The Confusion
Neal Stephenson, 2004

Paul O'Brien has written on a number of occasions about the structure of periodical literature, such as a comic book series. These days, comic series tend to be written in long story arcs, each of which is published as a trade paperback. Very few stories are released directly as trades, however. Almost all of them first appear over the course of several months as traditional comic books — pamphlets, as they are sometimes called — before being collected. There are a number of ways to handle this. One is to treat each issue as a stand-alone product, even if you're doing a multi-part story. Jim Shooter, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics from 1978 to 1986, was a strong proponent of this approach and went so far as to mandate that each issue begin by establishing every character's name and powers. This made for some very repetitious collections later on. Imagine reading a book in which every 22 pages the characters all re-introduce themselves. Excruciating.

Therefore many writers have stopped bothering to re-introduce characters and recap storylines except at clearly identified "jumping-on points." In between, they write their stories however they want and then chop them up into arbitrary installments for serialization. While few go so far as to let issues end mid-conversation, many do demonstrate a remarkable indifference to whether each 22-page chunk constitutes a satisfying story in its own right. O'Brien contends, and I agree with him, that this is just as big a mistake as Shooter's edict. If you're going to release 22-page booklets, then honor the format and recognize that the reader's experience will include four-week gaps that you have to take into account.

Now consider The Confusion. This is the middle volume of Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle," and it reads like a middle issue of a story arc that was written for the trade. Characters from the first volume, Quicksilver, reappear, and the reader is expected to know who they are, how they relate to one another, and what the oblique references to their pasts are supposed to call to mind. And you might say, what's wrong with that? It says right on the cover that this is Volume Two. That means this isn't a jumping-on point. So if you're lost, that's your fault for not reading Quicksilver.

Except... I have read Quicksilver. I just don't remember it very well, because I read it in 2005. And the reason I waited so long before moving on to the second volume is that Quicksilver was nine hundred and forty-four fucking pages long! If I reread it to get back up to speed, I wouldn't be able to start The Confusion until 2011, because after nine hundred and forty-four pages I need a break! We're seriously supposed to put down Quicksilver and immediately pick up The Confusion as if it were pages 945 through 1759 of the same book? That's chutzpah. No — if you're going to release your opus in installments, you have to recognize that the reader's experience will include multi-year gaps that you have to take into account. You have to honor the format. And the format of a novel — and it does say "A Novel" on the cover of this book — requires more self-containment than this.

Chess boxing
In 1992, the cartoonist Enki Bilal produced a graphic novel set in a world which had come to embrace any number of bizarre sports, the most outlandish of which was "chess boxing." Years later a Dutch performance artist started commissioning real matches. And yes, it's exactly what it sounds like. You sit down at a chessboard and play a few minutes of a blitz game. When time is up, you move over the boxing ring and slug it out for a round. Then back to the chessboard. Players can win either by checkmate or by knockout. And that's basically the way this book works.

The Confusion alternates between the fourth and fifth books of The Baroque Cycle, Bonanza and The Juncto. The Juncto picks up where Quicksilver left off, with the über-competent harem-girl-turned-countess Eliza attempting to manipulate both the European aristocracy and the global financial markets. That's the chess. Meanwhile, Bonanza revives Half-Cocked Jack, the vagabond picaro from Quicksilver — a character whose dialogue is quite possibly the least realistic I have ever read — and sends him around the world for adventures full of piracy, shipwrecks, swordfights, mountain ambushes, torture chambers, and crocodile wrestling. That's the boxing. Back and forth, back and forth.

Both halves are pretty... I was really proud of myself for coming up with "turbid," but it turns out that I already used that one in the Quicksilver article. Anyway, it still applies. Whether it's a battle royale in the streets of Cairo or Eliza explaining Western Europe's transition to a credit economy, there's a hell of a lot of verbiage flying around the page that isn't entirely successful in conveying what's going on. The lack of clarity is an even bigger problem structurally. It's generally a good idea for a narrative to take shape quickly. Bonanza seems to do so; it looks like a fairly standard caper narrative. You have a motley assemblage of wacky but dangerous men, a complex and audacious plan, a worthy target. The caper unfolds, the prize is seized, their enemies are dispatched... bravo. The problem? The book is less than one-third over. So the next time we return to Bonanza, we find that things have gone awry in the interim and now our cast is, uh, doing... stuff. There's some talk of a new plan, and of the diverse motives of the members of the cabal, but overall it feels like a story being told by an overly indulgent parent to a petulant child who keeps demanding, "Okay, and then what happened next? and what happened after that?"

The structure of The Juncto is even less apparent. I made a little note to myself that I'd found a very emblematic sentence on page 95, and here it is: "He was already regretting having asked her to explain this, and was hoping she'd make it quick." Stephenson loooooves explaining stuff. He loves having characters explain stuff — Eliza in particular — but often even that is insufficient and he has to jump in and do it himself. Characters will make inside jokes and then the narrator will explain them! Most of the explaining in The Juncto is related to economics, and the plot involves Eliza orchestrating the European economy to, uh, do... stuff. At first it's to get her revenge for something that happened in Quicksilver which I don't entirely remember, but then that's dropped and it's to rescue her son from a different bad guy, but then that's also dropped, and then Eliza isn't even in her own book for a while as it focuses on various scientists and aristocrats, and, uh, yeah. But that's the thing about chess boxing. You might have an intricate plan to mate in four, but after you take a break to get punched in the head for two minutes, you return to find that it's kind of hard to focus on what you were doing.

The mind/body problem
When I was a teenager I came up with a theory, to wit:

We come to know each other's qualities in reverse order of importance: body, mind, heart, soul. At a glance you can tell whether someone is beautiful. Discerning whether that person is intelligent — which is more important — takes a few moments of conversation. Discovering whether that person is kind — which is more important still — requires a little more time. And learning whether someone is truly good — the most important thing of all — well, that requires some intimacy.

I know, pretty dubious. But it sounded good when I was eighteen. In any case, the back-and-forth between the cerebral and the somatic in The Confusion was just another reminder that Stephenson only goes two layers deep. He rarely ventures into the realm of the emotional, and character growth is a foreign concept. So why bother? My answer is twofold. One, I'm actually interested in this stuff. A book in which people explain the liquidity crisis in the European markets of the 1690s to each other may not be much of a novel, but I'm always up for a reasonably entertaining disquisition. Secondly, while Stephenson's writing may be lacking in some basic ways, he's good with the pyrotechnics, and every so often he hits heights that more fundamentally sound but cautious writers never reach. There's a bit in The Confusion about open flames and tears that is exquisite — and probably the only thing about it that I'll remember three years from now when I finally get around to reading the final volume.

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