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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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05/20/2004 Archived Entry: "Book Review: The Confusion"

The Confusion
by Neal Stephenson

Reviewed by William Wentworth-Sheilds

The ConfusionBefore it is anything else, The Confusion is a very long book that happens to be the second of three equally long volumes. The first is titled Quicksilver and came out last year. The concluding volume, The System of the World is due later this summer. As such, it's a little heartbreaking to read, early in the book, one of characters say, "Now I will encompass the entirety of several years in one sentence."

In the preface to The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien revealed his impatience with the notion that his story was intended to stand for something else, to be, in any sense, an allegory, an idea outside of the text. Rather, to the extent that his intentions can be thought to inform the work, his goal was to write a really long story. The Baroque Cycle is Neal Stephenson's unapologetic effort to tell a really long story; to hold his reader's attention, and sympathy for close to 2,800 pages. The narrative conceit of The Confusion is that it is two distinct novels "con-fused," with the chapters shuffled together like a playing-card deck. The events of one novel are alluded to, or summarized in the other, at opportune moments. This device expedites the task of keeping the many, many characters, places, events, and chronologies ordered in the reader's mind.

Thankfully, this isn't a shaggy dog joke in the vein of The Illuminatus! Trilogy. The events retailed in The Baroque Cycle have their mirror counterparts in actual history. The cut-throat feud between Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, and their respective acolytes over who deserved credit for the invention of the calculus that hovers in the background of the novel really happened, for instance. If the text of the books themselves weren't enough, Stephenson has founded a collaborative concordance devoted to summarizing his research, and explaining some of the references. If this suggests the books are overburdened with themes and ideas, that's a failing The Confusion mostly avoids. It takes too much relish in sketching the litany of terrible ailments, dismemberment, blinding, birth defects, and decaying flesh and teeth that afflicted the denizens privileged enough to live 300 years ago, to ever be accused of placing it's ideas in front of the characters. Stephenson is at least as interested in the etiquette of how two men, unknown to each other, armed to the teeth with knives, swords, and guns reach an understanding in the drawing room of a woman they both desire, as he is in intricacies of encrypting diplomatic correspondence, and the mechanics of international silver and gold markets.

It's all about pacing. At a crucial moment, Eliza, the Duchess of Qwghlm, one of the main characters must explain how France can enlist England's banks to pay French soldiers ... to invade England. In doing so, she enlists poker chips, slips of paper, various French nobles, and wads of uncooked bread dough. Elsewhere, a distinctly cosmopolitan group of slaves set about convincing a financier in Algiers of the feasibility of hijacking a Spanish galleon loaded down with a season's worth of silver pigs. Doing so, not on the high seas with a fleet of warships, but rather when it arrives at it's home port just north of the the Straits of Gibraltar, with a compliment of slaves manning a galley ship (a glorified rowboat). Which leads to a running street/rooftop battle through downtown Cairo between the aforementioned slaves and a regiment of French musketeers. Stephenson has the talent of the best pulp novelists; the ability to staple the reader's eyelids to their forehead. Reading an 800-plus page book written in this fashion is often as exhausting as exhilarating.

In 1999, Stephenson wrote a book about computer operating systems. It's a short book, unbelievably enough, titled In the Beginning ... Was the Command Line, and it's available for free. Free as in beer, and free as in libra. He's gone on to bigger and better things, but it remains a good introduction to his writing style, and his intellectual interests. It is certainly worth seeking out, before committing treasure and time to the project of reading The Baroque Cycle.

The "one sentence" referred to above:

El Turbellino taught me, of the arts of war, everything he knew; as well as some things I suspect he made up on the spur of the moment.

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