The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson

In this second of Stephenson’s Baroque cycle of novels, the author continues his story of Jack Shaftoe and his new buddies, all of them slaves, and Eliza, his companion and lover from Volume One.  The Confusion, published in 2004, opens with Jack and his friends as prisoners of the Berbers in Algiers in 1689. Then shifts, in its dual focus, to Eliza maneuvering herself into the court of French King Louis XIV. These alternating scenes begin with Jack freeing himself from captivity with a thrilling move from being a galley slave to capturing a ship whose presumed treasure of silver from Spanish America miraculously turning into gold. It is an ironic metaphor for the alchemy that fascinates not a few historic characters that fill this volume.

Meanwhile Eliza inveigles herself as a double-agent into the complicated politics of the French court. Which becomes more complicated when she plots to turn paper notes into silver coins for French invaders to spend when invading England. How the invasion’s potential failure, which she hopes for, also brightens Eliza’s financial success is, however, difficult to follow. Indeed, the author is more fascinated than I by this blend of politics and finances.

Not to be ignored is the considerable research behind the vivid recreation of these scenes from the past. Which includes the interaction among the author’s fictional characters and actual historic figures, like the intellectuals Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. But more than in Stephenson’s Volume One, this is a fictional story woven through history, rather than one guided by history. It is also a story of the Enlightenment era, which prompts reverberations between its moment of fictional history that explores the development of mathematics and our current era in which the development of mathematics has evolved into our computer age.

Also of note is the author’s apparent delight in the use of language. This becomes obvious when he focuses on the swashbuckling adventures of Jack, first as he steals the new-found gold from a business partner of Eliza, then escapes by ship across the Mediterranean and survives an ambush in Cairo. Where, incidentally, he kills the father of the man Eliza has been forced to marry back in France. After we visit Eliza again—who is both seeking her illegitimate son, kidnapped by an enemy banker, and plotting to foil the French invasion of England—we find that Jack, unwelcome by the powers in Europe, is now penniless in India. Because a pirate queen has stolen his team’s gold, and he is surviving by donating blood to insects (don’t ask) in a hospital for birds and animals. The scene is gruesome, absurd, and presumably appeals to those with a sick sense of humor.

But it leads to another intricate plot in India, in which Jack and his buddies open up a trade route controlled by mercenaries. They do this by boiling camel dung and human urine to create phosphorous, and wearing the phosphorous at night to terrify the mercenaries. Jack is rewarded with a brief kingship, during which he constructs a great ship of teak, the Minerva, using gold re-invested by the pirate queen. And this soon puts our heroes, and the reader, on the road to the East. Many such scenes, whether in Cairo, India, France, or Germany, reflect the author’s endless fascination with finding new stories to dramatize his blend of history, adventure, and science.

Whereupon, we return to London, and to the Daniel Waterhouse whom we had met on the opening pages of the first volume. It is now two or so decades earlier than that opening, and Daniel is involved with long, impenetrable discussions with John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Nicolas Fatio. Frustrated by England’s financial uncertainty, Daniel is now planning to depart for Massachusetts, hoping to turn the intellectuals’ mathematical speculations into a machine that will be a forerunner to today’s computers. Meanwhile, his intellectual friends are forming a Juncto to tackle English finances. All of which seems to provide no link to the stories of Jack or Eliza, until the Juncto recognizes a need to establish a Bank of England to foster English commerce, and they name Newton head of the London mint. Which, note, Jack will be commissioned to destroy in Volume Three.

Still another connection to Volume Three is a young woman named Caroline. She is the daughter of a Prussian friend of Eliza. She is fascinated by science and becomes a friend of Leibniz. Indeed, it is this Caroline who has opened Volume One by urging Daniel Waterhouse to return from Massachusetts to Europe in order to resolve a scientific dispute between Isaac Newton and Leibniz.

