If Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, focused on events in England and continental Europe during the 17th century, The Confusion is Stephenson taking the time to provide a more global context. Or half of it is. The Confusion combines two novels from the cycle, The Juncto and Bonanza. The Juncto follows Eliza’s exploits in Europe, while everyone’s favorite vagabond, Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, stars in Bonanza.
Eliza’s son has been kidnapped by Lothar von Hacklheber, and she employs every means at her disposal to ruin him. Eliza is the brains of this novel, and she manipulates the nobility, cryptographers, and philosophers to regain her son. Eliza is ridiculously smart. Though her basic problem – the kidnapping of her son – invites universal sympathy from readers, her response might strike some readers as a little too calculated for belief. However, it is Eliza’s response that allows Stephenson to show off Eliza’s great talents while also introducing us to the birth of the Bank of England. I found the approach efficient and enjoyable.
Nevertheless, I preferred Jack’s tale. Jack emerges from madness brought on by syphilis at the start of his story. He now works as a galley slave for pirates. For many people, this was the end of their life’s story, but fortunately it’s just the beginning of Jack’s. Eliza is given time to hobnob with the nobility, which can be interesting, but I was particularly impressed with the way that Stephenson introduced the “common people” into his cycle of stories through Jack.
I also loved that neither the reader nor the characters around Jack are able to tell how fully he has recovered from his madness. Still, his schemes generally work and before long he and his fellow conspirators are chasing Solomon’s Gold around the planet. What a fantastic premise for someone with Stephenson’s attention to detail and his enthusiasm for digression.
Like Quicksilver before it, The Confusion should probably be read near an encyclopedia or reference book. There is any number of historical figures that show up, including Jean Bart, Isaac Newton, and Louis XIV. Daniel Waterhouse, Stephenson’s (invented) hero in Quicksilver, has a reduced role here, which I at first felt worked against The Confusion. Oddly, I found that I missed the scientists.
However, I gave The Confusion its due, and by the time I’d finished reading it, I was satisfied. With The Confusion, Stephenson takes on a daunting subject. At no point did I feel that he had edited out something that could have been kept in, though some readers will likely feel that he has kept in things that could have been edited out. Given its length, The Confusion could be seen as an indulgent novel, but I found that Stephenson did a better job of pacing than he had in Quicksilver. Believe it or not, I finished this behemoth quickly, and I missed it when I had finished.
So I recommend The Confusion. Readers will have to make it through Quicksilver before they can get to it, but it remains my favorite entry in The Baroque Cycle.