Neal Stephenson: The Confusion

As the Author’s Note informs the reader, The Confusion is really two novels, merged (or, in a pun this novel rather over-uses, con-fused) into one by interlacing their chapters, Bonanza and Juncto, with respectively Jack and Eliza as main characters (Daniel remains somewhat in the background for this volume). Events begin some time (years for Jack, months for Eliza) after we left them in Quicksilver, and that proves to be something of a problem – after enjoying the previous novel more than I had been expecting to, I almost gave up on The Confusion because of the incredibly clunky way Stephenson catches up on what happened in the time that has passed.

Stephenson is often praised as master of the infodump, but what we get here are a series of extremely clumsy dialogues that would have been cause of much eye-rolling even in a debut novel, but coming from someone who already has several novels under his belt and has shown that he can do better this is extremely annoying. He even has to give Jack amnesia for the sole purpose so that someone can narrate his own history back to him, which everything  considered might be even worse than the infamous “As you know, Bob” variety of infodumping because it is such an obvious and at the same time so very weak attempt to avoid it that it smacks of desperation.

Fortunately, the novel eventually gets caught up and rolling, and things take a marked turn for the better compared to Quicksilver. Admittedly, the “Juncto” (Eliza) part of The Confusion still gets bogged down in the swamp of pointless details Stepenson drives the (often somewhat meagre) plot through as well as his continued attempts to be Deep and Meaningful; but then there are the chapters with Bob Shaftoe (Jack’s brother) as protagonist who somewhat make up for that by presenting a rousing tale of love and vengeance in the context of English warfare at the period.

And there is “Bonanza”, the other part / novel making up The Confusion which again has Jack Shaftoe as protagonist and which is even better than “King of Vagabonds,” the second part of Quicksilver. Jack travels not only in Europe this time, but gets to visit exotic places like India, the Americas and even Japan in a series of increasingly outrageously adventures, making and losing his fortunes several times over, acquiring the gold of Solomon and being chased for it by dastardly foes. He remains the lovable rogue throughout, and Stephenson thankfully does not skimp on the rogue part – Jack does not have many scruples in the pursuit of this goals, and is not someone even the most kindly inclined reader would enjoy spending time with. But he certainly is a lot of fun to read about, and more than once this particular reader wished Neal Stephenson had just written a neo-Picaresque novel with Jack as hero and dispensed with all the stuff about Science, Finances and Enlightenment – whose only real function is to give the author room to brag about the huge amount of mostly useless information he has accumulated – and focussed on travels, roguery and swashbuckling. I know, I know – I’m sounding like a complete philistine here, but it’s such a waste and a pity to see what could have been a splendid adventure novel buried under so much extraneous dross. Still, there is less dross here than in Quicksilver, so maybe there still is hope for Neal Stephenson, and the best volume of the Baroque Cycle is still to come.


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