Central admixture

Having recently read and written about Quicksilver, the book which precedes The Confusion in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy, there’s relatively little that I feel compelled to commit to my journal in respect of the The Confusion. To say it contains ‘more of the same’ sounds dismissive, but that’s essentially the truth of it, and shouldn’t be taken to imply that I enjoyed it any less than its predecessor, or consider it any less worthwhile. It’s just that it’s the same story, and this is the middle of it. Middles have a different feeling to beginnings and endings, although there are also ways of introducing aspects of commencement or denouement into middles—ways which Stephenson avails himself of here. For one thing, many new characters and sub-plots are introduced, as well as the two overarching plots from which this book is constructed—and neither of those is simply a continuation of what went before, both presenting a narrative arc that is fully enclosed within The Confusion’s covers, while forming a part of the larger arcs in which they constitute a middle. Not only that, but one of the larger arcs introduced in Quicksilver finds its double resolution at the middle and end of this book, while leaving further strands trailing into the concluding volume. Also, by the end of this book, we have very nearly followed one strand of the story to the point at which it forms the framing narrative with which the first book begins, and from which a reader with a robust attention span might regard the rest of the tale as retrospective.

If this sounds complicated, and you happen to like complicated stories, then welcome to the funhouse. If you don’t like complicated stories then I have no hesitation in warning you off. If I’m honest, I didn’t follow all of it all of the time: it’s the kind of series that would benefit from a chapter-by-chapter companion, which you could consult to remind yourself who all the minor characters are. But it’s never too hard to re-orient yourself, and at times this confusion played to my advantage as a reader, as when I had completely forgotten about a character adopting a new identity, and was as surprised as the protagonists when his duplicity was revealed. Of course it is not made any easier to follow by the fact that, unlike a thriller writer, Stephenson gives the reader a great deal more to do than simply to remember what’s going on and get excited in the action sequences (he does action sequences brilliantly, by the way). Instead, the warp presented by this complex narrative structure is wrapped in a weft of dazzling and diverse materials: mathematics, currency, alchemy, taxonomy, and many of the other practices subsumed by the seventeenth century idea of philosophy (natural or otherwise) are admixed with yarns of period social and material detail, globetrotting locations, vivid descriptive writing and rabidly inventive characterisation. It would be pointless to attempt to list the contents of the book, as its topics are so diverse that such a list could only appear incoherent, and to tie them all together would probably require a text roughly the same length as The Confusion itself. All I can say is I had a great time reading this, and I’m childishly excited for the trilogy’s concluding volume.

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