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

T

When I first read this book 20 years ago, I was amused but didn't take in much to carry with me through the decades. There was D & D and some computery stuff. It was cool but disorganized. I also know that Neal Stephenson would later have disowned this book if he could have. That was the sum total of my thoughts regarding the first novel of one of my favorite authors on picking it up again. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by this re-read. Far fetched and exaggerated, ridiculous and over-done yes, but the plot still hangs together, albeit more like a string of beads curtain, disparate strands connected but not operating together. It is more of a pastiche, a sandbox of styles and subjects. It is a satire on one level, poking fun at the modern university and all of its protected enclaves of political and bureaucratic silliness. It is also a black comedy, a character study, a love story and the triumphal cry of a nerd taking fictional revenge on a system that held back rather than facilitated.Dated -- the word summons a faint taste of must to the nose. The computer descriptions alone -- tapes, computer stacks and accordioned piles of printer paper -- bring the decades into sharp focus, but for me the moment of extreme dated-ness came when a character tuning the radio slips past a ball game and "Chambliss gets a base hit". Trouble is I remember who Chambliss was. I thought he quit playing in the '70's, but apparently I was wrong.What animates this ragtag novel is the kernel of Neal's voice. His characters have a buoyancy, a basic engaging-ness which sometimes substitutes for depth but which carries the reader along. It reminds me of how I feel when I am confident, rather than doubtful. It is a natural element of Neal's writing, that travels through his books like a current of electricity keeping all the ideas and outlandish plot points animated and interesting. It is alive and well here in his first effort.(Begin rant) There is also the emergence of one of the least fortunate of Neal's memes -- the rape as crucible syndrome. It is about as subtle as a bulldozer. Neal does not write well rounded characters in general, and more his women tend to be flatter than his men. The catharsis that brings about the realization of a new sexual orientation (or anything else) does not need to be a wrecking ball. In fact, the confusion that usually results from such a traumatic experience tends to muddy rather than clarify. The problem is not the event, which is a natural extension of the horrific dorm life Neal is describing, it is the unrealistic way motivation and self discovery are piggy-backed onto it to the exclusion of most of the horror, evil hostility and recrimination that turn inward from such an event. (End rant.)For such an obviously dour yet fantastical realist, Neal's characters are often the best of people. It is an unusual combination, and for many I believe it is the winning one. The world of computer geeks has changed. It is business now, not youthful idealism come true anymore. Tech has been assimilated by gray-suited greed, like a snake that has eaten something a little to large for comfort and bulges in the middle. All of which makes this read at times like an old newspaper article about the glories of Soviet Communism or the Wonder of the Plastic Age. Computers are wide awake and living among us.Neal Stephenson on the other hand is still dreaming.The Book Is Always Better Than the Film

Lissa Notreallywolf

The Big U is a good indication of how much Neal Stephenson has grown in his writing. It's an early novel and in some ways it reminds me of Neil Gaiman or Terry Prachett, because it is fun reading. He makes some insightful pokes at the the corporate model of the university, and institution whose face is undergoing remarkable changes since the GI bill went through in the US. Strange because I have been reading Neuman's The Idea of the University, a rather long and ponderous essay written in the mid to late 1800's. It's a chilling shift in the concept of the university, especially in light of the idea of discontinuing tenure to purge schools of bad professors. Yet tenure was designed to give academics liberty to spak their minds without fear of termination, not necessarily to provide them with the ability to coast after publishing. I would like to read more books on this topic, fiction or non fiction, so suggestions welcome.

Tony

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.

Steve

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.)

Rudolf O.

My favourite Neal Stephenson book.

Evan

There is one vivid character in this novel: Fred Fine, an excruciating portrait of a live-action gamer with severe delusions. He's the only one that Stephenson provides with sufficient narrative to generate something resembling empathy. Otherwise, the book doesn't really have "characters" so much as stereotypical ciphers for denouncing a wide range of unsurprising categorical college "types." Or maybe just social types. As Sarah aptly comments towards the end of the book, there's not much about any of this that is really specific to universities. Most of the book's parody could be set just as easily in a government or the military (one may indeed think of Strangelove or Catch 22), a corporation, a rereational facility, or perhaps even some horrible family. There are a few scathing bits here and there about the dead weight of emeritus faculty, the Vatican-like finances of higher education, and, also like the Church, the imperviousness of the university to the flows of history. These seem like side notes, however. The novel is pretty disappointing as an expose of the state of higher education.So without much characterization or specific social critique, what is Stephenson actually trying to accomplish here? Mainly, it's an exercise in extended sarcasm. Okay, I'll be charitable. The novel has domestic terrorism,the explosive demolition of towers (described eerily with the familiar pancaking effect) and a few other details that might seem prescient today. But in 1984, when S wrote the thing, I think this sort of thing was just boiler plate shock tactics for aggressive satirists.If the work is precocious or interesting in any way, perhaps it is in anticipating the vapid tastes of "Generation Q" as one NY Times columnist dubbed us recently. The generation of quirk who prefer irony to insight, exotic meaningless details from other cultures coupled with strict accuracy regarding current technology (above all, weaponry), and above all, the reduction of individual psychology to "quirkiness": the unspecific, politically evacuated assignation of peculiarity and oddness. Spared the burden of having to think, as readers, about conditions whose severity might suggest a need to engage meaningfully with the world, we sit back and chuckle at clever takedowns of characters whose resemblance to anyone real is so vague as to be irrelevant. We are amused.

