Still reading Reamde

reamde-by-neal-stephensonAnd it’s proven to be fairly entertaining. It still hasn’t completely fallen apart and gotten incomprehensible in typical Stephensonian fashion. But that’s also because it’s not quite as idea-dense as his other books. Still, there’s lots of fun stuff going on.

I would not describe this book as a thriller. Mostly because it’s not very thrilling. Although the book begins with high stakes (these Russian mobsters are gonna kill us!), those stakes never get any higher. In some ways, they actually get less high as the book goes on and it becomes clear that death, if it comes, will not be coming on this exact page.  This is not a knock against the author. It’s obviously purposeful. Stephenson knows how to raise the stakes in a novel (remember the nuclear bomb at the end of Snow Crash?) It’s just that in Reamde he chooses not to. Actually, there’d be a very easy way to instantly raise them, if he wanted. For most of the book, we’re in the company of a Most Wanted terrorist, Abdallah Jones, who is trying to sneak into the US. But at no point do we ever get a clear picture of his plan. We know he wants to do some terror, but there’s no sense of urgency here–no sense that if he crosses the border, then tons of people will die.

That’s because this novel is less of a thriller and more of a picaresque adventure. Stephenson has solved his plot difficulties by just shunting them aside entirely and constructing a novel that’s a series of increasingly outlandish setpieces. There are some issues with the way Reamde’s structured: mainly that the action isn’t really being driven by the desires of the main characters. In a picaresque, you’ve usually got a colorful striver–a Moll Flanders or Don Quixote–who desperately wants something. Here, you’ve just got a bunch of people who want to get away from murderous terrorists and be safe. All of their actions are directed towards escaping the adventure, rather than widening it. The result is that the plot must contort itself in increasingly desperate ways in order to keep the book from ending. Towards the end, the strain becomes increasingly visible, as characters start dashing across borders on impulse, and coming to crucial last-second epiphanies that provide them with info that they can’t possibly know, and chasing red herrings, and behaving in other ways that are generally more in service to plot than to character.

That’s not ideal, but it’s okay. The book hums along, and I don’t feel acutely cheated by it. And I am in the mood for it right now.

On an aside, I love the fictional game in the book. T’Rain is a World of Warcraft knock-off that Stephenson uses to satirize online gaming in a gentle way. But I do have one issue with it…which is that T’Rain doesn’t sound very fun.

It’s an incredibly overdesigned game, with a world that’s as big as the actual planet Earth, and a complex mechanic for extracting gold and crafting it, and all kinds of other little doo-dads. But it contains numerous features that seem like they’d made for an incredibly frustrating player experience. For instance, it appears that characters of all levels are allowed to engage in combat with each other. This means that level 50s (or whatever) can attack level 1s. That is crazy. There are some major jerks in online games. You know that some level 50 person would just run around ganking newbs hundreds of times. People would get killed ALL the time. And the fights would never be fun, since you’d always severely overpower the other person. Furthermore, if you don’t hide your equipment in time, then other players can steal it off your corpse!

Now, I played on Everquest’s Player vs. Player service for a long time. And that was a game with PVP rules that were much, much less annoying than the ones in the fictional T’Rain. But it was still an incredibly aggravating experience that I don’t think many people would go for. I just don’t believe that any game would actually be created in this way.

And that’s okay. It’s fine to create a game that wouldn’t, in real life, be very much fun, if you’re creating it as a satire of all the ways that real online games aren’t actually that much fun. But no one in the novel ever complains about how horrible T’Rain is. Instead, they all create characters and are instantly sucked into it and seem to have just about the most amazing time ever with it.

Oh, also, despite taking up hundreds of pages, the game has literally no function within the plot. The only way it matters is as a vector for a computer virus to infect a key character’s computer in one of the early chapters. If, instead of saying “Oh no, I got a virus from this computer game!” the character had instead said, “Oh no, I got this virus from looking at porn,” then every single T’Rain section could’ve been lifted out with no problems.

It’s inelegant, and I don’t like it.

In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower

Before I abandoned the series*, one part of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque cycle (apparently) impressed itself in my mind. It’s a part where Daniel Waterhouse tries to explain to Robert Hooke the reason why the public does not consider him to be as great a man as Isaac Newton:

“Newton has thought things that no man before has ever thought. A great accomplishment, to be sure. Perhaps the greatest achievement any human mind has ever made. Very well—what does that say of Newton, and of us? Why, that his mind is framed in such a way that it can out-think anyone else’s. So, all hail Isaac Newton! Let us give him his due, and glorify and worship whatever generative force can frame such a mind. Now, consider Hooke. Hooke has perceived things that no man before has ever perceived. What does that say of Hooke, and of us? That Hooke was framed in some special way? No, for just look at you, Robert—by your leave, you are stooped, asthmatic, fitful, beset by aches and ills, your eyes and ears are no better than those of men who’ve not perceived a thousandth part of what you have. Newton makes his discoveries in geometrickal realms where our minds cannot go, he strolls in a walled garden filled with wonders, to which he has the only key. But you, Hooke, are cheek-by-jowl with all of humanity in the streets of London. Anyone can look at the things you have looked at. But in those things you see what no one else has. You are the millionth human to look at a spark, a flea, a raindrop, the moon, and the first to see it.”

I thought of this scene while I was reading Proust’s In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower – which is the sequel to Swann’s Way – because I don’t think any other work of literature I’ve read has so inspired me with the thought that I could write a masterpiece.

