The Big U

ISBN: 0380816032
ISBN 13: 9780380816033
By: Neal Stephenson

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About this book

The New York Times Book Review called Neal Stephenson's most recent novel "electrifying" and "hilarious".  but if you want to know Stephenson was doing twenty years before he wrote the epic Cryptonomicon, it's back-to-school time. Back to The Big U, that is, a hilarious send-up of American college life starring after years out of print, The Big U is required reading for anyone interested in the early work of this singular writer.

Reader's Thoughts


An okay first book, though pretty forgettable... the only saving grace for me is that I believe it was modeled after my college (Boston University), and his satire of BU's BUreaucracy is fairly accurate. In my time BU was nowhere near as big as a party school as it was when the author went there, so unfortunately (or fortunately) there were no party cults that worshiped the Citgo sign, and I also don't remember the B&G (Building and Grounds) workers being nearly as sinister as they are portrayed in this book (though they were eerily prevalent everywhere). Now at least I have a good nickname for my school.

Josh Karaczewski

I devoured this book. It was mad, hilarious, esoteric, full of action and ideas, darkly satiric. Such assured audacity in a debut novel! Having lived down the street from Boston University, I also loved the allusions to BU.I wish Stephenson would write a full explanation for why he isn't proud of his first novel and let it go out of print. Perhaps I read it too fast to notice the flaws, but the only thing I found wanting was the lack of a character wrap-up at the end: I was so involved with them that I wanted to know what they all did with their lives after the events of the novel.


I’d fallen out of the habit of reading…. The street outside my restaurant pulsates with life. Fad-adorned hipsters walk up and down the main drag likes it’s a track ducking into local bakeries, cafes, music stores, bars, and eateries. The sidewalks narrow as random guys hold signs offering free advice. Tables are strewn with trinkets for sale. A French hippie carves one-hitters and juggles badly. A wannabe thesbian dresses in crazy outfits and sings and jumps around without rhyme, reason, or talent in a bizarre attempt to entertain at all costs: a sort of street theater of the rude and crude. Book peddlers are spaced every half a length of a north-south block. From time to time, the book peddler, who sets up two long church basement tables almost every day just outside my restaurant, offers a free book as I arrive for work. I’ve picked up a copy a biography on William Carlos Williams, a couple of mysteries, and a couple of artist retrospectives filled with photos and descriptions. They remain untouched. I went three months without a day off and convalesced without reprieve from sundry ailments. I began to consider skimming a few articles in the paper or online, a huge accomplishment. I wiled away my days downloading television episodes and watching cheesy DVDs. I was in a rut….One night, my friend Sandro, the intelligent, scrawny, dancing Dominican who works as a dishwasher and busboy at my restaurant, came in with a find from a stack the book peddler had left up for grabs next to some freebie newspaper carrels. Sandro speaks English rather well but has never attended school so he doesn’t read books in English. But, one night he found a book that looked interesting. He loves history and natural history in particular. Thinking he’d uncovered a botanical compendium of some sort he rushed in with the book in hand to see if I’d like to read it not wanting it to go to waste. He told me in Spanish, “it takes a lot of time to write a book. You shouldn’t have to find your book on the street.” What a great attitude! He was also excited because he thought he’d found something I’d enjoy. I accepted the book and began to read. Turned out the book, “The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe,” was a novel, and a very good one at that. Thanks to the enthusiasm displayed by my friend, I was back in the reading groove. By the next morning, I was better than half way through the novel and woke up early. I rushed to The Strand, one of the world’s great booksellers. Based out of lower Manhattan, The Strand boasts that it shelves “18 miles of books.” With two large downtown locations as well as sidewalk operations along the southeast corner of Central park, I don’t doubt it. I scanned through metal racks of paperback books on sale and stacked on tables. I looked over the sale racks and tables that are not organized like the rest of the store. Books are not strictly sorted by genre, subject, or author. I love looking at books this way when I’m not sure what to read next. I just wait for a spine, a cover, or title to leap out at me. Then I read back covers and keep going. Within minutes I had ten or twelve options that I narrowed down to two, two paperback novels and five bucks later I emerged on the street just south of Union Square. I walked through the market, picked up a couple of perfect peaches and walked up to Madison Square Park where they were playing U.S. Open matches on a big screen in the park. A seat in the outdoor park, a tennis match, a good book with two more ready to read and I found the perfect form of relaxation before going to work. As I searched through the sale ranks of The Strand, I was drawn to “The Big U.” The back cover announces that the protagonist is a thirty year-old college junior named Casimir Radon. I was hooked. I suppose I have to believe that dreams can be realized even if outside the conventional timeframe. I started cooking professionally when I was ten years older or more than most who start out. The idea that it’s never too late to start all over again (also the title of a good Steppenwolf song) appeals to me. I can only hope it’s true. Or, I endeavor to make that true. I knew I’d read the book. Within pages of starting this novel, I became intrigued by the narrative voice. The voice is first-person. The narrator is not omniscient per se. He identifies himself as a “tweedy” young black professor starting out teaching in what we assume is the sort of large all-American (traditionally white-bred) University. He tells us that he spent most of his time at ‘The Big U’ listening, observing, and, talking. He sets himself apart from the fray. He also tells the reader he is writing “to put ‘The Big U’ behind” him. Immediately, the narrator is complex. He is not omniscient. Yet, he is an observer. Therefore, he’ll know more than the average character. We also get the idea from the opening pages that the narrator is a player in the story. What then are his motives for telling the story? The question underlies much of the novel. Perhaps he’s trying to distance himself from the story he sets about telling. Perhaps he needs to make himself more integral. This raises the whole question of the autobiographical voice in literature. I remember reading Harold Bloom’s take on Walt Whitman, I think in “The Western Cannon.” Bloom noted that Whitman made himself a character in his poetry and by doing so Walt Whitman became greater than the man himself. He endures not because Whitman included portions of autobiography and imposed his own soul on the work in a direct fashion but because the character Whitman is immortalized by lofty words and thoughts. Whitman becomes a symbol, perhaps what he wanted to be or could have been in life, he becomes these things and more in poems. In a way, Neil Stephenson, author of “The Big U,” plays with just that. The reader is almost forced to ask himself, how is the narrator’s character different from the narrator himself? We must assume his facts are at least skewed if accurate. The whole novel has these sort of built in complexities that give the reader so much to contemplate while enjoying clear, straight-forward prose. Aside from the narrative voice, Stephenson is a powerful descriptive writer. The university’s campus becomes a character itself. The campus is a droning bureaucratic grunt that almost serves as the chief antagonist – rather “Catch-22” as one reviewer noted, although I’d add that the book accomplishes this sort feat without humanizing the campus itself. This speaks to a lucid, powerful descriptive writing that I’ve rarely come across. In the end, Stephenson provides a great piece of satire that’s worth reading. I’m just lucky the publishing house reissued the book based on the author’s subsequent success.

