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Sunday, April 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Nisi Shawl
The second volume in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, "The Confusion," begins with a bang: 1,500 cannons firing a welcoming salute to the new Pasha of Algiers. This tremendous noise rouses Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds in Stephenson's "Quicksilver," from a syphilitic fugue state that's apparently lasted several years, to find himself part of a motley gang of galley slaves conspiring to escape their chains.
There's a Jew, a Japanese swordsman converted to Christianity by Jesuits, a Dutch sea captain, a Russian whaler, an Egyptian, a Nigerian linguist and a Tourettic Spanish soldier. Bravery, devious planning and gonzo coincidence guide these unlikely colleagues as they circumnavigate the Earth in only 13 years lightning speed for the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Eliza de la Zeur, "Quicksilver's" heroine, has just given birth to the bastard son of King Louis XIV's top cryptologist. Now she must use all her ingenuity to ward off threats to her child from the vile stratagems of courtiers, while simultaneously restoring the king's bankrupt treasury. Leibniz, Newton and other important early scientists also appear in this volume, just as they did in "Quicksilver," but the focus is on the much more arcane topics of finance and politics. Among the upper classes of the Baroque era, the personal was very political (for instance, when the Duchess of Arcachon offers Eliza the services of her household laundress, she's telling her as directly as she can that certain factions want to poison her with arsenic-laden soap).
Baroque music is noted for its austere simplicity in comparison with that of later periods: Bach vs. Beethoven. But Seattle author Stephenson seems to take his aesthetic cue from that era's architecture, renowned for its elaborate embellishments and over-the-top ornamentation. And it works.
He sacrifices nothing of his postmodern sensibility, but he occasionally adopts the extended phrases, archaic spelling and italicized emphasis of Daniel Defoe, John Cleland and their contemporaries, creating a theatrical richness that perfectly suits the complicated intrigues and exotic milieus through which Jack and Eliza must maneuver.
The height of "The Confusion" 's stylistic appropriateness may be the audience the Pasha gives Jack and his companions. The floor of the throne room is all the petitioners dare to address:
"O most noble Floor, exalted above all other pavements ... you honor me by suffering my lips to touch you," said Moseh de la Cruz in a queerly muffled voice, as he was not kidding about the lips.
"Though you have already been generous far beyond my deserts in allowing me to grovel on you, I have yet another favor to request: The next time you have the high honor to come into contact with the sole of the Pasha's slipper, will you please most humbly beseech said item of footwear to inform the Pasha that the following conditions exist."
There's the occasional sly anachronism, too, as when a galley slave asks a potential purchaser, "Where do you want to row today?" in flat-out parody of a Microsoft ad campaign. But even this befits the spirit of the times, coming across as the sort of stagy aside Moliere might indulge in.
The author's note at the beginning claims this book is really two novels, "Bonanza" and "Juncto." Because they take place simultaneously, Stephenson has shuffled them together, switching from one to the other in fine cliffhanging fashion.
The result is neither confused nor confusing but a dazzlingly orderly display of meaningful intricacy. In this way, "The Confusion" resembles not the roaring cannons with which it opens but the gigantic, hollow, brass globe in which Princess Caroline, future Queen of England sits near its end, exclaiming "... all the rivers set in turquoise, and all the lakes, too, and forests of green tortoise-shell! The cities are jewels, which the light shines through ... " The view from Stephenson's world is just such a marvel.
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