Proust’s virtue seems, at times, to be so akin to Robert Hooke’s. He’s able to see what other people can’t. When you think about it one way, that’s amazing. How can someone possibly have written something new on the subject of – for instance – adolescent love? It was certainly not a novel subject even in the early 20th century. But as amazing as it is, at least the ability to see new things is not an incomprehensible talent.

Many of the talents of a great author can seem either unremarkable or incomprehensible. How do they decide to write about these situations? How do they come up with these words? How do they decide to write about these people? How do they decide that out of all the infinite possible stories they can imagine, this story is the one to which they will devote years of their life?

But the ability to see new things is not incomprehensible. It seems pretty simple. Proust had kind of the opposite of an exciting life. He just sort of hung out in the upper echelon’s of bourgeois French society for forty years, and then devoted the next fifteen years to remembering it…..I could do that.

Of course, Proust’s virtue is not that he sees new things, it is that he sees new ways of seeing things, and that he applied these new ways to everything around him, in order to generate a flood of observations.

I really love Proust’s mode of psychological observation, but I am not quite sure how to describe it. I think it is mainly marked by a refusal to reduce a person to unitary characteristics. Most of the time, when we try to observe a person, we are attempting to pigeonhole them, as cruel or kind, intelligent or stupid, tactful or rude, etc…to seek some meterstick that will allow us to know how they will act in all situations.

And as we come closer and closer to our judgment of that person, we are required to throw out more and more data that does not support that judgment. Thus we arrive at a lovely assessment…which doesn’t actually explain their behavior. Proust does not do that with his characters. He just accretes more and more characteristics upon them, and describes them in more and more situations, so you can gain a little insight into how they are with one group of people, but not feel like you understand them totally. The more he describes a character, the more thick and impenetrable they become.


The second volume progressed much more smoothly for me than did Swann’s Way. It appeared to me to have a much smoother progression between scenarios, characters, and topics. But what I perceived was not a difference in the structure of the novel, but instead an improvement in my own subconscious understanding of the linkages that underpin the novel.

At one point, the novel gives you, the reader, pretty good advice on what your own reaction to the novel will be (but perhaps by giving the advice, it imposes a certain form on that reaction?), and like probably hundreds of thousands of college students before me, I am going to use these passages to structure my reaction to the novel.

In the middle of the first part – which details the narrator’s adolescent love for Swann’s daughter Gilberte – Proust is listening to a piano sonata, and writes:

“In the Vinteuil sonata, the beauties one discovers soonest are also those which pall soonest, a double effect with a single cause: they are the parts that most resemble other works, with which one is already familiar”.

I find that in this book – as in the previous one – the parts that I enjoy most are the ones that deal with the vanities of high society, particularly Part I of this book and Part II of the last, as well as innumerable little bits scattered throughout. Proust’s tales of social maneuvering in Paris salons are fairly similar to other authors I’ve enjoyed: Austen, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Thackeray, etc.

The parts that I don’t enjoy – and sometimes even find incomprehensible – are the parts that are most different, the parts that my eye, acting against my conscious will, skips over and that my mind forgets. These parts are the long walks, the descriptions of flowers, and all the countless bits of little paraphanelia that are stuffed in between and amongst the parts I am paying attention to. This is particularly annoying when my eye skips over things that I think I am interested in, things that somehow exert some kind of attraction on me, like Proust’s psychological musings about himself and his own motivation.

Most of the time I plod through these interstitial parts without knowing what I am missing, except sometimes, when for some reason, maybe because the light is good, maybe because I am sitting upright, maybe because I have just woken up, one of these parts will leap out at me, like the part where the narrator is looking out the window of his hotel at the seaside resort of Balbec (where the latter 3/5ths of the book are set) and I will notice some particularly beautiful passage, like:

“On the very first morning the sun kept smiling and pointing out to me the sea’s distant blue summits, named on no map, until its sublime transit of the resounding chaos of their cliffs and avalanches brought it dazzled into my room, out of the wind, to lie about on the unmade bed and strew its wealth on the wet washstand, in my opened trunk, it’s very splendor and extravagance increasing the effect of untidiness.”

Or, later in that same passage:

“…sprinkling from a lemon’s leather gourd a few golden drops on a brace of sole, which soon left our plates the plumes of their skeletons, as fragile as flowers and as resonant as zithers…”

And I realize that there are probably beautiful passages studded throughout the book, passages which I somehow can’t understand and don’t know how to read, and that I’ve lost out forever on my chance of appreciating them for the first time, but that, now, I will have to content myself with the joy of discovering them, perhaps, on some subsequent read-through.

In this, Proust’s series inspires perhaps less melancholy than other books for which I’ve had the same feeling (like Lolita) in that I am far from being done with it, and that the lessons I learn in reading through each volume can be applied to the next, so that there is at least the hope that by the time I finish the seventh, I will have gone through all the stages of appreciation that this novel describes in the passages directly following the one on the Vinteuil sonata (quoted above):

“…when those parts have receded, we can still be captivated by another phrase, which, because its shape was too novel to let our mind see anything there but confusion, had been made undetectable and kept intact; and the phrase we passed by every day unawares, the phrase which had withheld itself, which by the sheer power of its own beauty had become invisible and remained unknown to us, is the one that comes to us last of all. But it will also be the last we leave. We shall love it longer than the others, because we took longer to love it.”

*Because I found it interminable and dull, although perhaps I’d like it more, now.