Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion picks up right where Quicksilver left off — or, at any rate, some amount of time after that point; Stephenson enjoys the skip-ahead-and-backfill technique, which is hell on forgetful readers like me. (”Should I recognize that happening, or is he remembering this for the first time?”) At any rate, though, it continues the adventures of Eliza, Waterhouse, Leibniz, and various Shaftoes; but where Quicksilver blew me away, The Confusion leaves me a bit more... well, confused.
I can’t point to any part of this book that’s clearly worse than the first, and some parts of it are arguably better (Jack’s adventures are more fun and string together as a more coherent globe-spanning narrative); but for whatever reason, reading The Confusion felt like a slog at times. Perhaps it’s just familiarity with Stephenson’s juxtaposition of historical fiction and modern touches; perhaps it’s because the history of science bits are much less prominent here, and those were my favorite parts of Quicksilver; perhaps it’s just because all the characters (and institutions) are older, jaded, and worn-down by time, so the youthful energy is missing.
Without the sense of manic energy and joyful discovery the first book provided, it starts to become uncomfortably apparent that I still don’t know what the plot of this brick collection is. Sure, Shaftoe’s adventures are fun to read about, and the machinations of Eliza and the scientists are intriguing — but to what end is this all going? I didn’t care while reading the first book, but by the end of the 1600th page, I’m a bit disconcerted by my inability to discern a larger structure.
Despite all my complaints, I did enjoy The Confusion and am still looking forward to the third book. Arguably, my slightly irritable take on this book is just due to reading it at the wrong time: It wasn’t really what I was in the mood for, but I figured I’d better read it before the third volume came out this fall; once I’d started it, I realized I really wasn’t in the mood for it, but knew that if I set it down, I’d take forever to pick it back up again, so forced myself to power through. I suspect if I’d just waited for a month or two until I actively wanted to read it, I’d’ve enjoyed the book far more.