This post contains spoilers through the “Day 0″ section of Reamde. If you want to spoil beyond that point, please label your comment as such. For next week, let’s read through “Day 2.”
This is a brick of a book, and the plot doesn’t really take off in these first two sections of the novel, but as is often the case with Neal Stephenson, I’m not sure really sure I mind that much because I’m so interested in two things that he’s doing: meditating on Midwesternness, and looking at how those values translate into the two main characters, Richard Forthrast and his adopted niece Zula.
Stephenson’s a wild, sprawling plotter, but he’s also a wonderfully immersive world-builder, and it’s nice to see that he still has his touch when he takes on a setting that doesn’t involve thief kings, or mouse armies, a world that’s essentially like our own. It’s hard to tell if the Forthrast ancestral homeland is at an inflection point. Things are clearly changing, as demonstrated by the wind turbines, which Richard sees as “these pharaonic towers rearing their heads above the prairie, the only thing about this landscape that had ever been capable of inspiring awe. Something about their being in motion, in a place where everything else was almost pathologically still, seized the attention; they always seemed to be jumping out at you from behind corners.”
That tension, between what’s enduring and essential about this point of origin, and how much the characters can adapt beyond it, strikes me as something that’s going to be critical to the novel. Richard seems to see the fact that the Forthrasts landed were they did as proof of some sort of animal instinct: “Richard sensed a gradient in the territory, was convinced that they were on the threshold between the Midwest and the West, as though on one side of the crick you were in the land of raking red leaves across the moist, forgiving black soil while listening to Big Ten football games on the transistor radio, but on the other side you were plucking arrows out of your hat. ” And even when he’s behaving in a way that seems singularly un-Midwestern, as is the case when he goes after Zula’s absent initial adoptive father, he realizes that, in his own Hummer-renting, leather-jacket wearing way, he’s just bringing Forthrastness into a new generation, “manifesting, not as an avatar of Richard, but as an avatar of his whole family.” There’s a wildness to the Forthrast legacy not expressed by “the offspring of Nicholas who had settled down and lived exemplary, stable, churchgoing lives in the upper Midwest,” a sense that the true legacy of the family isn’t in settling, but in the journey that got them to their ancestral home in the first place, Richard’s sense “that it probably had something to do with the farm in Iowa and his knowing, even at that age, that whatever Dad’s last will and testament said—however things were handled after his father’s eventual demise—he wasn’t going to be part of it. If he wanted to own land, he’d have to go out and find some.” And of course, even at home, things are different. As Richard notices when he stops on his drive:
At the tables: a solitary general contractor rolling messages on his phone. Truckers, great of beard, wide of suspender, and huge of belly, looking around and BSing. Uniformed grocery store employees taking coffee breaks with spouses. Small-town girls with raccoon eye makeup, not understanding that it simply didn’t work on pale blondes. Hunched and vaguely furtive Mexicans. Gaffers showing the inordinate good cheer of those who, ten years ago, had accepted the fact that they could die any day now. A few younger clients, and some gentlemen in bib overalls, fixated on laptops.
Even farmers play T’Rain. And rather than being a place that’s homogenous and exclusionary, the Midwest of Reamde is a place with values that harmonize with the experiences of someone like Zula Forthrast.
Stephenson often gets rapped, I think fairly, for writing his own particular version of Manic Pixie Dream Girls (though I really love the way he writes Glory in Cryptonomicon). But I’m cautiously optimistic about the way he’s writing Zula here, helped, I think, by the fact that the man through whose eyes we first see her doesn’t want to sleep with her, both because he’s family, and because her profession is interesting to him. What Richard sees of her looks speaks to him of self-actualization, of a reconciliation between where she was born and where she grew up:
Zula, on the other hand, actually was looking great. Black/Arab with an unmistakable dash of Italian. A spectacular nose that in other families and circumstances would have gone under the knife. But she’d figured out that it was beautiful with those big glasses perched on it. No one would mistake her for a model, but she’d found a look. He could only conjecture what style pheromones Zula was throwing off to her peers, but to him it was a sort of hyperspace-librarian, girl-geek thing that he found clever and fetching without attracting him in a way that would have been creepy…Zula had graduated from Iowa State with a dual degree in geology and computer science and had moved to Seattle four months ago to take a job at a geothermal energy startup that was going to build a pilot plant near Mt. Rainier: the stupendous volcanic shotgun pointed at Seattle’s head. She was going to do computer stuff: simulations of underground heat flow using computer codes. Richard was fascinated to hear the jargon rushing out of her mouth, to see the Zula brain unleashed on something worthy of its powers. In high school she’d been quiet, a little too assimilated, a little too easy to please in a small-town farm-girl sort of way. An all-American girl named Sue whose official documents happened to read Zula. But now she had got in touch with her Zula-ness.
The fact that Zula is an object to Peter in much the same way that Glory is an object to Bobby for much of Cryptonomicon doesn’t make Peter seem like a great lover. It mostly seems like it’s leading him into error, a fact that’s transparently obvious to Wallace, who gets that Peter is committing this colossaslly stupid crime so he can buy “‘A real house where a female might actually want to live?’…For Peter, in spite of willing himself not to, had let his eyes stray momentarily in the direction of Zula.” And it becomes clear fairly quickly that Zula doesn’t think much of her boyfriend either, that he’s an expression neither of her Forthrastian values nor her Eritrean ones:
As a young child Zula had seen some of that behavior in Eritrea, where confronting your problems head-on wasn’t always the smartest way; the patriarch of her refugee group had devised a strategy for getting even with the Ethiopians that revolved around walking barefoot across the desert to Sudan, checking into a refugee camp long enough to make his way to America, starting a life there, getting rich (at least by Horn of Africa standards), and sending money back to Eritrea to fund the ongoing war effort. But the Forthrasts came out of a different tradition where, no matter what the problem, there was a logical and levelheaded behavior for dealing with it. Ask your minister. Ask your scoutmaster. Ask your guidance counselor.
I realize I haven’t spent a lot of time on the novel’s descriptions of how T’Rain came together, which are a very, very funny satire of both the high and low ends of nerd culture. But in a way, they feel like an entertaining illustration of the real point: we are hardwired for mythology, for bigness, whether we come from a land of nuance and devoid of mystery, or whether we end up there.