Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion

cover, The Confusion“When a thing such as wax, or gold, or silver, turns liquid from heat, we say that it has fused,” Eliza said to her son, “and when such liquids run together and mix, we say they are con-fused.”

“Papa says I am confused sometimes.”

“As are we all,” said Eliza. “For 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 had different outward forms, shared the same inward nature.”

In this bit of homely domestic dialog, which comes about two-thirds of the way through the second volume of Neal Stephenson’s massive Baroque Cycle, we have the book’s theme neatly laid out, vivisected for our inspection and edification. Eliza is using sealing wax to seal a letter to the French/Dutch privateer Jean Bart, one of many historical figures with whom she corresponds as she weaves a web of intrigue.

The Confusion picks up a few months after the first volume, Quicksilver, ended: As we enter the final decade of the 17th century, Eliza (now the Countess de la Zeur) is in the busy port town of Dunkirk; Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, is enslaved by Ottomans in Algiers, and Daniel Waterhouse is dithering (as is his wont) in London, where he is supposed to be trying to get Isaac Newton out of his alchemical doldrums and back into the mainstream of the vast changes sweeping the world during what we now call the Enlightenment.

Only slowly does the reader (this one, anyway) come to realize that The Confusion is mainly concerned with the shifting nature of the world’s economy. I confess that I only barely understand much of it, and then only briefly after it is explained by one or another of the book’s characters, particularly Eliza or Roger Comstock, Marquis of Ravenscar. Although I already had an inkling of the big picture from my reading of Roger C. Mann’s 1493 on the global effects of what is called The Columbian Exchange. Vast quantities of silver were flowing out of New Spain, particularly Mexico and Peru. The bulk of it flowed across the Pacific on huge galleons, to China which had great need of it, with the galleons returning to Mexico full of mercury, which was needed in the mining of gold, as well as luxury goods such as silk and porcelain, which were in demand in Europe. Vast numbers of enslaved people also flowed through the global economy’s veins, chiefly from Africa to the Caribbean, where they grew sugar, which was shipped to New England as molasses, turned into rum and sent on to England; the cash gained from its sale was then used to purchase more enslaved people in Africa to be sent on to the Caribbean and mainland plantations.

The Confusion is divided into two books, Bonanza and The Juncto. Their chapters are interspersed so the actions in each take place on roughly the same timeline. “Juncto,” a word we might now more likely call “junta” or “cabal,” involves Eliza, her many compatriots in England and on the Continent, including Daniel Waterhouse and Bob Shaftoe, in a massive and complex plot to modernize England’s economy by creating a Bank of England. Its timeline can be confusing, however, expecially in regards to Waterhouse’s actions. Because in Quicksilver we followed Daniel in two different timelines: From 1665 through 1673 as he participates with his young peers in the momentous doings of The Royal Society; and then 40 years later in 1713, as he is summoned back to England after spending 20 years working on a computing machine in Massachusetts. In The Confusion we’re plunged into the confused happenings of the intervening 20 years, before Waterhouse leaves for America.

Bonanza follows Jack and his compatriots through those same 20 years in another complex plot that involves stealing a ship full of what they think is contraband silver that has arrived at a Spanish port from America, in order to buy their freedom from the Pasha of Algiers. What is actually in the ship is a surprise (involving alchemy, no surprise), which drives much of the book’s remaining action.

As with Quicksilver, I find myself most interested in the adventures of Daniel Waterhouse, followed by Eliza’s peregrinations, and less so in Jack’s swashbuckling and bravado. Unfortunately, the latter occupies vast portions of this narrative as Jack and his co-conspirators circumnavigate the world, from the Mediterranean to India to Japan, across the Pacific to Mexico and eventually … but that would be a spoiler. Waterhouse barely appears here except in letters to Eliza until near the end of the 800-plus page tome. Still, the sprawling plots accomplish their purpose of educating the reader about this pivotal period in world history in a highly entertaining fashion. This reader spent a lot of time confused as to where things were going, which I’m sure is also intentional. Cryptography remains a major undercurrent in the plot, and the time traveling alchemist Enoch Root continues to make occasional appearances, tying these characters into their distant progeny in Cryptonomicon. And Manila (where much of that book takes place) makes its first appearance as we learn of its pivotal role in the early trans-Pacific economy. As with many middle books of trilogies, The Confusion is less compelling than its predecessor but still moves things along and is worth what was for me at times a slog.

(HarperCollins, 2004)

[This review was edited on 25 November 2023, to rectify some errors that arose due to the reviewer’s misunderstanding of the multiple timelines involved in the convoluted plot.]

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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