Friday, October 21, 2016

A con-fusion of stories

"For confusion is a kind of bewitchment -- a moment when what we supposed we understood loses its form and runs together and becomes one with other things that, though they might have had different outward forms, shared the same inward nature."
Spoken by Eliza in The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson's 2004 novel The Confusion, the second part of his Baroque Cycle, seems aptly named, for readers may often find themselves confused. Its 815 pages contain numerous characters, some of whom travel around the world, and convoluted plot lines. Plus, it picks up a story begun in Quicksilver and concluded in The System of the World, both novels of comparable size. So keeping it all straight can be a challenge.

But the title actually refers to an early meaning of the word as a mixture or co-mingling or fusion. We find references to this idea at numerous points in the novel, including the fact that it consists of two stories, "The Juncto" (involving Eliza, mostly in France) and "Bonanza" (involving Jack Shaftoe on his round-the-world adventures). These stories may seem unrelated most of the time, yet eventually they become "con-fused," as Stephenson usually spells the word. Then, too, there are references to gold, coins and liquids being con-fused.

The great scientist Isaac Newton, although a minor character in the novel, actually lies at its center. Newton was also an alchemist and, for the last 30 years of his life, master of the Royal Mint. Stephenson "con-fuses" these two pursuits by imaging that Newton takes the job at the mint in order to gain access to the gold that passes through there. Alchemists and others in the late 17th century are convinced the gold once owned by King Solomon has special properties useful for alchemy. It is also believed that the gold Jack and his colleagues steal in an act of piracy is King Solomon's gold. Sooner or later some of that gold is likely to pass through the Royal Mint, and Newton wants to be there when it does.

One must read The System of the World to discover how this turns out, but in The Confusion Jack and Eliza have endless trials. He must survive, evade pursuers and somehow make it around the world and back, he hopes, to Eliza. Meanwhile, she becomes a French duchess, but is separated from her and Jack's son. As Jack is skilled at piracy, she is unusually gifted at financial affairs, and her complicated dealings gain, and occasionally lose, fortunes. She also contracts smallpox, which diminishes very little her astounding beauty.

The Confusion, if sometimes confusing, provides a wild ride.

No comments:

Post a Comment