Book Review: “The Confusion” by Neal Stephenson

The Confusion is the middle volume Neil Stephenson’s trilogy, The Baroque Cycle. It is the follow up to 2003’s Quicksilver and this vast doorstop of a book at over 800 pages. The Confusion is in fact two novels: Bonanza and The Juncto that are offered in large alternating sections within this one volume. The two stories are mostly told separately, with just a little intermingling at the end. “Bonanza” is the story of adventurer and rogue Jack Shaftoe, who was a slave at the end of Quicksilver. While The Juncto follows the story of Eliza, Duchess d’Arcachon, Sir Isaac Newton and other minor characters as well. While this structure sound all a bit more than confusing, it is actually rather easy to follow.

In Bonanza Shaftoe is recovering from a venereal disease, called the French pox. But the bout has left him with serious gaps in his memory. So he essentially finds himself in the middle of a plan for him and his fellow slaves to pirate a treasure ship and buy their freedom with the ill gotten gains. The bit of piracy is pulled off, but it also makes the motley crew a target. Jack and his fellows flee with their loot: Across the Mediterranean, through the Red Sea, over Indian and Pacific Oceans to Manila, and Japan, and Mexico, and finally return to Europe.

The Juncto is much less breathless in its pacing. In fact The Juncto often comes to dead halts as Stephenson lectures the readers through the mouth of his characters, mostly about money. However The Juncto parts are not without their excitement and adventure as well, as Eliza tries to save her kidnapped illegitimate son and also save Princess Caroline, one of the potential heirs to the English Throne from her rivals.

Besides the politics and economics there are multiple sub plots that involve alchemy, calculus, symbolic logic, and the attempt to build a very early mechanical computing machine. Also tossed in are famous historical figures such as Newton and his rival Leibniz. The Confusion is replete with separate stories, not all of them move the plot along in any manifold way. They just seem to pop up at random points and seem to exist merely to take up space in the book. Stephenson’s prose has never been concise, but he seems to have thrown any self-editing overboard in this book. Still The Confusion is worth a read if the reader wants to take the time to do it, or has been drawn into the series by Quicksilver.

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