David Cooke

I picked this up because I'm a fan of Neil Stephenson's work, but I definitely understand why he hates this book. His first book, it is kind of a chaotic mess. It tries to stabilize the chaos with grounded narration, but the whole story is just flat out bizarre. It's a satire centered around the commodotization of the American university, but it's about fourteen acid trips past normalcy, and its exaggeration prevented the world to feel real enough to believe it as an earnest critique. There was a lot of biting comedy, but overall the book was just too immature. Spending so much of my time reading this book with my mouth open thinking "WTF?" just isn't that interesting after awhile.


Definitely my least favorite Stephenson book. I can see why he tried to disown it. The satire was too over the top to really work for me. The plot was unnecessarily convoluted. I can deal with a complex plot, but it irritates me when plots are made to look more complex than they really are. If I weren't going for my 100% Stephenson Completion achievement I probably would have bailed.There were a few bits that were borrowed by Anathem. One of those was a major plot twist and I'd rather not spoil Anathem. Another room in the library included the names of several main characters (Erasmus and Archibald are the two I can remember). I wonder if Stephenson knowingly recycled them or if his naming scheme needs more entropy.

Louis Packer

Neal Stephenson's first novel, and apparently, one he's not very pleased with. While it's not up to par with his later work, I think he's probably being a bit hard on himself. There are definitely glimpses of the genius he would show in the novels to come.

Rudolf O.

My favourite Neal Stephenson book.

