‘Reamde’ Book Club Part IV: Sex — And Rape — In Wartime

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"‘Reamde’ Book Club Part IV: Sex — And Rape — In Wartime"

This post contains spoilers through “Day 7″ of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. If you want to spoil beyond that in comments, feel free, but please label your comment as such. And for next week, let’s read through “Day 17.”

Given the time that Stephenson’s spent explicating his manly ideals, and showing us various people doing crazy things like stealing credit card numbers and shooting terrorists on Chinese docks in the name of love, it was inevitable that we’d get to sex eventually. And to sexual assault. Wartime can produce some hot temporary romances, like the one between Olivia and Sokolov. But it also provides a space in which people like Khalid can justify sexual violence.

One of the things that’s interesting about the way Stephenson frames Khalid’s attack against Zula is that it sets up a sympathy between us and Richard. Before he breaks into his niece’s apartment, Richard pauses for a moment to steel himself against what he might find: “Growing up on a farm had exposed him to a few sudden and unpleasant sights that he had never been able to clear from his memory. But Zula stabbed or strangled on the floor of her apartment would, he knew, be the last thing that came into his mind’s eye at the moment of his death; and between now and then it would come to him unbidden at unforeseeable moments.” He can’t bear the idea of witnessing violence against Zula, but he must. And as we get more attached to her, the prospect of seeing something bad happens to her becomes increasingly uncomfortable — though we see more than he does, though less than everything, because we’re seeing through Zula’s eyes, and at some point, so closes them.

I’m trying to decide how I feel about Stephenson’s decision to describe Khalid’s assault on Zula and Zula’s self-defense in as much detail as he does. It’s not as if the step-by-step narration of the event is out of keeping with the rest of the novel — Stephenson spends a lot of time on all sorts of details here — and they’re not notably prurient. We’re told that Zula’s vulva is exposed, but Stephenson doesn’t get descriptive, and even his lingering on Khalid’s penis for a sentence is a logistical meditation, not a sexual one, though it does serve to establish Zula’s level of sexual experience in a way that seems like it’s supposed to make Khalid’s assault more heinous: “Zula was not a huge penis expert, but she knew it took at least a little bit of time for one of them to get that hard, which made her realize that Khalid must have been standing outside the door for a while, getting himself ready for this.”

I do think Stephenson does a good job of establishing fairly clearly that Khalid’s behavior is not about sex — it’s about power and rage. The story that Jones tells about the teacher Khalid raped and killed makes clear that the rape was, for Khalid, a twisted kind of theological act. And his harassment of Zula is angry and persistent enough that Jones finds it inconvenient and annoying:

This show of curiosity on Zula’s part had astonished Khalid the first time and offended him the second time. The third time he flew into what she thought was a pretty well-rehearsed rage, getting to his feet and invading her space in a way that all but forced her to back away from him. She couldn’t parse the grammar of his sentences, but she was able to recognize a few none-too-flattering nouns; if Khalid had been a gangsta rapper, he’d have been calling her a bitch and a ho. This went on until it disturbed Jones’s train of thought, at which point he spoke up and told Khalid to pipe down and put a lid on it.

But I’m conflicted as to whether the extended description of the assault and Zula’s self defense underscores that point, gets at the mundanity and ugliness of rape, or whether it’s just going to cause people to tune out out of disgust or whether it disguises what it means to go through an experience like this behind a welter of tactics. To go back to an old debate, this is vastly more explicit and extended than anything we see in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. But it’s less engaged than those books in the emotional repercussions of getting treated like this. Emotions, I think, sometimes feel more explicit than acts of violence themselves.

Speaking of jihadis, I’m curious about Stephenson’s decision to make two of them potentially — though not verifiably — gay and to not deal with how the rest of the terrorists might react to them and their relationship: “Mahir and Sharif were almost certainly lovers. If not, then they were certainly taking male friendship to a level rarely seen in Western culture. They always sat together, and when Sharif went out on a scavenging expedition with Ershut, Mahir spent the whole time sitting by the window and sighing.” I’m not really sure why the trope of the gay jihadist exists — I’m not there in Sleeper Cell yet, but I understand that the show also has a gay man join the cell — or even if it counts as a full-on trope. Is it meant as a reference to actual events? Because other than a gay informant the CIA wanted to use against al Qaeda, I’m not sure there’s a lot of factual basis there. Or does it just seem like an easy way to suggest that Islamic terrorists are hypocrites, or that gay Islamic fundamentalists are self-loathing? Either way, I wish Stephenson was going to spend some of the loving attention he’s lavishing on technical details on emotional and relational ones.

The one place he does this is with the consensual heterosexual encounter that takes place in this section, when, in a wicked parody of commitment-phobia, Sokolov decides to fake his own death so Olivia won’t have to go through the process of realizing they probably aren’t going to date:

Sokolov quite liked Olivia and wanted her to be happy. He could tell from watching her face that she was unwilling to be honest with herself about the nature of the relationship that she had enjoyed with Sokolov, which had quite obviously (to Sokolov anyway) been based on simple, animal attraction…If it were somehow the case that they lived next door to each other or worked in the same office, then she’d have had to work through a long and dramatic and ultimately painful process of coming to terms with the fact that it was all strictly animal attraction and that there was no actual basis for a relationship there…But if Sokolov were killed in an ambush in the fog and mist off the shore of Kinmen, then she could close the door on this highly satisfying but ultimately meaningless affair, and go on to live the happy and contented life that Sokolov very much wanted her to live.

Sokolov and Olivia are the most obvious jokes in the novel, to the extent that they’re developed, they have the most stereotypical backgrounds. And even if they don’t get to be as idiosyncratic as Richard, and Zula, or as poignant casualties of the Cold War as Csongor, they do get to serve their purpose. It’s a fun coda to Le Carre and the tradition of Bond that Russians and Brits finally get to stop fighting and hop into bed instead.

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