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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Confusion

Neal Stephenson

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To purchase The Confusion

Title: The Confusion
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 815 pages
Availability: The Confusion - US
The Confusion - UK
The Confusion - Canada
The Confusion - India
Confusion - Deutschland
Confusione - Italia
  • Volume II of The Baroque Cycle

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Our Assessment:

B : slow going for vast stretches (and very unevenly paced), but gathers momentum -- and some fine adventure along the way

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly A- 14/4/2004 John Giuffo
The Guardian C- 3/4/2004 Josh Lacey
The Independent . 17/5/2004 Charles Shaar Murray
The NY Times Book Rev. . 18/4/2004 Stephen Metcalf
Salon . 21/4/2004 Andrew Leonard
San Francisco Chronicle . 25/4/2004 Michael Berry
TLS . 16/4/2004 Mark Kamine
The Village Voice . 12/4/2004 David Ng

  From the Reviews:
  • "Neal Stephenson's settings and excessively descriptive passages may be baroque, full of filigreed architecture and well-mannered brutality, but he uses a postmodern touch to chart the evolution of science, market systems, and society's dependence on codes -- whether for cryptography, data storage, or etiquette." - John Giuffo, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Stephenson excels in marrying geekspeak with riotous action. When he describes a battle or a duel, his prose acquires thrilling panache. Characters display cocky charm to accompany their physical prowess. Jack Shaftoe is magnificent, a swashbuckling hero with a foul mouth and few morals, and his adventures are the most appealing sections of the novel. Unfortunately, these vibrant scenes are rare in a vast, dreary landscape. In plodding prose worthy of the dullest epistolary novel, Stephenson tells us much more than we ever wanted to know about everyday life in 1700. Even his characters can't help nodding off." - Josh Lacey, The Guardian

  • "Like its predecessor, but louder, The Confusion is stuffed to the bowsprits with action, erudition and good gags." - Charles Shaar Murray, The Independent

  • "(E)very bit as rollicking and overstuffed as its predecessor. (...) The Confusion feels composed half on an iBook, half with an ostrich-plume quill. For the first few hundred pages, Stephenson brings off this peculiar balance with a certain geeky brio. (...) Make no mistake, Stephenson is the anti-Jane Austen -- strip him of the sweep of History and Personage, and almost nothing would be left. This is as good a way as any, I suppose, of measuring the difference between real imagination and mere phant'sy." - Stephen Metcalf, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Confusion is a rousing adventure of action and ideas, funny, gripping and informative. This time, the disquisitions on metallurgy, sailing and the establishment of credit don't seem as oppressive as they did in Quicksilver. The tighter focus on Eliza and Jack gives the narrative a more heightened sense of urgency." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The Confusion's greatest flaw, however, is bound up with its most striking achievement. The feast of historical information Neal Stephenson has brought to the table has not been properly prepared. His novel, stuffed with exposition and descriptions of places and processes, lacks narrative drive." - Mark Kamine, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Never more comfortable than when he's juggling simultaneous action, Stephenson is an accountant in the most poetic sense. (...) Stephenson's meticulous layering of detail suggests a Bach fugue in structure and a Christopher Wren cathedral in scale." - David Ng, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Confusion, the second 800-plus-page instalment of The Baroque Cycle, is a heap of a novel. Or, as the author would have it, a con-fusion of two. Instead of the tripartite presentation found in Quicksilver, Stephenson here alternately offers sections -- large chunks at a time -- from two novels, Bonanza and Juncto. The action in each covers the period from 1689 to 1702, but the two story-lines advance largely independently of each other (until a bit of overlap at the end), and so this presentation is as effective a way as any of moving things along.
       Bonanza follows Jack Shaftoe -- last seen enslaved, and now only slowly bettering (if that is what one can call it) his situation -- while Juncto begins (and, for the longest time, stays with) the story of the soon doubled-duchess Eliza before expanding a bit to follow the fates of Isaac Newton, Daniel Waterhouse, and others introduced in Quicksilver.
       As usual, Stephenson shows incredible ambition. Far into this volume he finally offers a definition of the title-term ("'When a thing such as wax, or gold, or silver turns liquid from heat, we say it has fused,' Eliza said to her son, 'and when such liquids run together and mix, we say they are con-fused.'") and -- as is his wont -- embellishes it (or weighs it down) further:

