‘Reamde’ Book Club Part II: Manhood For Professionals

This post contains spoilers through “Day 2” of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. Feel free to spoil beyond that, but please label comments as such. For next week, lets read “Day 3” and “Day 4.”

One of the things that I like best about this book, which, though I think so far is definitely not Stephenson’s best or most audacious, and in fact, really feels like a parody of Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum (which is a really fun, useful thing to do, but not what I’d expected), I’m enjoying in a propulsive kind of way, is how it handles relationships between the genders. It’s not so much that they’re realistic, or even aggressively subversive. But I really appreciate — even though it may be as much a fantasy for me as the Frat Pack movies are for men — that the main object of a great deal of chivalry is a nerdy Eritrean refugee who knows more about video games that her ex-boyfriend and builds realistic Eritrean deserts in a fictional world.

First, there’s Sokolov’s entrance, which I’ll get back to in a minute and from his perspective:

Over Zula, he made a bit of a fuss, because he was that kind of guy. It didn’t matter why he was here, what sort of business he had come to transact. Women just had to be treated in an altogether different way from men; the presence of a single woman in the room changed everything. He kissed her hand. He apologized for the trouble. He exclaimed over her beauty. He insisted that she make herself comfortable. He inquired, several times, whether the temperature in the room was not too chilly for a “beautiful African” and whether he might send one of his minions out to fetch her some hot coffee. All of this with meaningful glances at Peter, whose manners came off quite poorly by comparison.

This is all sort of funny and horrible and slightly off as well as being charming, because Sokolov is in the midst of an operation that is murdering someone Zula’s been working with, calling her a “beautiful African” is kind of creepy and reductionist, and part of this chivalry ends up being a ploy to drug Zula and put her on a private jet bound for China. But at the same time, there’s something genuine to it, something that’s not exclusive to Sokolov. We already know that Richard has gone to extreme lengths to keep Zula protected. Peter’s gotten them into this horrible mess because he wants to hang on Zula. Sokolov brings her flowers along with the coffee, which is totally unnecessary. And then, they’re joined by a hunky but vulnerable Hungarian who, when he meets Zula, who goes in for a handshake, “bent forward and kissed it, not in an arch way, but as if hand kissing were a wholly routine procedure for him.” Zula seems like a fairly capable woman, so I’m not really concerned that she’s going to be a pure damsel in distress. Especially because in these chapters, we get inside her head a bit more, and find someone who’s capable of being lulled into playing video games when she could be calling the police; someone who took a desperate walk from Eritrea to Sudan and is left with the sense that “the nerves in the soles of the feet were connected more tightly to the brain than any others;” who looks out the window when her adoptive father doesn’t want her to and sees a meth cooker after he “had made a mistake with the anhydrous ammonia line and been sprayed with the chemical, which had sucked all the water out of his body.”

And in showing us why a number of very different men and by extension we might like Zula, this section also gives us a sense of what Zula values, a system that’s framed by Eritrea and by Iowa. Reflection on her breakup with Peter, she catalogues the things she likes about him: “Other than his physical beauty, which was pretty obvious. Those occasional left-handed insights, like the arches. Another thing: he worked very hard and knew how to do a lot of things, which had put her in mind of the family back in Iowa. He was intelligent, and, as evidenced by the books stacked and scattered all over the place, he was interested in many things and could talk about them in an engaging way, when he felt like talking.” When she meets Csongor, she delivers, in an internal reflection, a rebuke to the ideas inherent Judd Apatow’s movies, thinking:

Neither of these men had much in the way of formal education, since each had decided, during his late teens, to simply go out into the world and begin doing something. And each of them had found his way from there, sometimes with good and sometimes with bad results. Consequently, neither had much in the way of money or prestige. But each had a kind of confidence about him that was not often found in young men who had followed the recommended path through high school to college and postgraduate training. If she had wanted to be cruel or catty about it, Zula might have likened those meticulously groomed boys to overgrown fetuses, waiting endlessly to be born. Which was absolutely fine given that the universities were well stocked with fetal women. But perhaps because of her background in refugee camps and the premature death of her adoptive mother, she could not bring herself to be interested in those men. This quality that she had seen in Peter and now saw in Csongor was — and she flinched from the word, but there seemed little point in trying to distance herself from it through layers of self-conscious irony — masculine.

Obviously, this isn’t the only way to be a man, though Stephenson seems to have a bit of a fetish for aspects of it: self-madeness, a sense of responsibility in both presentation and deed, a willingness to be decisive, even aggressive. Sokolov thinks to himself at one point that “Waging war on his enemies had been Sokolov’s habit and his profession for a long time, but being chivalrous to everyone else was simply a basic tenet of having your shit together as a human and as a man.” Richard’s friend Chet turns his motorcycle gang from drug-running to the Society for Creative Anachronism as a way to “stay in touch with their masculinity but with a more modest body count. The change in emphasis seemed to coincide with some of the surviving principals’ getting married and having kids. They got rid of most of their guns and took advantage of Canada’s surprisingly easygoing sword laws, riding around the provincial byways with five-foot claymores strapped to their backs. They met in forest clearings to engage in mock duels and jousts with foam weapons, and they went to Ren Faires.” Some of this is pretty silly. And Stephenson’s definition of masculinity seems to contain a requirement that you acknowledge when you’ve done something really dumb, or, as Csongor puts it, “I am just the latest in a very long line of Hungarians being talked into extremely stupid adventures by Germans, Russians, whatever. But it took me into this culture where I was cool. Respected. Powerful drugs for a teenager.”

I’d be curious as to what male readers think of this framework so far. It’s striking to me that while we’re getting a big discussion of what it means to be a man, no one’s tried to lay down a right way of being a woman. I’m not going to go so far as to say that turnabout is fair play, but it’s nice to see a world where Zula gets to be awesome and desirable without having to be regulated.