Dan

This is the story of a very serious student trying to navigate the bureaucracy of the ridiculous hyperbole of higher education that is American Mega-university, a sort of parody of every large American university.This book is very entertaining, despite some very disturbing parts. This book is not nearly as good as Neal Stephenson's subsequent works but it is still entertaining and it really shows his promise. As his first work it is very reminiscent of Hunter S Thompson's first book The Rum Diary; they are both rough and do not live up to the later works, but they both show the promise of the author.I read this book because I like Neal Stephenson.

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.

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.

Marina

This book is brilliant. It's beautifully disturbing. It flows like a mad river. It's amazing.Admittedly, I have not read much of Stephenson. I read bits and pieces of 'Snowcrash' but found it a bit boring. I have had 'Anathem' highly reccomended to me but found the thickness a bit intimidating. Therefore I am a novice, untainted by Stephenson's apparent brilliance.This book is a little gem. A rough, uncut, blinding gem. I love the smooth transitioning into madness. Until pretty much the end, when I could stop and think, I did not realize how ludicrously exquisite the descent (or rather, ascent) into madness was.Most of the critiques towards this book seem to have to do with how it doesn't stand up to the standard of the later Stephenson. I think this beauty should be held as an amazing piece of literature in its own right.

Mike

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.

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.

Kandee

** 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.

Chris

In my ongoing effort to read everything by Neal Stephenson that isn't the very intimidating 3000-plus-page Baroque Cycle...Neal Stephenson has essentially disowned the book, this being his first effort and not up to the Cryptonomicon standard. Personally, I thought it was great. It's still very Stephenson in style, although the scope is smaller than his other books and doesn't go as deep. The Big U is a send-up of large university life, taking every paradigm and sterotype to a hyperbolic extreme. Drunken jocks become pseudo-terrorists, drama-club nerds play out real life Dungeons and Dragons in the sewar warrens of the "Plex," the massive towers for residences, the university president is both cunning and hyperintelligent as a good-guy and bad-guy in different venues, and science club projects become full scale weapons of war. The style was snarky and excellent, still very funny and scathing of university culture.The whole book is technically narrated by a younger-30s new professor and faculty-in-residence who just started at the American Megaversity. The cast of good-guys is pretty solid: the 30-year-old-junior devoted physics nerd-cum-hero who simply wants the ideal university experience who also befriends (and falls for) the student-body-president with a pragmatic worldly view, she herself who falls for another girl that is the deadly rebellious type on the inside of a sorority-airhead act that she plays, not to mention the overeager philosophy major, the systems engineer/supreme mage with a normal-student alter ego, and what essentially amounts to an early inception of Enoch Root: megaprogrammer, keenly intelligent on many levels, and has access to the deus-ex-machina skeleton key to the entire campus.At first I thought that the final "battle," as it were, was going to be drawn out and cheesy. But the narrative really held true to the overall theme, and the plot finishing up with this over-the-top event was a pretty decent page-turner- not for what happened, but for how it was described.I liked how a few of the main ideas in later volumes popped up here (potential spoilers):1. Discussion on the bicameral-mind theory and its theoretical effects - integral to the main plot point of Snow Crash.2. "One of my professors has interesting things to say about the similarity between the way organ pipes are controlled by keys and stops, and the way random-access memory bits are ready by computers." Yeah, that's pretty much the entire first chapter of Cryptonomicon. 3. The housing of nuclear waste at academic institutions since they tend out outlast governmental cycles - major plot point of Anathem.All in all, it comes recommended for the Stephenson crowd and the non-Stephenson crowd who just wants some apocalyptic collegiate satire. It's not as epic in scope as his later books, but definitely a "light" Stephenson read, if you want the humor and snark without all of the need for a glossary or dramatis personnae to have to refer to.

Amanda

Stephenson undoubtedly grew and matured as a writer between The Big U and Snowcrash (the latter being a far superior novel), but it helped understand where he came from. Having graduated from (and now working for) a small private college, I couldn't appreciate the satire as much, but definitely cracked up at some of the more generic academia jabs (One professor is panicked, having forgotten the core components of his field after getting caught up in advising, conferences, papers, etc). Some sections of the book seemed rushed; others seemed nonsensical, but an overall enjoyable (if not memorable) jaunt through higher education with some outsiders.

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