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 different outward forms, shared the same inward nature.
       Needless to say, this volume is full of such confusion.
       All this is part of a greater story: inklings were spattered all over Quicksilver, and the two main strands (and many lesser ones) here lead -- twisting, turning, knotted -- on. Jack and Eliza go their very separate ways, but clearly all is connected. (Volume one of this Baroque Cycle was Quicksilver -- entirely ungraspable --, and this one offers Confusion, but the last promises to be neat and orderly: The System of the World.)
       At the beginning of Bonanza Jack Shaftoe is just recovering from a near-fatal bout with the French Pox -- a bit too conveniently leaving him a bit unsure as to what recently (and previously) came to pass, allowing some of the memory-gaps to be filled by his fellow-slaves. At this point -- 1689 -- Jack is still a slave, but enjoys some freedoms. Part of a gang of ten, a slave-cabal with a plan (or rather: the Plan, with a capital P), he's also set to enjoy more. They are a motley, multi-ethnic crew of galley-slaves, but they each have talents and qualities that, when combined (confused !) might just allow them to pull off a spectacular hijacking of a silver-shipment that could help them all buy their freedom.
       The heist is pulled off -- and yields more of a bonanza than expected. This, too, complicates matters: "Most likely we will all wind up killing each other", one of the slaves notes. But, for better and worse, they try to stick together -- and to take off with the loot. There are small losses and great gains, and then great losses and small gains. As Jack and the others had foreseen, merely being in the possession of such a treasure isn't enough to ensure comfort and happiness; far from it, of course: their brazen acts and the huge hoard make them much sought-after targets. Adventures abound, from the Mediterranean to Cairo, the Red Sea, to India, then onwards to Manila, vehemently xenophobic Japan, still Inquisitorial Mexico, and finally back to Qwghlm and Europe.
       Wealth is not easy to hold onto, and fates can change from day to day. It's no surprise to find Jack eventually reduced to selling his blood for insects to feed off (when he's not raking in an additional pittance with an ingenious mouse-threatening blackmail routine) -- and then be appointed ruler of a minor Indian kingdom for a three-year term (which is far from the bonanza it might sound like). Being regent at least allows him to further yet another high-seas plan, as he devotes himself to building a boat of fine teak for which he has great plans -- an endeavour in which both the Queen of the Malabar Pirates and the Electress of Hanover (and heiress to the English throne) come to have an interest. Also involved: long-lived Enoch Root, who tends to get in the middle of a lot of things (across the ages ...).
       From India Jack ships his way on the splendid Minerva in a generally eastward direction, trading and plotting along the way. Fellow Cabalists go their own way, one by one, but the Plan continues. Dangers are constant, and even Jack is occasionally surprised by them. (Among the most fantastic: a plan by the Japanese -- who don't like foreigners in the least -- to waylay the Minerva after having effected an exchange of goods for quicksilver.) And Jack finds his reputation -- he's a much sought-after man -- , if not exactly preceding him, generally catches up with him faster than he might expect (or hope).
       The Juncto-sections proceed less relentlessly; indeed, fairly cumbersomely over some stretches. They centre -- at least at first -- on Eliza, who faces different sorts of dangers.
       Money is an important issue throughout the book: it's definition, it's true value, the transfer of funds. Both in France and England these are vital concerns, something which the financially astute Eliza can use to her advantage.
       Eliza has a much-loved son -- a tie that makes her vulnerable, complicated by the fact that it is difficult for her to acknowledge him as her own. Jack's distant bonanza-coup also affects her, as she is an easy one to blame: one of the big losers, Lothar von Hacklheber, takes what is most precious to her -- young Jean-Jacques (soon known as: Johann). Eliza knows how to exact revenge -- but does so very wisely, in a neat speculative sting that gets Lothar right where she wants him.
       Eliza has other enemies, and a husband who is no great prize, but she has a few friends as well -- notably Leibniz. She's also up for some noble self-sacrifice when necessary, as, for example, when she protects young Princess Caroline from Elector Johann Georg IV, a particularly depraved imbecile who gets what he has coming from Eliza.
       Other parts from Quicksilver also come to the fore again (though not enough): Leibinz's monadology (contrasted with Newton's more atomic approach), Daniel Waterhouse's hope to further Leibniz's work with a Logic Mill (a prototype computer) to be worked on when he makes his way to America (at the "Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts", which finally gets founded), while in London Newton is finally convinced and poised to take over the Mint. There's less scientific experimentation than found in Quicksilver, but progress is made: Newton's alchemical experiments make a bit more sense (as does his quitting them), and the interest in the hijacked treasure turns out not to be purely financial, as there's possibly more to the gold than meets the eye.
       There's politics, too: Louis XIV, the whole English mess of those years, various German families moving to the fore, and even a visit by the imposing Tsar Peter to Hanover.
       Jack and Eliza's tales ultimately overlap, once Jack has rounded the world, but it's no happy reunion yet: there's another volume to go, and the stage is again set for some promising conflicts. There are hints of some of the pieces that might fall into place, but it's not entirely clear whither the resolution. It is also unclear to what extent The Confusion has furthered the story. Newton here is fairly peripheral; just recovering his strength, just now rid of Fatio, and about to assume this immensely important position he will obviously figure much more prominently -- but little has been done with him here. Daniel Waterhouse is ready to go off to do some potentially important work (from which he will be recalled in 1713 -- so the beginning of Quicksilver), but hasn't done all too much here. Only Leibniz has meddled or at least been in the middle of things.
       The Confusion is an oddly paced book. Quite a few of the adventure-tales are gripping and exciting: Jack's hair-raising escapes, the Cabal's imaginative plans (including producing phosphorus -- a very effective battlefield weapon), and the transformation of Édouard de Gex into Edmund de Ath (even if that name is a bit too obvious), among others. Even Eliza's financial dealings are, in part, quite thrilling. But Stephenson also glosses over long periods (recounting a few of the adventures only retrospectively), as if losing interest in the characters and stories for long stretches; Eliza practically disappears from the account over the last several years. Even worse, he also drones on for great stretches, refusing to gloss over some of the stories and periods when one wishes he would, providing detail where almost none is wanted. These parts are very long going.
       The book is full of stories, but not all seem relevant -- and while Quicksilver indulged in scientific and technological speculation to some excess, these at least were interesting episodes; The Confusion doesn't even offer as much. It is, ultimately, worthwhile: the most successful episodes and adventures are very enjoyable, and the hints of the larger picture just tantalizing enough. Still, it's a big reading-investment, and the pay-off can't be found here yet. The Confusion can be read without first having read Quicksilver -- the episodes stand enough on their own -- but the hope, surely, is that the complete Baroque Cycle will be more than the sum of these very many parts, and that there's some rationale behind all of Stephenson's indulgent excess -- mysterious though much of it still is here. Likely, however, this book -- even more than its predecessor -- is simply bloated.

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The Confusion: Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

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