Chris McClinch

For established Stephenson fans only. I can see why Stephenson allowed this novel to go out of print before he became a nerd icon following the publication of Cryptonomicon. It's fascinating to see some of the early genesis of his themes, and his sense of humor is more on display in this novel than it is in much of his later work, where it's drier and more restrained. The book itself is pretty obviously a first work by a talented writer still finding his feet, however. Characterizations are still a little thin, and the satire doesn't work 100% (or at least not for a reader who went through college a decade later), but I'm glad I read it. Still, not something I'd have finished were I not already a fan from his later work.


Just finished the Go Big Red Fan prologue, and I think I can see why Stephenson sort of disowns The Big U. It's his first novel, published in 1984 when he was 24 or thereabouts, which means it was most likely *written* when he was 22-23, if not younger. But JUST BECAUSE STEPHENSON WOULDN'T CONSIDER WRITING SOMETHING LIKE THE BIG U TODAY, DOESN'T MEAN HE SHOULDN'T HAVE WRITTEN IT IN HIS TWENTIES. I'm only eight pages in but I think this book will be a lot of fun for the same reason another author-dissed first novel, The Broom Of The System is a lot of fun: it was written by a young guy feeling his oats. That sense of play is irresistible to me.01DEC10. I'm now 70-80 pages in and I have little to complain about and a LOT that's making me late to (and keeping me hurrying home after) work.10DEC10. Sure the book has issues, but it was still a hell of a lot of fun to read. I created a web page for it. (You may find this image of the Plex helpful when reading.)


I (and a lot of people here, it seems) enjoyed Stephenson's first novel more than he might think we would. Of course, when reading a first novel it helps to know that the author gets better, but there's nothing terrible about this one and a lot to like, like the huge mess of ideas, interesting characters, and crazy ending.It's a quick read, it's a lighter kind of book than his other works, and less grounded in reality, but those aren't necessarily bad things. It's fun to read, even the gruesome parts, and I'd recommend it to any Stephenson fan, especially one straight out of college.


Ive never been to college so Im sure I missed most of the satire of this novel. Overall this was a very fun book to read that presents a sometimes scathing look at the big college life and bureaucracy. Reading this novel I also picked up the seeds of things to come from Neal Stephenson. As a first novel this is a solid writing effort. All of the pieces of Neal's style are in place. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in neal or just looking for a fun/funny book about college life.

Nathaniel Martin-long

There is some definite commentary regarding the politics of academia both internal to academia and the social politics of the students in this book. It uses heavy hyperbole to poke fun at the various classes of students and groups, in addition to corporate interests in the University system. However, as you read it you have to give up following along at certain times and just accept that you are in for a surreal experience in a world that, while may be similar to ours, is clearly not one that makes a whole lot sense unless you reside in it. I can see why the author doesn't like talking about this book. It is a good read, but it isn't very well written.

Chrys Albarado

This book was odd, intellectual, meaningful... But mostly odd. I enjoyed it. It was entertaining. It was definitely a break from my normal reading fare. This is a book to read when you want something that is more like "steak" than potatoes. You need to reach in to yourself and also have a decent understanding of the world around you to understand the goings on. I think of the story as a George Orwell style writing. It's deeply symbolic. This novel was recommended by a friend and I admit, I knew nothing about it going into it. Halfway through the second chapter, I had to stop and re read because I had been reading it as a "fun" book and I was utterly confused. I think anyone about to read this book should at least read the Wikipedia page about the book first. It helps to clarify a few things such as who the characters are and the purpose of the story.I overall enjoyed the book but it took my a long time to read because it's just not "light reading". I enjoy some heavier material from time to time but mostly I read for fun these days and need something that isn so involved. This was difficult to digest with corralling three kids. :)


Just about as challenging a read as any of his other works- but lots shorter. There are some aspects that definitely show a less mature style than Cryptonomicron or System of the World, but I readily saw some common themes and hints of what Stephenson would ultimately create in those books. It gets quite convoluted, and there are lots of inside references to what life in a big institution can become in an absurdist setting. Somehow, though, even not being a full geek, I waded through all the computer-related issues, and enjoyed the story. Took some effort and concentration, however!


** spoiler alert ** SpoilerYou can get a sense from the book of Stephenson yen for complexity. He just loves fucking with you, forcing you to recall the little things, making you fall for the unlikeable, then just basically blowing everything up. Seriously why do you end up admiring the giant sewer rats, or the stalking role player?The only commonality in all of his books is that unrelenting twining of disparate stories. It is so great. And the characters... I always miss them when the books are completed.

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