The Confusion: A Review

(This is a spoiler-free review, picking up where my review of Quicksilver left off.)

The middle volume of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle begins with Jack Shaftoe, galley slave, awaking just outside Algiers. After several hundred pages of epistolary prose in Book III of Quicksilver, the return of Half-Cocked Jack is a long-overdue delight. And for those who found his escapades the high points of Quicksilver, The Confusion will seem like a gift all out of proportion to the occasion: delightful, if a bit overwhelming. That is, in fact, the whole book in a nutshell—even more than its predecessor, it fits the definition of baroque perfectly.

The Confusion is actually two novels, as explained in an author’s note:

This volume contains two novels, Bonanza and Juncto, that take place concurrently during the span 1689-1702. Rather than present one, then the other (which would force the reader to jump back to 1689 in mid-volume), I have interleaved sections of one with sections of the other so that the two stories move forward in synchrony. It is hoped that being thus con-fused shall render them the less confusing to the Reader.

Both the diction and the wordplay in the note are characteristic of the Cycle as a whole, of course, but its substance is a bunch of poppycock. That is to say, the two sub-novels were clearly not interweaved after the fact, but were written as one, moving back and forth in order to reveal (or obscure) information from the reader and increase dramatic tension, not merely to keep the timelines in sync. Bonanza follows Jack Shaftoe and the Cabal, his multi-culti band of fellow galley-slaves, in adventures that literally span the globe. Juncto follows Eliza’s machinations in France and England, occasionally broadening its view to encompass the related deeds of Daniel Waterhouse, Bob Shaftoe, and Gottfried Leibniz.

Those who approve of the term “swashbuckling” and occasionally pepper their language with the word “Aarrrrr!” will most appreciate Bonanza. The best part of the entire Cycle thus far is pp. 165-254 of the American hardcover edition, encompassing an ingenious ship-theft, danger on the high seas, and an unforgettable battle in the streets of Cairo. Whereas in Quicksilver, the legend of L’Emmerdeur made Jack out to be a much more successful rogue than he was, in The Confusion he lives up to title King of Vagabonds. This is something of a disappointment, because there was a certain charm in seeing Jack as a hapless wretch richocheting among the power centers of Europe—it was a refreshing change of pace from the brace of geniuses that surrounded him in the roster of protagonists. Now it’s clear that he is one of those geniuses in his own way, and then some—a fact that’s easily forgiven, at the end of the day, because of all the way-cool stuff he gets to do.

As for Juncto: this book will be most warmly received by . . . economists. One is hard pressed to think of a subject more dull than “the origins of modern commerce,” and yet Stephenson is deeply, obsessively interested in just that subject, and delves into it in such a way as to make the long Quicksilver chapters in Amsterdam seem little more than a minor footnote. In one scene, Eliza explains an international trade deal to a parlor full of snooty French nobility by getting them off their feet and making them play-act the various persons at each stage of the process. The process is analogous to Stephenson’s efforts throughout his book: dashing here and there, demanding a dialogue, making a scene, all in order to liven up his exposition and keep the reader engaged. And, of course, he succeeds. It helps that he has a terrific character like Eliza at the center, and that as the sub-novel progresses her personal affairs eclipse late 17th Century Economics in importance. Like Jack, Eliza moves from being a clever survivor to a true mover and shaker, literally deciding the fate of kingdoms with her financial dealings. She serves two mistresses, Eliza the avenger and Eliza the mother, and that tension keeps Juncto riveting even when the chatter about Bills of Exchange is at its height.

Two key characters are woefully underrepresented in The Confusion: Daniel Waterhouse and Enoch Root. Daniel, like his descendant Randy in Cryptonomicon, is a character with a relatively uneventful life who is nevertheless—perhaps consequently—presented with greater nuance and depth than the other protagonists. Jack and Eliza are too busy doing for us to spend all that much time in their heads, but Daniel, a Salieri (save for his lack of bitterness) to Newton’s Mozart, is someone we get to know intimately in Quicksilver. Here, we get just the faintest touch of his theme—the scientist forced to play courtier, angry at his own cowardice—before he’s whisked off to America. Presumably we’ll catch up with him in The System of the World, the upcoming third book of the Cycle, but that will have been far too long to wait.

Enoch Root stays mostly clear of the intrigues of Continental Alchemy this time around, but does cross paths with Jack & Co. on the far side of the world. What we get in the way of information about his history and true nature wouldn’t qualify as “clues” so much as “nuggety morsels of rumor dangling just out of our reach.” How he’ll get from where he’s left in this book to Boston, where we know he’ll be in 1713, is anyone’s guess. As a wise dwarf once said, “He comes and goes at will—he is a wizard, you know.”

