‘Reamde’ Book Club Part V: Identity Politics

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This post contains spoilers through “Day 17″ of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. Feel free to spoil beyond that in comments, but please label your posts as such. For next week, let’s finish the novel.

I’ve spent a lot of our discussions of Reamde talking about Stephenson’s approach to masculinity, which is rooted in a kind of self-sufficiency. And one of the things I enjoyed about this section of the novel was the parallels, accidental or intentional, Stephenson set up between how the same skills function for men and women. “Men wanted to be strong,” Zula reflects at one point. “One way to be strong was to be knowledgeable. In so many areas, it was not possible to be knowledgeable without getting a Ph.D. and doing a postdoc. Guns and hunting provided an out for men who wanted to be know-it-alls but who couldn’t afford to spend the first three decades of their lives getting up to speed on quantum mechanics or oncology.” But it’s interesting — and I think profoundly touching — the way Zula reflects on how she approached a wealth of knowledge the first time she had an opportunity to consume it broadly: by backing away from it. Knowledge, it’s clear, is power: “Patricia, Richard’s sister and Zula’s new mom, had explained to her that these contained anything that you could ever possibly want to know, on any topic, and had pulled one down to look up the entry on Eritrea. Zula, completely missing the point, had assured Patricia that she would never on any account touch those books.”

And the key to Zula’s survival, it turns out, is the esoteric nature of her collected knowledge and her willingness to employ it, a knowledge of how both guns and Islamic terrorists work, a bit of Morse code and psychology. It’s interesting to see Richard’s pride in her: “He knew a great deal more now of how Zula had comported herself during the apartment building showdown and in the hours afterward, and all of it made him proud and would make the rest of the family proud when it went up on the Facebook page and when, in future years, they retold the story at the re-u. And that was all true whether Zula was alive or, as seemed likely, dead.” Is it because she’s revealed herself, in extremis, to be an unusually good illustration of Forthrastness? Is being a Forthrast to exemplify masculine ideals of knowledge, strength, tenacity, and general cussedness, something that’s available to men and women alike?

The double standard on gender is more pronounced on matters of sex than it is on knowledge — man and woman having been equally corrupted, or benefited, depending on how you see it, by that apple all those years ago — as Olivia finds out when she’s being sent out on the road again. “He is just your type,” Uncle Meng tells her. “Please do try not to fuck him.” Olivia’s left to ask a pretty good question that we still haven’t managed to come up with a satisfactory feminist answer for: “How come it’s okay for James Bond?”

I still haven’t figured out how I think Stephenson’s interpretation of manhood applies to the jidhadists Zula’s been stuck with. He seems to have a certain amount of contempt for the way their willingness to default to gender stereotypes, the fact that “they set up the camp stove and the coolers of food, the portable water bags and the sacks of Walmart groceries squarely in front of the tree where she was chained up, and expected her to do the cooking and cleaning,” underestimates Zula and gives her the kind of autonomy she ultimately needs to escape. I tend to think he admires Jones a bit, in part because Jones is self-aware and capable of irony in a way the other jihadists aren’t — I did like Zula’s thought for “all the nonterrorist South Asians, happily assimilated into North American society, for whom an asshole like Sharjeel was their worst nightmare.”

Identity’s a funny thing, it turns out: it can be something you disguise entirely, something you prove under distress, and something you feign, then gets proved true by circumstances beyond your control, as Richard explains of the bar where she meets as John and Olivia: “They did such a good job of it that actual blue-collar people began to show up. And then the economy did crash, and the hip people discovered that they were, in actual point of fact, blue collar, and probably always would be. So you’ve got guys here who run lathes. But they have colored Mohawks and college degrees, and they program the lathes in computer languages.” And sometimes, it’s something you build for yourself that thrives on the misunderstanding of the outside world, as is the case with Jacob and his family. Jacob explains that “For me it’s about being part of a community that is not based just on geographical proximity or money, but on spiritual values. There are no cathedrals in the mountains. You create your own church just as you hunt or grow your own food, split your own firewood. And just like those things, it might seem simple and rude to people who live in places with cathedrals and schools of theology.” I appreciate the attempt to make survivalists and people who want to escape the government comprehensible, but I do think it’s a bit problematic that Stephenson doesn’t acknowledge that there are consequences to that kind of withdrawal and paranoia about the government, the way he does with the other extremists we meet in this book.