Most etymologists believe the word baroque to be a French translation of either the Italian term barocco (referring to the 17th-century artistic movement favoring complexity and extravagance) or the Portuguese barroco, an irregularly shaped pearl. True to its name, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is a work of idiosyncratic beauty whose plots boast tangled, borderless roots. The Confusion is the trilogy’s second installment, and given Stephenson’s continued fascination with sprawling picaresque, its title reads as warning and prophecy. But there’s magic in the chaos: The title’s own etymology (con-fusion) connotes a wizardly amalgamation of narrative threads (there are at least six) and geographically dispersed characters (well over 50), and the resulting disorientation feels like an occult spell. “For confusion is a kind of bewitchment,” says the novel’s heroine, Eliza, “a moment when what we suppose we understood loses its form and runs together and becomes one with other things.”
The Confusion picks up where its predecessor, Quicksilver, ended, following the parallel adventures of Eliza (former double agent at the court of Louis XIV) and her vagabond lover, Jack Shaftoe. Single motherhood has reduced Eliza to a social cast-off living in exile. Never one to shun a challenge, she musters all her bottomless ingenuity to engineer her return to Versailles, where she proceeds to single-handedly refurbish the royal navy and orchestrate an offensive against England—all before the novel’s midpoint. Meanwhile, Jack is having a rougher time as a galley slave in the port of Algiers. With the help of ethnically diverse rogues, he plans an escape that takes them on a journey from the coast of Spain to Cairo and points far beyond.
With the globe as his canvas, Stephenson depicts a world in adolescent self-discovery, whether through geographic exploration (Jack eventually sails to North America) or mathematical foment (as in his two previous novels, cryptography plays a significant role, as do celebrity intellectuals like Newton and Leibniz). A pragmatist at heart, Stephenson knows what truly makes the world go round, and in the 1690s, money ruled with a force like that of Catholicism and smallpox. Even nonmaterialistic Jack gets a taste of wealth when his merry crew hijacks a galleon laden with New World gold. As Eliza says “Every pirate . . . has lurking within him the soul of an accountant,” and indeed, she could be describing Stephenson himself, whose maverick rep belies an academic obsession with complex systems, from tracking the flow of silver from Lyon to London to mapping the increasingly enmeshed genealogies of Europe’s royal houses (one of many examples of confusion/con-fusion).
Never more comfortable than when he’s juggling simultaneous action, Stephenson is an accountant in the most poetic sense. When, for example, Eliza converses on the importance of homemade soap while administering a hand job to the royal cryptographer while also inquiring about the French treasury’s plan to re-smelt the national coinage (another con-fusion!), Stephenson’s meticulous layering of detail suggests a Bach fugue in structure and a Christopher Wren cathedral in scale. Of course, intimidation is nothing new to Stephenson fans, who will be pleased to learn that there’s still a bit of the Snow Crash-er in him, particularly in his penchant for synapse-forming vocabulary and his indiscriminate appetite for scientific arcana.
Less a total immersion in the 17th century than a time machine flyover (“Gold will never be discovered in those places,” says one character upon spying what will become San Francisco), The Confusion derives much of its anachronistic flavor from its liberated female cast. Eliza meets her match in the devious Duchess d’Oyonnax, a Versailles fixture and career widowmaker, while on the other side of the world, Jack confronts the imperious Queen Kottakkal, whose idea of fun is forcing her newest sex slave to swim through croc-infested waters. Compared to these career girls, the men seem downright prehistoric, busying themselves with such dusty disciplines as alchemy and library science. Aside from the ever youthful Jack, only Daniel Waterhouse, rejuvenated after his bladder operation in Quicksilver, totters about with any sense of enterprise, his mind fixated on founding a college in that land of limitless freedom, America.
A middle-chapter novel, The Confusion offers little denouement or resolution: Wars rage, intellectual debates simmer, and except for one breathtaking exchange, Jack and Eliza remain apart. One has to wonder: How will Stephenson steer this ocean liner into port? (The final installment is modestly titled The System of the World.) His boundless curiosity is ultimately personified in the form of the precocious Princess Caroline, who, upon receiving a gigantic, hollowed-out globe for her birthday, climbs in and spins around, proclaiming, “The world is revolving around me!” And thus Neal Stephenson: ecstatically childlike and dizzy from his own omnipotence. His globe (an irregular pearl?) never ceases to astonish us or its own creator, even as it grows smaller with each new discovery.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 6, 2004