This novel seems to be properly entitled, The Confusion. Not least, as Stephen Metcalf writes in the New York Times, because “we’re treated to endless levees, epistles, political-economical-metaphysical discursions, and Stephenson’s favorite, conspiracies.” Or as the book jacket says: “A great adventure ensues, rife with battles, chases, hairbreadth escapes, swashbuckling, bloodletting, and danger…that will place the intrepid band at odds with the mighty and the mad, with alchemists, Jesuits, great navies, pirate queens, and vengeful despots across vast oceans. Meanwhile, back in Europe…”

…We join Eliza, who is traveling into Germany to visit Herr Leibnitz in Leipzig but also her kidnapped son. To keep in touch in the 1690s, however, communication is by letter, even coded at times, and her constant communications with naval pirate Jean Burk and other officers, diplomats, financiers, and court figures allows the author to condense such financial maneuvering, still confusing, into summary reports, rather than having to dramatize such maneuvers at length. This is an easy way to cover a lot of ground, but its cumulative plotting is at the expense of clarification.

The remaining drama of the volume focuses on Jack Shaftoe. First, he heads south toward the tip of what is now India. Along the way, he is fascinated by the creation of Damascus steel. Or is it the author who is fascinated by still another blend of invention and history?

Stephenson continues here to be exercising his imagination rather than his intellect, changing the political, cultural, and/or physical setting in order to sustain our interest. For example, Jack enters a region dominated by a female pirate warrior, but their friendship has unexpected limitations. He then encounters a Japanese Jesuit, whose history he learns. Thus, there are few connecting links, little logical development from one story or confrontation or setting to the next. Except, some of those confrontations, such as the queen challenging him to swim with crocodiles, are dramatically powerful.

The Japanese Jesuit seems to be introduced in order that Jack’s new ship, the Minerva, might take our heroes back to Europe, via Japan. Jack is aboard, of course, with many of his ex-slave companions, all sailing under Captain van Hoek, a Dutchman. In Japan, they trade Indian goods for mercury (quicksilver), which is needed in the Mexican silver mines. They make an adventurous escape from a Japanese harbor, and enter an even greater adventure, beautifully described, of crossing the Pacific. They do so by following a wealthy Spanish galleon, which founders and sinks, leading to the rescue of a Jansenist priest and a court lady.

Both these characters will betray Jack in what is supposed to be a final twist—as will also one of his own companions. But the betrayals are unconvincing, more betrayals by the author of the reader, by pulling these surprises out of thin air. It is part of a final effect that puts Jack in severe jeopardy, before he is saved and commissioned to undertake a new mission that will be told in Volume Three.

Reviewer Andrew Leonard sums up in Salon the broad itinerary of his hero’s adventures: “Jack spends quality time bouncing around the Mediterranean, stealing gold in Cairo, laboring as both a peon and a king in India, gallivanting in Japan and the Philippines, and being imprisoned in Mexico. Our boy, Jack, gets around.” While Eliza: “is immersed in French court intrigue and experimenting with the new forms of finance that are maturing….Stephenson is as fascinated with the evolution of the concept and practice of ‘credit’ as he is with the sword-and-piracy shenanigans of Jack. And he is equally fanciful in his treatment of both.”

Stephenson blends bulldog research and a rich imagination, and combines them to create fascinating set-pieces—from palace and financial intrigue to naval battles, smallpox, hurricanes, and swimming with those crocodiles. But because of a lack of linkage, such scenes betray a failure of authorial discipline, at the expense of an integrated whole. As if the author is more intent on dreaming up enough drama to fill 800 pages than on bringing his story and his characters together, and satisfying the reader emotionally.

My reaction to this volume is quite different from my reaction to Volume One. I think this may be because the adventures here are strictly fictional. They have a basis in history, but the historic figures do not control this book, the fictional ones do. But also different because the author seems more interested in introducing new drama than in tying his dramatic scenes together. For example, the linkage between Jack Shaftoe and Eliza is close in the first volume, while here they live their separate lives throughout the novel. Nevertheless, I am still interested in Volume Three. I only hope it is more concentrated both geographically and thematically. (April, 2017)

The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth

This fascinating novel is a powerful sequel to Sacred Hunger, which had earlier won the Booker Prize. It is not necessary to have read that earlier novel to appreciate this 2011 novel, but it does help one to understand the depths of this work if one has done so.

And by that I mean the depths of the main character, Erasmus Kemp, who was the single-minded villain of that first novel, as he pursued and saw killed his first cousin, Matthew Paris, for what he considered acts of piracy and mutiny, but which his cousin and the reader saw as acts of mercy. Namely, taking over a slave ship owned by Kemp’s father, a ship whose captain had ordered sick slaves to be thrown overboard to their death.

