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


I'm a huge Stephenson fan, so I was predisposed to love this book, let me get that across first. But still I love the intricate layers of plot, the satire smashing down like sledgehammers the whole time, and especially the fractalization of the civilization into almost tribal classes. This seems to be a recurring theme in his novels, but it definitely helps to punctuate all the cliques and territorial behavior you see in many modern universities. The entire thing takes place inside the Megaversity which could be anywhere, there are clues that it's in America, but that's about as specific as it gets. Fight Club was the same way. Anyway it's hilarious, huge (in scope, not length), and yet somehow still sentimental. I'd read it again, and may do so someday soon.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.

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.

Duffy Pratt

At first I thought: "Cool, it's Yossarian Goes to College." And for a while, that's what this book felt like. Then, it either derailed or got on track, depending on how you look at it. Ultimately, the whole thing becomes a giant, but always fun, mess. There are alot of great parts here, and they are all jammed together in ways that might or might not make sense. From a pure plot standpoint, the various parts actually fit together pretty nicely -- but the way they fit, it feels like Stephenson has built something out of the game "Mousetrap". They all fit together like a bizarrely conceived puzzle, but none of them really seem to go together, except perhaps by the force of the author's will.But they are really cool parts: Stereo wars of Bach Organ works that hit upon the resonant frequencies of redundant skyscrapers; irradiated giant rats living in the sub-sewer systems; college frat boys who worship a neon sign; a clandestine nuclear waste facility; a computer virus that becomes a kind of overarching artificial intelligence... And these are just a smattering of the assorted craziness that forms the Big U. Ultimately, however, it seems to fall apart, as though Stephenson is a juggler running out of hands. But, even for its flaws, it was almost always fun and engaging. It lacks the diversions and infodumps that come in his later books. The characters are reed thin. The satire is so over-the-top that it becomes hard to even think of it as satire -- it's closer to pipe dreams. But there's plenty of humor and exuberance to pull through these weaknesses.


    According to Neal Stephenson, this book is not up to snuff. It does not hold up to the long winded, rambling, unfocused, boring standards of books like Cryptonomicon and every book that he has written since. In essence, this book is just too much damn fun. It is a true satire of university life in the United States and it is just over the top enough to really, really work.    I love all of Neal Stephenson's early novels, but this is my definite favorite. I love Casimir Radon and his misguided quest to impress the only girl who seems sane in an insane world. I love Fred Fine, slowly spiraling into madness as his role-playing character begins to take over his reality. I love the cold-hearted S.S. Krupp and the terror of his unassailable logic. I love Ephraim Klein's need to find forgiveness and rationality within The Plex. I love Virgil and his single-minded war with the only opponent that he has ever found worth fighting. I love Sarah's search for intelligent life amongst the Airheads in the Castle in the Air. I love Dex Fresser and the bicameral Big Wheel cultists. I love the rats and the bats and the Crotobaltislavonians and Bert Nix and the escalation from The Wild and Crazy Guys to The Terrorists. I even love Bud, the only normal, rational guy, and our narrator, who admits to taking certain liberties with the story.    If you want to read this novel, don't go in with expectations based on Stephenson's later books, just take it for what it is, a beautiful, if flawed, and ridiculous, funny, good time.

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.


In the future, when an author thinks that his book isn't worth reading, I'm going to take his word for it. The Big U is too over the top to be an enjoyable, subtle satire of the large university life, although it had that potential in the beginning. On the other hand, the melodrama and large scale events are too trivial for the novel to be epic. The overall effect is pretty "meh." The detail and fact finding that Stephenson is known for is all but absent in this book. The only signature Stephenson move that the Big U contains is the litany of story lines and multiple character narratives, but with uncharacteristic brevity and lack of details, the constant storyline switching is irritating and makes the novel shallower rather than deeper. Also, Stephenson should know that his fans are the physics majors, hackers and LARPers of the universe and be a little more careful with the negative stereotyping

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.

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.


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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