[The Confusion: Book Two of the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenon, William Morrow, 2004, ISBN: 0-06052-386-7]
In more ways than one, The Confusion is a startlingly apt title for the second work in Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle.” Spanning thirteen years and at least as many countries, it is a work that does not suffer fools gladly. It weighs in at over 800 densely packed pages, and so is in no sense of the phrase “light reading.” Moreover, it suffers from the additional complication of being in the middle of a long plot arc; usually the weakest part of any trilogy. In Stephenson’s able hands, these potential dangers become strengths, and he celebrates the twists and turns that other less skilled writers would do well to fear.
Thankfully, he provides his readers with dates and locations in the chapter headings, which they should mark well, lest they end up lost in one of his long digressions. Some would style the whole of the book a long digression, as for the most part, it does not address the central plot arc established in Quicksilver: the dispute between Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton over the invention of calculus. Instead, The Confusion concerns itself more with Stephenson’s fictional characters, in an effort to set them in positions from which they will be able to play their roles in this dispute.
The story of The Confusion is broken into two parts, “Bonanza” and “The Juncto,” which are commingled and contemporaneous, one tracing the growing web of power that is Eliza, Countess de la Zeur, in Europe; the other tracking Jack Shaftoe across wildernesses of both the charted and uncharted varieties. In short, we watch as each protagonist gains, loses, and wins back both fortune and family. In “Bonanza,” Jack awakes from the madness of “the French Pox” (syphilis) to find himself a slave on a ship in the Barbary Coast, where he enters into a plot with nine other enslaved men to win their freedom. At the same time, Eliza is in a similar predicament in “The Juncto.” Captured by French privateers, who believe her to be a spy for England (with whom they are at war), all her money has been taken from her, and she is held in genteel captivity in the port town of Dunkirk. It is in an effort to find freedom and wealth that Jack and Eliza set in motion the stupendous weave of plots and counterplots that makes each part of The Confusion so breathtaking in scope. Both parts are filled with intricate and many-layered subplots, conspiracies, military maneuvers, financial escapades, and complicated familial, sexual, and business relationships. Towards the end of The Confusion, readers come across a rumination by Jack that, while attempting to explain his life, neatly sums up the success of the novel as well.
The one or two broad simple concerns of Jack’s early life, like the light and dark portions of a wootz-ingot, had been hammered out and folded over, hammered out and folded over, so many times that they had become involved and inter-tangled into a swirl of swirls, something too intricate to follow, or to be given the name of “pattern” or “design.” It registered on the mind as a blunt impression that could be talked about only by smearing it into some gray word like “complicated.” But he would tell Jimmy and Danny and Tomba that it was complicated, and they would not have the faintest understanding of what he meant, Jack could only pray that its complexity gave it the strength and keenness of a watered-steel blade. Much later he might be able to discern whether there was beauty in it too.
In Jack’s life (and so too in the novel that follows it), simple desires, such as love, safety, family, and money, turn endlessly in upon each other like a Medieval tapestry, each thread tied to the next to create a whole, whose beauty is only truly comprehensible once complete. Second-guessing The Confusion is nearly impossible, and minor characters or details from one part of the novel frequently explode into major plot twists in the other. For the most part these connections are handled in a way that renders them believable and enjoyable, without seeming farfetched. It is only at the completion of The Confusion that Stephenson succumbs to some heavy-handed machinations to create an end that offers up both a summation and a cliff hanger. Though the ending sets up the third and final book of the series to stand on its own, it leaves The Confusion with a final twist that is poorly executed: too quickly brought on and too little explained.
Beyond the sheer complexity of the book, there is another reason to see The Confusion as an apropos title. Older, more etymological readings of the word “confusion” offer up a second meaning for the word. Among the many more conventional definitions, Webster’s Unabridged dictionary offers “To mix or blend so that things can not be distinguished,” direct from the Latin confundere, which means to mix together. It is to this definition that Eliza alludes in the following monologue, given to her bastard son, whom she has pretended to adopt from an orphanage, but who has subsequently been kidnapped at the age of two by Eliza’s worst enemy, who intends to torture him but instead raises the child as his own (did I mention the book is filled with complicated familial relationships?).
For confusion is a kind of bewitchment—a moment when what we supposed we understood loses its form and runs together and becomes one with other things that, though they might have had different outward forms, shared the same inward nature.
This moment of bewitchment, the “eureka!” moment of archeologists and anyone who seeks to find greater meaning buried in dross, is a frequent occurrence throughout The Confusion, causing readers to gasp, laugh aloud, or let out a knowing sigh as diverse plots collide, knit together, and then careen off in new and more complicated arcs. It is this sublime pleasure of understanding that Stephenson seeks to create in his readers, whether it is through his long explanations of physics, politics, or economics, or through his clean, yet complicated stories.
The novel is not all about confounding the reader, however. Indeed, one of the most amazing aspects of The Confusion is the way in which Stephenson writes a history that, despite its fictional nature, is more real than that alluded to in many a history book or high school social studies class. Here we find a history in which Europe and the Enlightenment are not isolated islands of progress in a sea of chaos and ignorance. In the world of The Confusion, Stephenson makes clear the degree to which no one nation or way of life can exist without exchange with others, whether it be exchange of thought, money, goods, or people (a lesson some foreign policy makers and American presidents would do well to heed). It is these exchanges which made the progress of the Enlightenment in science, politics, and life itself possible in the 1600s and 1700s, and it is these exchanges which make up the vehicles for the various plots of The Confusion. To give an example of the high degree to which this intermingling of peoples occurred, here is a description of the crew of Jack Shaftoe’s boat, which was constructed in India with money from Germany and Malibar, to sail to Manila, Japan, California and Mexico (did I mention the book is filled with complicated business relationships?).
The sailors had grouped themselves according to color so that they could hear translations: the largest two groups were the Malabaris and the Filipinos, but there were Malays, Chinese, several Africans from Mozambique by way of Goa, and a few Gujaratis. Several of the ship’s officers were Dutchmen who had come out with Jan Vroom. To look after the cannons they had rounded up a French, a Bavarian, and a Venetian artilleryman from the rabble of mercenaries that hung around Shahjahanabad. Finally were the surviving members of the Cabal: van Hoek, Fappa, Monsieur Arlanc, Padraig Tallow, Jack Shaftoe, Moseh de la Cruz, Vrej Esphahnian, and Surendranath.
It is not only trade goods and money that move from place to place in this world, it is people, thought, religion, and everything else that could be said to make up life or national identity. Everything is connected and contextualized. Here is yet another way in which the name The Confusion proves apt, as the line between fiction and nonfiction is artfully blurred to make a work that encapsulates the best of both. Of course, the challenge that this sets for the final book in the trilogy, The System of the World, is immense: can Stephenson write an ending grand enough to compete with the epic nature of the story thus far, without entirely ripping apart the seams of history? If not, the series will be still be masterfully crafted, but if so, they will be truly exceptional works of science fiction. Only time will tell.
For more reading on the diverse history of science and the interplay between various cultures of the world, I recommend Black Athena by Martin Bernal and Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife and Matt Zimet. Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, also offers an interesting take on history that touches on many of the elements that Neal Stephenson incorporates into "The Baroque Cycle."