I mentioned in my last review that Quicksilver is, at root, a romance, not a novel of ideas—despite the fact that it’s swimming in ideas. This holds true all the more in The Confusion, which is chock full of lavishly-described battles, love lost, love found, rescued maidens, avenged ills, and jaw-dropping betrayals. I wouldn’t have it any other way. If anything, though, the novel suffers from having simply too much plot. This is true despite the fact that it covers 815 pages and remains just as liberally sprinkled with extended diversions and historical footnotes as its predecessor. The last half of Bonanza and the climactic moments at the end of both sub-novels are where the breakneck pace of things starts to strain—each chapter brings a new setting, and no sooner has the reader acclimated to a startling new state of affairs than she is whisked off to something else again. For all its length, The Confusion should have been a couple hundred pages longer to do justice to everything and everyone it tries to juggle. It is a rare thing these days to find a novel with an excess of plot, though, and so criticizing it for such a fault is rather refreshing.

Fans of Cryptonomicon will continue to find the ancestral foundations being laid for that book’s characters in countless ways. If you had forgotten the offhand reference to “Foote and his dynasty of White Sultans” in Kinakuta, for example, you’ll slap your forehead and smile when you come across its antecedent here. It’s becoming increasingly clear the extent to which Stephenson is crafting a detailed world for his works—one with considerable overlap with the real one, to be sure, but with its own particular emphases. In Stephensonland, things are a little more dangerous, a little more sharply drawn, and a little more bizarre than in reality. It is a testament to both his deft descriptions and his grasp of history that it’s often hard to tell which of his improbable anecdotes and unlikely settings are invented, and which come straight from the history books.

The purpose of his world, through Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver, has been to put a lens on geek culture and its role in both politics and science at different points in history. In The Confusion, though, with its lack of attention to Daniel Waterhouse and Natural Philosophy, that focus is broadened. The big question seems to be: “What can an individual do to shape the forces of history?” Geeks have been of particular interest simply because they’re the ones who have tended to be such shapers more than other people, but the principle is larger. The following passage (p. 538-9) strikes at the heart of the matter:

Caroline’s eyes came up off the floor and gleamed in the light of the window. Eliza continued: “Why did your mother later end up in a bad marriage? Because things had gone against her-things she was powerless to do anything about, for the most partand in the end she had very little choice in the matter. Now, why do you suppose I’m letting you read my personal correspondence from Captain Bart? To pass the time on the road to Leipzig? No, for if we only wished to make time pass, we could play cards. I show you these things because I am trying to teach you something.”

“What, exactly?”

It was a good question, and brought Eliza up short . . . “Pay attention, that’s all,” Eliza said. “Notice things. Connect what you’ve noticed. Connect it into a picture. Think of how the picture might be changed; and act to change it. Some of your acts may turn out to have been foolish, but other will reward you in surprising ways; and in the meantime, simply by being active instead of passive, you have a kind of immunity that’s hard to explain-”

“Uncle Gottfried says, ‘Whatever acts cannot be destroyed.’”

“The Doctor means that in a fairly narrow and technical metaphysical sense,” Eliza said, “but it’s not the worst motto you could adopt.”

Against a backdrop of people who are swept along in the bizarre interplay of cultures that make up the world, Stephenson writes about the doers—those who, whether through external pressure or inner will, are driven to create change.

Another key trait of Stephenson’s heroes is that they are cosmopolitan. He spends a great deal of time describing the idiosyncratic traits of various cultures, from the Germans to the Spanish to the Hindoos and the Japanese. All these groups tend to be inward-looking and not a little suspicous of outsiders, typifying, to varying degrees, the essential conservatism of the planet. His protagonists are experts at bridging the gaps between cultures, of getting along with disparate peoples. Eliza, the ex-slave of the Turks who straddles French and English nobility, and Jack, whose Cabal is comprised of everyone from an Armenian merchant to a crypto-Jew to a Japanese Christian samurai, exemplify this. The implication is clear: to act decisively in the world, you must be able to transcend humanity’s natural tendency toward provincialism.

Stephenson’s prose remains consistent with that of the first volume; if it doesn’t seem as impressive, it’s only because the nature of his achievement isn’t new any more. He does a little less in the way of varying the form of narration chapter by chapter, though there are still a fair number of epistolary and all-dialogue passages. His balance between period and modern diction has drifted toward the latter, partly of necessity since this novel spans so many different languages and places. But he still can trot out enough courtly banter to make you think he’s writing from personal experience.

Will fans of Quicksilver enjoy its followup even more? That depends. The Confusion trades away a certain amount of thematic focus and structural cohesion in exchange for a greater number of “ooh” and “ahh” moments, action-wise. Given that thematic focus and structural cohesion aren’t exactly strong points of The Baroque Cycle to begin with, that’s saying something. I was more thrilled reading it page by page, if perhaps a little less satisfied by its totality in retrospect. But overall it keeps the bar raised nice and high for the Cycle as a whole—I don’t know what I look forward to more, finishing the trilogy or being able to go back to the beginning and enjoy these first two volumes over again.

The Confusion ends far more decisively then Quicksilver, with an excess of last-minute twists and turns, but no shortage of drama. A surprising number of plot threads are resolved in the course of the novel, actually, leaving just what Stephenson will fill The System of the World with as an open question.

Somehow I doubt he’ll have any trouble.