Neal Stephenson,
The Baroque Cycle #2:
The Confusion

(HarperCollins, 2004)

Neal Stephenson's The Confusion is the sequel to his historical novel Quicksilver. It follows the vagabond lead, Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza, the heroine of many last names, on their separate adventures. Along the way, Stephenson delivers pirates, civil war, revenge, true love, roaming samurai and every other piece of swash that can be buckled on, all with an earthy realism that keeps the tale more in the realm of history than fantasy. And he does something that very few authors of 800-page novels do: he creates serial drama.

The Confusion follows a process of setting up a great problem for Jack in his world with one chapter, one for Eliza in hers, and then following those problems for a few chapters until the arc ends.

Stephenson throws so much drama and intrigue into every chapter that some plot point is bound to captivate the reader and keep him turning pages for each arc. But when each arc ends, there's no driving need to finish the next set of stories. The narrative tension mounts and resolves every few chapters. It's a very odd way to run a novel. But it's an ideal way to handle the sort of serial stories found in monthly comics. Enough information is held in each chapter that a new reader can enjoy it; lacking the rest of The Confusion, a person could appreciate any one of Jack's pirating escapades, or Eliza's dangerous liaisons, without needing to see the surrounding stories, and these individual arcs are compelling. At the end of each story, curiosity about the characters and a few lingering plot threads are enough to bring the reader back for more, until the drama of the new story absorbs them. Stephenson adds to the bait by alternating between Jack and Eliza. At least one is always in the thick of some desperate situation, easing the lulls in the other half of the tale.

Stephenson unifies his sprawling adventures with an attention to detail lacking in many more linear novels. With a magician's slight of hand, he hides his deeper plots in plain sight, bringing his characters together for a grand reveal at the end before throwing them back to their scattered wanderings. That moment of unity turns the book from a collection of novellas into a single novel, and a grand, formidable one at that. Any fan of drama, intrigue, or even economics will find something to catch their attention amid The Confusion.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 27 August 2005

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