J.B. Blackford

Refine. Hone. Distill. The self is a text, too.

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

Omitting Neal Stephenson from anything that aggregates storytellers would be unforgivable neglect, so it’s a good thing that I just finished REAMDE. (I know that Stephenson’s own site transcribes the title Reamde, but in the book, it’s referred to in capital letters like the misspelled file name it represents, and I just think it looks cooler that way.)

This is now the third of Stephenson’s tomes I’ve hurdled, and — like The Diamond Age and Snow Crash — REAMDE leaves me abashed by its complexity and vastness of scope; granted, it requires just over a thousand pages to finally trace each line and connection of this tale to its end, but I knew within the first hundred pages that the reward would be commensurate with the effort, and I was not disappointed. Each time I read a Stephenson novel, I am left in awe of the worlds, the scenarios, the people, the details that live in his brain. It makes me wonder what else is going on in there.

Summary is not an option in this review, since it would be both nearly impossible because of intricacy and also vastly unfair to the sprawling narrative that weaves one plot into another. Simply trying to throw together a basic slapdash structure of the story has made me delete and rewrite and remove spoilers and edit again to try to reduce over a thousand pages into a few paragraphs. (However, Tom Bissell does a great job of encapsulating the major parts of the plot in a single paragraph, while admitting that it will sound ridiculous no matter how sympathetically it’s done.)

I can tell you this:

It’s a thriller that somehow manages to syncretize video games (a huge portion of the conflict centers around and is literally played out in an MMORPG); spy stories (including the Russain mafia, corrupt law enforcement, and trained espionage agents); and current global crises like terrorism. Characters too prolific to list here move through action that feels unrelenting at times, while Stephenson drops in countless other elements like explaining the relationship between real-life economics and the economy in video games, or the understanding that can develop in a relationship between a jihadist and a hostage. 

Yes, I’ve read a piece of fiction, but now I also know more about:

  • The geography of China, Canada, Washington state, and, in much more general terms, the Pacific southwest
  • Geology, mountainous terrain, and mining
  • Culture: specifically from this novel, Chinese, Hungarian, and Russain
  • Guns and self-defense
  • Computers (the ever-present theme of Stephenson’s work) and, specific to this novel, hard drives, back-ups, and viruses. While I try to absorb as much as I can, I never entirely understand some of these discussions, but for readers like my husband and brother, this esoteric content is their niche. 

In an interview about REAMDE, Stephenson mentions propelling readers through the story by skipping around to different perspectives; when one character has some down-time, you can move on to someone else. Yet he also uses this technique to propel you with suspense. He doesn’t always move to another viewpoint when one character’s action has petered out; in many cases, he rips you away at a pivotal or climactic moment, giving you the impetus to press on to rejoin that storyline. Over the approximately two weeks that it took me to work my way through REAMDE‘s 1,042 pages, I found myself actively excited when I realized that I had time to read; often, I stayed up much later than was wise to try to find a good place to stop, the end of a section that didn’t make me want to go on. 

Yet I wasn’t entirely enamored with Stephenson’s latest novel for two distinct reasons. First, in a story that is significantly and heavily weighted toward the MMORPG/virus-aspect of the plot in the beginning, the shift in action and playing out of the terrorist plotline seemed divergent rather than harmonious. When I finished the book, I had to remind myself that the beginning was actually this entirely different story, and — really — it felt like a completely different book, like a prequel that introduced the major players. Secondly, more than a thousand pages is no short jaunt when it comes to a thriller; by the final few hundred pages, I was ready to find out what happens. Stephenson’s tendency for lengthy explanations and descriptions — which I generally enjoy because of the density and reality of the world it creates — became frustrating as it impeded the events. Rather than knowing what each set of characters was doing as they converge for the story’s denouement, I was reading paragraph after paragraph about mountain geography and geology, the shape of talus and boulders, and the density and variety of foliage. I admit, I actually skimmed a few sections — a habit a truly try to avoid. 

Regardless, REAMDE was a vast and engaging tale from a master storyteller. I connected with Zula — the female protagonist who is both realistic and empathetic but also possesses a conveniently specific history and skillset to keep her alive throughout the book. While I wondered if I would be as quick-thinking as she, as tough, or as resourceful, I also completely understood being a twenty-something female experiencing an MMORPG (or really any video games) for the first time. And this is the crux of REAMDE: Its plot and reliance on coincidence may be entirely fantastic, but Stephenson creates possible parallel worlds that make readers want to explore and to suspend their disbelief. As a storyteller, Stephenson gives us characters to whom nearly any reader can relate, can identify with, and can thus learn through by proxy.

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