The System Of The Pie

Below is a long excerpt from Neal Stephenson’s marvelous book The System Of The World. I put it here because it contains as its theme, pie, a central obsession of this blog and also because it’s marvelously fun to read. I’ve been rereading the Baroque Cycle in recent weeks and, although the whole clocks in at almost 3,000 pages it mattered not to me since the work was enjoyable throughout on each level: sentence, paragraph and plot. Like David Foster Wallace, Stephenson’s continued appeal to me is probably helped by having at least one joke or witticism on each page and this balance of low and high culture (although he’s certainly less ‘high’ than DFW) that draws the reader (or in this case I should say my brain) into having Too Much Fun with their literary product. In a way this structure seems to be based on computer games (although I’m sure that’s rediscovery) but the mechanism that draws you into Oblivion, Super Mario Brothers or even Lost seems similar. I suppose this is the argument of Everything Bad Is Good For You now I come to think of it.

But I’d be wary of generalising this sort of observation beyond a select few (such as myself) given the enormously dry, factual stuff I’ve been reading all my life (mixed in with appropriate amounts of Biggles, of course) so I have ‘aptitude’ and ‘form’ for reading 3,000 page books about 17th Century Europe. Your Mileage May Vary. However you can get a quick taster by reading the following extract, found at pages 456-9 in my UK Hardback edition. Isaac and Daniel are in the back of a carriage heading towards bedlam on the tail of a band of notorious coiners.

“… And so we have made an arrangement with Mr. Partry—but not disbursed any money to him, of course—nor do we expect to, until the end of this month,” Daniel said. He’d given Isaac an account the Clubb’s late doings, mercilessly abbreviated because of the aroma of the mutton pies, which were waiting on a platter in his lap. The platter was a twenty-pound slab of silver done up in full Barock style and engraved with miles of tangled script: a paean to the sexual powers of Newton’s niece. Here she was referred to as Aphrodite, a code that Isaac was not likely to penetrate. In an apt demonstration of the principle of Relativity, as propounded by Galileo, the bawdy platter, and the steaming morsels thereon, remained in the same position vis-a-vis Daniel, and hence were, in principle, just as edible, as if he had been seated before, and the pies had been resting upon, a table that was stationary with respect to the fixed stars. This was true despite the fact that the carriage containing Daniel, Isaac Newton, and the pies was banging round London. Daniel guessed that they were swinging round the northern limb of St. Paul’s Churchyard, but he had no real way of telling; he had closed the window-shutters, for the reason that their journey to Bedlam would take them directly across the maw of Grub Street, and he did not want to read about today’s adventure in all tomorrow’s papers. Isaac, though better equipped than Daniel or any other man alive to understand Relativity, shewed no interest in his pie—as if being in a state of movement with respect to the planet Earth rendered it somehow Not a Pie. But as far as Daniel was concerned, a pie in a moving frame of reference was no less a pie than one that was sitting still: position and velocity, to him, might be perfectly interesting physical properties, but they had no bearing on, no relationship to those properties that were essential to pie-ness. All that mattered to Daniel were relationships between his, Daniel’s, physical state and that of the pie. If Daniel and Pie were close together both in position and velocity, then pie-eating became a practical, and tempting, possibility’. If Pie were far asunder from Daniel or moving at a large relative velocity—e.g., being hurled at his face—then its pie-ness was somehow impaired, at least from the Daniel frame of reference. For die time being, however, these were purely Scholastic hypotheticals. Pie was on his lap and very much a pie, no matter what Isaac might think of it. Mr. Cat had lent them silver table-settings, and Daniel, as he spoke. had tucked a napkin into his shirt-collar—a flag of surrender, and an unconditional capitulation to the attractions of Pie. Rather than laying down arms, he now picked them up—knife and fork. Isaac’s question froze him just as he poised these above the flaky top-dust. “Is it the Clubb’s intention to remain idle for the entire month of July?” “Each member pursues whatever lines of inquiry strike him as promising,” Daniel returned. “As you and I are doing at this very moment.” And he stabbed Pie. “And the other members?” They have had little to report. Though at the most recent meeting, Mr. Threader mentioned that he had come by a scrap of information: Jack the Coiner is an associate of Mr. Knockmealdown. the infamous Receiver, and frequents the kens of the so-called East London Company in the Borough.” Now this, actually, shut Isaac up for long enough that Daniel was able to pitch a steaming load of mutton and gravy into his pie-hole-Isaac’s eyes remained fixed in the direction of Daniel’s face, but not focused on him—a good thing, since his phizz was in a state of gustatory rapture. ‘You know my opinion of Mr. Threader,” Isaac said. Daniel nodded. “He has had dealings with Jack—you may be certain of it,” Isaac continued. To Daniel this seemed about as likely as that his wife in Boston was secretly in league with Blackbeard. But his mouth was full of pie. he was contented, and he did not raise an objection—merely an eyebrow. “Mr. Threader must be terrified that the recent investigation of the coinage, set afoot by Bolingbroke, will discover his sordid dealings with Jack. Men have been quartered at Tyburn Cross for less.” Here Isaac let it drop, in true mathematician’s style, leaving the rest as an exercise for the reader. Daniel tried to communicate, with what he supposed were highly expressive shrugs, sighs, and brow-furrowings, that Isaac had quite lost him. But in the end the only thing for it was to swallow and say: “If Mr. Threader is so terrified of Jack’s being apprehended, why should he volunteer information as to the man’s habits?” “It was a subtile message,” Isaac said. “To what effect?” “To the effect that Mr. Threader is a willing turn-coat—for if there is little honor among thieves, there is even less among weighers and coiners—and would assist in catching Jack, in exchange for lenient treatment.” “Lenient treatment… from his own Clubb!?” “From the Master of the Mint,” Isaac said. “He wots perfectly well that you and I know each other.” “Thank you for making such a hypothesis known to me—unassisted, I never could have dreamed such a thing—so fanciful is it,” Daniel said, a bit surly, and suspended further debate with more Pie.

Like a melancholick in the corner of a crowded salon, Bedlam turned its broad back upon the City of London. It faced north across Moor Fields, the largest green space in the metropolis. Lunaticks with the good fortune to be lodged in north-facing cells enjoyed a pleasant prospect across half a mile of open ground that separated the hospital from the next edifice of any size: Mr. Witanoont’s Vinegar Yard on Worship Street at the foot of Holy-well Mount. The broadest part of Moor Fields, directly before Bedlam, had been outlined with a quadrilateral, and striped with a St. George’s Cross, of broad lanes bordered with regularly spaced trees. The trees were all about forty years old, as they’d been planted by the order of Hooke. The lane forming the southern boundary of Moor Fields was hemmed in between a picket-line of such trees on one side, and on the other, an extremely formidable fence. A small iron-mine must have been exhausted to supply those segments of this barrier that consisted of wrist-thick pickets, and a quarry must have been eviscerated to build up the parts consisting of stone blocks. As soon as this awesome maniac-stopping technology appeared out the right-hand window of the hackney-carriage, Daniel tossed down his flatware and began cleaning himself up with his napkin, whilst scanning the little poem that—by long-standing Kit-Cat tradition—had been carved into the bottom crust:

Ye Product of Pie & ye Radius, Squared Doth Yield the Size of the Pan An area vast enough to’ve been Shared Not gobbled entire by One Man!