The Confusion

by Neal Stephenson

Cover image

Series: Baroque Cycle #2
Publisher: William Morrow
Copyright: 2004
ISBN: 0-06-052386-7
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 815

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the second book of the three-volume Baroque Cycle, following Quicksilver. You don't necessarily need to have read the first book to read this one, but there are a lot of references to events in the first book that you'd otherwise have to piece together. It's particularly useful to know Jack Shaftoe's history, or at least vaguely remember it. I read The Confusion about two and a half years after reading Quicksilver, and that was good enough, although I was frustrated by not remembering some details.

Minor spoilers for Quicksilver follow, mostly around survival of characters. I don't think any of the conclusions drawn are particularly significant for enjoying Quicksilver.

Quicksilver focused primarily on Daniel Waterhouse with one part showing Eliza and Jack. The Confusion focuses almost entirely on Eliza and Jack. It consists of two "parts," Bonanza (Jack's story) and The Juncto (Eliza's story). Rather than traditional book parts, these are interwoven throughout the book, making it more like a typical dual-viewpoint novel with a more dramatic separation between the halves.

The novel starts with Jack Shaftoe making a startling and unexplained complete recovery from syphilis, shortly after which he falls in with a band of fellow galley-slaves and a grand plot to free themselves from slavery and become exceptionally rich at the same time. This part of the book is a pirate adventure that covers the globe from France to Mexico, with a substantial stop in India. It's action-packed insofar as anything in this series manages to be action-packed, which means that it's still full of intricate description and it sometimes feels like it will take forever for something significant to happen, but it's an at-times fascinating tour of the world as seen by a slave and sailor in the late 1600s.

The second part of the book, Eliza's book, was for me by far the best. Eliza is brilliant, the intellectual star of the novel, and is the person with the most agency in the entire book. Using every resource at her disposal, primarily a keen aptitude for economics but also a hard-nosed use of the levers and resources a woman has available in the French court, she maneuvers herself near the height of French nobility and the center of the flow of money in Europe. And in the process she pulls off one of the most audacious, intricate, and systematic bits of warfare by business that I've ever read about.

One of my chief complaints about Quicksilver was the lack of varied and deep characterization. It felt like the research ate the characters, turning them into often-passive observers. Stephenson has definitely remedied that here. The Confusion is packed with characters, and if Stephenson lacks the dynamic range of a lot of authors, he makes up for it with a rogue's gallery of personality quirks and bizarre motives that at times had me laughing out-loud. Eliza goes from being a character it seemed like Stephenson didn't know how to write to one of the strongest characters in the book, in large part because Stephenson does a beautiful job of not overplaying her, keeping her reactions and emotions understated, and showing her character through the culmination of deep-laid plans rather than outright description. Stephenson endows her with a startlingly strong sense of self, which is very appealing to read about. But the rest of the characters are nearly as good: Leibniz is a delightful contrast to some of the natural philosophers of Quicksilver, the villains cover a surprising range from devilish to petty and nearly pathetic, and I was particularly taken by Stephenson's handling of Louis XIV. That's a fictional king I could believe in.

Even better, this is a book full of strong female characters that nonetheless is realistic about the limitations of the roles of women at the time. I'm not sure if Stephenson just has more room to characterize Eliza here, if he got better at writing her, or if I missed subtleties in Quicksilver, but I was really impressed. And she's not the only prominent female character in the book; several others, including a young girl who became one of my favorite supporting characters, play significant roles with clearly distinct personalities.

This all sounds wonderful. But unfortunately, while one major problem of Quicksilver is remedied, others remain.

I frequently like Stephenson's discursive writing style, particularly when it's delving into some topic that I enjoy (like cryptography in Cryptonomicon). He does some of the most engaging infodumps in fiction. But they are infodumps, and there are rather a lot of them. It says quite a bit for the quality of Stephenson's research that I like best the infodumps on topics I know something about, and some of the details of the hard-currency monetary policy of Enlightenment Europe were great. But there's just so much here about which I cared nothing at all, particularly all of the endless names and relationships of 17th century French nobility and the gory details of sailing life prior to understanding of the importance of vitamins. I think Stephenson's best infodumps are about technology and social systems. There's quite a lot of that in The Confusion, but it's dwarfed by the minutiae of history and place and petty alliance.

And, even beyond infodumping, this book is relentlessly detailed. The conversations are long and involve a great deal of exchange of pleasantries. The letters (much of Eliza's section is epistolary) are some of the better parts of the book, but they still are full of elaborate phrasing and don't use one word where five will do. Stephenson wants to describe everything and everyone until one feels like one is drowning in detail, and until it becomes hard to pick out the details that are truly significant to the plot.

In short, this book, like Quicksilver, is a relentless onslaught of words.

It took me a month and a half to finish (and I normally read quickly). Much of that time was spent being intimidated by it after about 50 pages and doing something other than reading, but even when I settled down to make progress in earnest, it required a vacation and a week of multi-hour daily stretches. It's impossible to read fast; you simply have to immerse yourself in it, or you'll miss the details that really are important. But the pace of the plot is slow and not enough of the digressions are immediately captivating to give the reader much momentum. And it's 800 pages long, in hardcover, and that's not a large font.

Stephenson does use that pacing and the edifice of words to build some great moments. There are some fantastic scenes in this book, ones that I'll remember for longer than Quicksilver. In many respects, it's one of Stephenson's best plots: strong and deep motives, complex and entangled relationships, great characters, and some serious growth and soul-searching for Eliza over the course of the book. It also has one of the better endings that Stephenson has written, with a lovely mix of triumph and tragedy and a great hook for the next book of the series. But you really have to invest the time to get to the payoffs.

One other thing I have to compliment Stephenson on: he shows the harshness of life before modern medicine, where even the rich can do little about sickness other than hope. Here's another place where having Eliza as a viewpoint character helps considerably. Rather than focusing on typical male heroes, for whom adversity, including sickness, falls into a pre-constructed frame for the reader, or focusing on the natural philosophers for which it's primarily a diversion from their work, Eliza provides some insight into a domestic reaction. This is a world in which one has a lot of children because a lot of children just die, one where faces scarred by smallpox are routine, and one where the amount of routine death and suffering that's just part of daily life forces a practical, matter-of-fact approach without really taking away the pain. This is a subtlety of perspective that normally isn't Stephenson's strength, and I have to applaud it.

So, there are definite merits here. But I think one still has to ask the question of whether it's worth investing time that could be used to read five other books to appreciate this one. And, to that, my answer is a reluctant no. This is a much better book than Quicksilver, but it's still one that demands a huge investment of effort and that didn't excite me proportionally. This may well be different if you are as interested in Nine Years' War European politics as I am in cryptography, since Stephenson's research is generally superb. But this is a massive, sprawling, rambling novel, and Stephenson is not a writer who keeps one reading for 800 pages for the joy and music of his prose.

I'm glad I read it, but partly that's from a sense of accomplishment of doing something hard I've wanted to do for a couple of years, and partly because I'm slightly obsessive about writing reviews of award-winning novels. I'll go on (eventually) to read The System of the World for the same reason. And Stephenson improves on Quicksilver significantly and provides some excellent characterization. It's a book worth considering if what you want to do is crawl into a world for several months and not have to come out. But if you've not invested in the series and are eyeing the wall of the Baroque Cycle in a bookstore dubiously, I think you can get more enjoyment for less investment of time and attention elsewhere.

Followed by The System of the World.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-12-28

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