I had objected to the portrayal of Kemp at the end of Sacred Hunger, for it evoked a note of self-awareness in this cruel villain that I felt the author had not prepared me for. But now I believe this self-awareness was always there, because Unsworth has made Kemp not only the main character of this novel but also even more aware of what he, Kemp, might term as shortcomings but which the reader sees as a reluctant identification with these men he considers his inferiors.

This sensitivity arises when he confronts Michael Sullivan, one of the crewmen from Sacred Hunger, who was involved in what Kemp called mutiny and piracy; and again, when a poor youth, the miner Michael Borden, sees through what Kemp calls a generous offer for a piece of land the youth owns. Indeed, even the woman Kemp loves, Jane Ashton, detects a latent compassion in him that she believes she can develop if she marries him.

Kemp thus develops into a complex figure. He wants to play a major role in developing British industry—to his own advantage, of course, but also, he claims, to that of the workers and his country. And his single-mindedness remains, meaning he will do this by fair means or foul. Even love-fixed Jane is transfixed by this determination, while less fixed on the means he will use.

It would seem that the author wishes his title, The Quality of Mercy, to apply to Kemp. For it is mercy he shows to both Sullivan and Borden, when he unexpectedly acknowledges their needs. And this response, I suggest, shows that Unsworth wants his reader to extend such mercy to Kemp as well. In fact, he also may be suggesting that this kind of determined but compassionate industrial leader is what this small island relied on to reach its greatness.

On the other hand, and I nearly missed this, the greatest quality of mercy Unsworth seems to show here is toward the slaves themselves. But to me that is less interesting. Because it is so obious. Whereas to apply it to Kemp adds a complexity to his character that enriches this work as literature. I would note that John Vernon in his New York Times review preferred that the author had kept Kemp’s character more simple. He writes, “Kemp was perfect—a tortured monster of obsessiveness.” I obviously disagree.

There are really four stories here at the start of the novel, each one so interesting that we move quite willingly from one to the other. Indeed, I was so confident in the author’s professionalism that I knew eventually these four stories would come together. The first story is that of Sullivan, the crew member who joined in the mutiny, was caught and transported back to England in chains, and then fortuitously escapes from prison and becomes determined to travel north into Durham coal country in order to inform the family of a shipboard colleague that their son has died.

The second story is that of the Borden family in Durham. John the father and his three sons, especially Michael, are fated to work in the mines but dream of escaping that harsh world. The third story is that of Frederick Ashton and his sister Jane, the brother being an active abolitionist determined to abolish slavery in all of England. And the final story, of course, is that of Erasmus Kemp, who brings these stories together, first by suing to receive compensation for the drowned slaves on his father’s lost ship, and then by both his pursuit of Jane and his effort to purchase and modernize the coal mine up north in which the Borden family works.

The reader easily identifies with Sullivan, Michael Borden, and Frederick and Jane Ashton. These are all good people. And Kemp’s interaction with each of them earns him the reader’s respect for a certain integrity, even if not their full sympathy. Indeed, one can detect both sympathy and fascination on the part of the author for this character he has created, so much so that one can foresee still another sequel, this one based on the tension that has been set up between Kemp and Jane Ashton, as she tries to instill in him a greater awareness of the needs of the working poor.

Despite it’s title, the underlying theme of this novel is the rights of property. First, are slaves property? That is what Sacred Hunger was about, and that is what Frederick Ashton is all about. That they are not. And it is also about the workers in the Durham mines. Are they, in effect, the property of the mine owners, since they have no say in the terms of their duties, their wages, their working conditions, or their future lives.

On the other hand, one critic says this is a novel about justice. And this is valid, for the administration of justice revolves around two key trials that are depicted toward the end. But these trials do depend on property rights, and this is the immediate theme that drives Unsworth’ novel, under the overall literary theme of justice.

Unsworth manages to resolve these property issues to a large degree, enough to bring a legitimate resolution to this novel, even if some of its ramifications are left open-ended. Which, as I said, does leave the door open to another sequel. Not that I would require one, but I would certainly read it, for Unsworh has the enviable talent of being able to explore moral and social issues from a richly created past. In the meantime, I will happily search out his other highly praised novels. (January, 2015)