display | more...

The Baroque Cycle
~
Quicksilver | The Confusion | The System of the World



NOTHING IS EVER EASY with Neal Stephenson. From his labyrinthine plots to his sputtering almost-climaxes; from his meticulous research and technological explanations to his seamless (some may say "pointless") embellishments; from his near-brilliant combination of a certain literary wit (reminiscent, in particular, of Thomas Pynchon) with real science and likely science and sharp-edged cyberpunk to his often-clumsy attempts at nerdish humor—he is so very nearly a great writer that it's positively galling that he often can't be bothered to be a good one.

The Confusion is not a great novel—indeed it is not really a novel at all. It is the middle third of a novel, The Baroque Cycle, which began last year in Quicksilver and will end this fall with The System of the World. Whether Baroque will be a great novel is still an open question, but on the strength of this volume, I'd say if Stephenson can find a way to end the story properly it almost certainly will be. The Confusion is better than its preceding volume; it is, taken alone, better than anything Stephenson has so far written (disregarding Snow Crash, which is significant for so many reasons that have nothing to do with being well-written). It is a story of action, of scheming, even of thought; finally and most importantly it is a story of growth.

~

THIS IS A NOVEL of a scope that laughs at mere spoilers, but if you would rather not know of a few surprises and travails that befall our hero and heroine toward the end of the first volume, Quicksilver, you'd do well to skip the following section. But then you should know better than to read a review of its sequel in the first place.

Quicksilver tells two stories: the political and scientific development of Europe at the beginning of the Enlightenment, in the person of Daniel Waterhouse, and the adventures of "Half-cocked" Jack Shaftoe, a vagabond tramping around France and Germany, as he rescues a young woman named Eliza and does his best to win her. As the story develops, Eliza leaves the life of adventure and enters the world of politics, acquiring for herself along the way the title of Countess in France and Duchess in England; Jack falls so deeply to adventure that he disappears completely from the final third of the volume. We leave him to a certain death, an oar-slave aboard a pirate ship, half-insane with syphilis.

As The Confusion begins, Jack, in the first of dozens of reversals of fortune, wakes cleansed of syphilis by a boiling fever, rowing for a much less brutal master than expected, and somehow a member of a cabal which (I suppose by definition) has a Plan. Eliza finds herself relieved of a staggering fortune and held, for practical purposes, under house arrest.

This volume follows the largely-separate stories of these two characters over the course of fourteen years, interweaving them chapter-by-chapter, as they move toward some ultimate climax that, of course, we will not have reached by this volume's conclusion. Stephenson labels each of these, though they are non-contiguous, as a book of The Baroque Cycle. Jack's story is book four, "Bonanza"; Eliza's, "Juncto", is book five.

~

LAZY CRITICS WILL CERTAINLY remark that The Confusion has an appropriate title. Those who read at least two-thirds of it may notice that Stephenson presents a definition of "con-fused" (solids melted and then allowed to run together and mix) that bears a certain resemblance to the structure of this book. I read the title more as a reference to a period of time, at the cusp of the Enlightenment, in which all of Europe seems taken aback—the world is in the midst of a deep depression, and the great confusion then is, what exactly is money?

Indeed, one gets the impression that The Baroque Cycle could just as well have been titled "How Money Got To Be That Way." Late in this volume, when Stephenson compares foundries to heartbeats, it becomes very clear that what we've been witnessing throughout The Confusion is the path through the gushing arteries and trickling capillaries driven by that heart. I recall now that in Cryptonomicon Stephenson spends an uncomfortable amount of dialog on the financial inner-workings of corporations. At the time I read it, I dismissed this as the ramblings of a particularly pedantic character, now I'm beginning to wonder if, behind Stephenson's hacker/geek-novelist facade, there isn't an accountant just screaming to get out.

Yet I make it sound dry, and Stephenson is anything but: in The Diamond Age he made Turing machines seem exciting, in Cryptonomicon it was cryptography and computer programming and mathematics in general—and he did so without the cheating we've been forced to accept these days, especially in film. And here in the ebb and flow of silver Stephenson constructs revenge plays, alchemical conspiracies, and an engrossing picture of the Way Things Work. There is a slow and deep pleasure in learning, in understanding; his talent is to impart this with all the visceral immediacy of swordplay.

~

THAT IS NOT TO say that Stephenson is above actual swordplay. Or conspiracies of piracy and murder and torture. In the world of Jack Shaftoe we have adventure packed so tightly that Stephenson finds he can't quite fit it all in: We follow Jack through each daring escape, each execution of an intricate plot that doesn't quite go according to plan—then we cut to the next chapter, months or years later, in which Jack has somehow found himself again destitute and in great peril. We spend half the chapter trying to figure out exactly what he's gotten himself into, and how, and what precisely happened to all of his co-conspirators, and the other half (once they've coincidentally reunited) watching them plot once more.

The worst of these is about half-way through The Confusion: After Jack and his cabal leave us successful in carrying out a particular plan, we return to Jack to find he's been working in an animal hospital in Hindoostan, hung in mid-air so that all the blood-sucking patients, from mosquitoes to ticks to giant centipedes, can feed. As he is displacing native workers I can only assume this is an elaborate pun on the word "scab." (His jokes, when they misfire, are horrendous. Example: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo.") We find his companions have been scattered by a pirate ship (filled with exclusively female pirates) and Jack has been waiting patiently three years for the narrative to return to him. This was the point I nearly put the book away.

I can accept the cyclic reversals of fortune; I can accept the method of storytelling that begins in the middle and fills in back-story as it moves forward; I can accept a very long middle volume of a trilogy, which by nature has no real beginning or end. Together though, these do exhaust my patience and at times my attention. The Confusion would be a much better book written completely at 1000 pages than it is part-summarized at 800.

~

NOW I FEAR I am being too negative. This volume dips at its center, but it shines in every chapter concerning Eliza, and toward the end it even shines for Jack. Eliza's talent lies mainly in manipulation, and so much of her story involves cryptic political moves, hints being dropped, and relationships being exploited. As The Confusion begins she is still young, and her motivation is mainly revenge. She is the Stephenson heroine: Sharply intelligent, beautiful in a fierce sort of way, sexually uninhibited, and though morally centered, vicious when wronged. (Stephenson understands his audience—geeks, male, young—and he has a pretty good idea of what they want.) As she grows older, she softens, or at the very least she becomes to some degree satisfied.

There is maturity here, for Stephenson's characters and for Stephenson himself. More so than anything he's so far written. He allows his characters the room, the experience, the years it takes to fundamentally grow. There is more to it than that, though: there is the classical resonance, Jack's journey with The Odyssey, the reluctant Esphahnian revenge play with Hamlet, the general Shakespearean method of History, melding the reality of Kings and Dukes with the artistic truth of fiction. Stephenson has in The Baroque Cycle given himself a canvas broad enough to truly develop.

About the ending: though Stephenson need not really bother to end this book, as it is incomplete until the third volume is published, he does make an effort. What it suggests about the further story is intriguing, but it suffers from the same deficiencies, as an ending, as plague his other novels: It is tied together clumsily and it doesn't really make all that much sense. It is painfully abrupt. I think, though, that I have come to understand why Stephenson ends his books this way: his characters are so vivid, so capricious, that they drive his stories anywhere but the ending he had in mind. He closes a book not in completion so much as surrender.


The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
813 pages, Copyright © 2004 by Neal Stephenson
William Morrow
ISBN: 0-06-052386-7


This review previously appeared, in a slightly different form, on slashdot (yes, by me): http://books.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/05/09/0257234




Quicksilver | The Confusion | The System of the World
~
The Baroque Cycle

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.