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The Confusion
Neal Stephenson
William Heinemann hardcover £16.99

review by Patrick Hudson

The Confusion is the second part of Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle, which began with Quicksilver earlier in the year and will conclude with The System Of The World to be published in October 2004. The Confusion follows two strands in separated sections - essentially, it is explained in the introduction, separate novels called Bonanza and Juncto, that continue the stories of Jack Shaftoe, the King of Vagabonds, and Eliza, Duchess of Qwghlm, respectively.

As with Quicksilver, this is a long novel with a complex plot. It begins with Eliza ensnared back to France against her will, and Jack affecting an amazing recovery from syphilis. From this point they pursue schemes of the sort familiar from the previous volume. Yes, it's very much more of the same as in Quicksilver, but in this case it's hard to feel cheated, as the same that it's more of is so damn brilliant. Eliza gets deeper into the politics and Jack's quest for adventure and riches take him on a circumference of the globe; many of the threads left hanging in the previous book are tied off in typically spectacular style, while others are teased out a little further awaiting the third volume, and still more are added to the weave. This is very much Jack and Eliza's book, with the occasional appearance from Daniel Waterhouse and Bob Shaftoe, among others, as required to keep the plot moving.

Stephenson once again astonishes with the depth of his scholarship, and his ability to put it all in such an easily digested form. In Quicksilver, Stephenson explained the foundations of science and the early development of capitalism. Here, we see less about science but considerably more on how capitalism is changing the world and how it mutates and adapts to local circumstances. Jack Shaftoe and his cabal of vagabonds represent the ultimate expression of laissez faire economics, and their journey traces the flow of capital from old Europe, through ancient Asia and into the new world.

The Baroque cycle is an immense project. One can only be staggered by the depth and extent of scholarship involved, and the way that names familiar from half-remembered schooldays, costume dramas and popular history books pop up all the time, brought to life by Stephenson's eye for character and ear for telling dialogue. He co-mingles ('con-fuses', as he might have it) the real and the fictional with masterly control, spinning a yarn carefully woven into the events of history.

The Baroque cycle represents a real step forward for Stephenson, but it remains to be seen if he can navigate his fatal flaw, the unconvincing conclusion: Snow Crash and The Diamond Age both fell to pieces at the end, while Cryptonomicon just kind of stops. Stephenson drops many references to the picaresque tradition, particularly in relation to Jack's vagabondage, and I wonder if the story will end in the manner of the 'novels' that began to appear in the 18th century, with the death of its protagonists at a ripe old age, their stories done. I honestly can't wait to find out.
The Confusion

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