Sometimes, when you’re reading a story, you come across a part that gleams in golden ink across the page. It isn’t merely insightful, or moving, or clever, or funny, or brilliant. At the risk of sounding dramatic: it leaps from the book and pierces your soul. You laugh, or shiver, or cry, or merely sit, transfixed. You remember this fragment long after you’ve forgotten the plot and the author and even the title. “This is it,” you say. “This is why we make art.”
I’ve been thinking about this, and what immediately came to mind was this:
from The Diamond Age (spoilers):
[Nell] climbed up the last flights of stairs and emerged onto the building’s roof, exhilarated as much by the fresh air as by the discovery that it was completely deserted. She walked to the edge of the roof and peered down almost half a mile to the street. […] After a minute or two, she noticed that something akin to a shock wave was making its way down the street far below, moving in slow motion, covering a city block every couple of minutes. Details were difficult to make out at this distance: it was a highly organized group of pedestrians, all wearing the same generally dark clothing, ramming its way through the mob of refugees, forcing the panicked barbarians toward the picket line of the Fists, or sideways into the lobbies of the dead buildings.
Nell was transfixed for several minutes by this sight. Then she happened to glance down a different street and saw the same phenomenon there. […] they spread into many-pronged formations, arranging themselves with the precision of a professional drill team, and then charged forward into the suddenly panicked and disorganized Fists, throwing up a tremendous battle-cry. When that sound echoed up two hundred stories to Nell’s ears, she felt her hair standing on end, because it was not the deep lusty roar of grown men but the fierce thrill of thousands of young girls, sharp and penetrating as the skirl of massed bagpipes.
It was Nell’s tribe, and they had come for their leader. Nell spun on her heel and made for the stairway.
[…] many girls rushed in from all sides, each adding her small strength to the paramount goal of hoisting Nell high into the air. Even as the last remnants of the Fists were being hunted down and destroyed in the nooks and corners of the lobby, Nell was being borne on the shoulders of her little sisters out the front doors of the building and into the plaza, where something like a hundred thousand girls—Nell could not count all the regiments and brigades—collapsed to their knees in unison, as though struck down by a divine wind, and presented her their bamboo stakes, pole knives, lead pipes, and nunchuks. The provisional commanders of her divisions stood foremost, as did her provisional ministers of defense, of state, and of research and development, all of them bowing to Nell, not with a Chinese bow or a Victorian one, but something they’d come up with that was in between.
Nell should have been tongue-tied and paralyzed with astonishment, but she was not; for the first time in her life she understood why she’d been put on earth and felt comfortable with her position. One moment, her life had been a meaningless abortion, and the next it made glorious sense. She began to speak, the words rushing from her mouth as easily as if she had been reading them from the Primer. She accepted the allegiance of the Mouse Army, complimented them on their great deeds, and swept her arm across the plaza, over the heads of her little sisters, toward the thousands upon thousands of stranded sojourners from New Atlantis, Nippon, Israel, and all of the other Outer Tribes. “Our first duty is to protect these,” she said. “Show me the condition of the city and all those in it.”
They wanted to carry her, but she jumped to the stones of the plaza and strode away from the building, toward her ranks, which parted to make way for her. The streets of Pudong were filled with hungry and terrified refugees, and through them, in simple peasant clothes streaked with the blood of herself and of others, broken shackles dangling from her wrists, followed by her generals and ministers, walked the barbarian Princess with her book and her sword.
* * * * *
This is one of my favorite moments in any book I’ve ever read. It’s near the end of The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, and I won’t explain all the background (it takes Stephenson some 475 pages to get to this point), because I’d rather urge you to read the book. But I will say that it’s been a big influence on my writing.
This is part of a rather disorganized series I’ve been working on for many years, called The Ten Pillars of Modern Literature. Some of them are here on this blog, and I’m thinking I should add the rest, though I’m somewhat concerned that when I pull them all together there will be more than ten…