What Genre Is This? Pop, Literary, & Neal Stephenson’s “Fall”

All right, I’ve done it.

I’t’s only June, and I’ve met my summer goal.  I have finished three new or newish books:  Grant Ginder’s literary beach read, Honestly, We Meant Well (which I posted on here), Charles Fishman’s  One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (here), and Annie Ernaux’s The Years, a lyrical autobiography which was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (here). 

Now I am delving into summer bestseller land, the kind which is sanctioned by critics.  These days, literary culture and pop culture overlap;  book review editors give more space to reviews of genre fiction. Metaphorically, the editorial bow tie has been unknotted, the authorial hair has tumbled down from the bun, and the critical high heels have been replaced by sandals.  This summer, there has been a glut of reviews of Neal Stephenson’s new science fiction novel, Fall; or Dodge in Hell.  Because so many critics have acclaimed it, I picked up a copy, and it is a thrilling read. But after 200 pages, I wonder, What is this genre?  It’s part science fiction, part literary fiction, part philosophy… . I don’t know what it is.

In the opening chapter of Fall, we meet Richard  “Dodge” Forthrast, a gaming company mogul with a philosophical bent.  After a disturbing dream about coffee, he muses on the connection between the threads of consciousness and sleep, and then on the threads of the Three Fates (Moirai) of Greek myth, who spin, measure and then snip the threads of life.   

Subconsciously, Dodge seems to be intent on death.  Before a routine surgery, he forgets to fast.  And when he realizes he has eaten, he does not think it’s important.  And so he dies on the operating table.  (A kind of suicide?) And then his friend Corvallis, nicknamed  C+, discovers that Dodge arranged for  his  brain to be preserved by some quack company.  This causes moral and technical problems for Corvallis and Dodge’s family.

And so Stephenson, like the best of literary novelists, connects Dodge’s thoughts on sleep and death with his sleep and death.  It is carefully orchestrated. And then he switches to the (third person) point-of-view of Corvallis, who unravels a dangerous hoax on the internet and in the process falls in love with Maeve, a beautiful amputee who guides boating trips in Utah. And then we jump a few years into the future, and Dodge’s niece’s  is on a road trip to a territory inhabited by right-wing religious nuts. Where it’s going from here I don’t know.  As you can imagine, the first 200 (of 892) pages have been a wild ride.   

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