My review of Book 1 of The Baroque Cycle, ‘Quicksilver’.
My review of Book 3 of The Baroque Cycle, ‘The System of the World’.
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When it comes to reviewing Stephenson, I always feel as if I’m selling him short. He is an excellent writer, and The Confusion, is up to his usual high standards but, once again, problems with structure, with delivery, with narrative all raise their heads to knock him down a star, perhaps even two.
The temptation at this point is to find a review of the work so I can write with some knowledge about its content, but that’s rather the point, isn’t it? I just put the bloody thing down having finished it all. I shouldn’t need a crib sheet to find out who’s who and what’s what, so here goes with the work as best I can remember something that I seemed to have started oh so many years ago.
In this, the second work in his Baroque Cycle, we have two novel-length works, chopping between them in chronological sequence. The central characters are those we met first in The King of the Vagabonds, the second book of the first volume of the cycle, Quicksilver. So far, so good. Where Quicksilver had us dancing all over the shop in three separate narratives in time, in place, and in storylines, themselves replete with sub-narratives, these two stories link together nicely in the fate of the gold which Jack pirates in one narrative being of significance to Eliza in the other.
With this pleasing (relative) simplicity comes a pleasing contrast. Jack’s narrative offers us an intelligent tale of adventure and global travels, while Eliza’s story focuses upon the machinations of the courts and the European politics of the 17th century. Both kick off well-written and intriguing.
Unfortunately, alarm-bells sounded early as, in Eliza’s narrative, for no apparent reason, (or perhaps one I was subsequently to miss given its complexity and wealth of information), two characters disappear up a metaphorical side alley in the recounting of a long – and, frankly, largely turgid – family history. What was presented, with inadequate embellishment, was the equivalent of notes a high-school student might scribble down the night before a history examination. Too many names, too many places, too many events in too short a narrative and, as always with Stephenson, the fear that if you don’t study it all diligently, you’ll miss something crucial later, (as I very probably did).
As I read on, anxiously, my nerves began to settle again as the narratives resumed their pace and flow along a steady and interesting course but then, again, the Stephenson trademark follies began to emerge. In changing from book to book, Jack in particular seems to be thrown all over the shop. We meet him donating flesh and blood to a weird sect of insect lovers when, the last time we saw him, he was sailing aboard a ship filled with gold as one of its owners. Then, in another flip, we find him a guest of the Inquisition.
The reason Stephenson does this, as far as I can tell, is that he wants to introduce a ‘shock’ element into the narrative. It is something I’ve seen him do before in other works. For a page or two, you’re lost as you wonder how he got from there to here, this bizarre situation in which we suddenly find a character, and then it is explained to us in backstory briefly narrated. The strange thing is what Stephenson chooses to sacrifice in order to pull this frankly cheap stunt. What we’ve missed, what is now presented to us as a few brief asides to cover the missing territory, was solid material for the adventure narrative Stephenson does so well; in the first instance here, for example, the capture of the ship filled with gold by a band of female pirates. How much of a dream narrative is that in an adventure story? But no. Stephenson jettisons the opportunity for the sake of a page or two of disorientation, as if we’re not disoriented enough in the increasing complexity of the narrative.
Long before the work is over, Stephenson descends into another of his trademark horrors as the narrative, a roaring river up to now, hits the coastal plains and dissipates into meandering tributaries that seem to serve little purpose than to work their way in desultory and confusing fashion to be finally swallowed up by the sea and their ultimate disappearance to no apparent effect. To be fair, on this occasion, there’s a sudden thrust of narrative at the end that – presumably – sets the scene for the third book of the cycle, so at least on this occasion we have reached the end of the work to some small purpose in terms of its place in the cycle overall which, up to now, hasn’t done much to establish itself as a cohesive whole over two long volumes.
Then there’s Enoch Root. Look, I’m sorry, but who is this bloke, and why does he keep popping up in Stephenson’s work to so little effect? After Cryptonomicon and now, two-thirds of the way through the Baroque Cycle, is he ever going to serve some sort of purpose? How is it that a character so purposeless seems to have established himself in the minds of much of Stephenson’s readership as some sort of significant player? For those not in the know, in these (largely) historical and realistic narratives – well-researched at that – Root is an erstwhile alchemist who appears to have hit upon the secret of longevity, if not eternal life. If you now imagine that these works have some fascinating mystical or fantasy underpinning, forget it. That’s your lot. Enoch Root. He doesn’t seem to do anything, just pops up on rare occasions to undertake some aspect of the narrative that may as easily been conducted by a minor character with no such whizz-bang characteristics, then disappears. It’s not even as if we can see him as some kind of deus ex machina. For all he offers, he may as well be the cleaner nipping in to do the toilets.
Unless again, of course, I’m missing something.
So actually, no. Now I’ve written out my frustration I’ve lost my guilt at the three-star rating and am back where I always am with Stephenson. He is an excellent writer, a highly-intelligent bloke, and the depth and length of his work shows him to be exceptionally dedicated. But, damn it all, he makes some bloody awful choices along the way and lets himself down. Badly.