leaves is one of them, and I think Betrayals might be one too (it is the novel's misfortune to have been published in the days of the internet's infancy)."
posted by inire at 10:00 AM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Someone named Palliser emulating Dickens will always strike me as a bit like someone named Baggins writing a Narnia book. So close.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:15 AM on May 9, 2013


Coincidentally this book made it almost to the top of my to-read list. It's not at my local library and I was wondering whether I should go looking for it. The answer is clearly "Yes, but not right now".
posted by immlass at 12:18 PM on May 9, 2013


Not to mention that the hero is often at pains to explain, at length, the more obvious or inconsequential mechanics of the plot, while the most important or dangerous significances utterly escape him.

AFAICT, the hero's explanations, and perhaps also the hero's apparent unawareness of important and dangerous significances, are conveniences kept up deliberately by the hero. He's far from reliable, and not just (perhaps simply not) because he doesn't understand what's going on.
posted by kenko at 12:24 PM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Very true. You can make a distinction between what he fails to grasp in the narrative moment (because of naivete, incomplete information, or mental exhaustion) and what he elides or modifies in the recounting to justify his actions. Certainly the last sentence reveals that he knows (or knew?) more of the truth than he had been letting on.
posted by Iridic at 12:54 PM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's a lovely critique, Iridic.
posted by smoke at 4:25 PM on May 9, 2013


I bought the book after reading this post — It draws you in immediately I must say. (I'm less than 50 pages in.)
posted by Eyebeams at 1:19 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


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