This post contains spoilers through “Day 4” 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 read through “Day 7”.
So. Abdallah Jones. I tend to think that Stephenson is doing a nice, if slightly exaggerated, job of discussing masculinity, femininity, desirability, and the Midwest. But how I feel about this book is, I suspect, going to depend on how well Stephenson walks the line in telling a somewhat silly, exaggerated story about fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, an issue that’s serious not because it has a nasty tendency to kill people, but because of how the existence of it affects other people’s behavior and decision-making.
What we learn about Jones in these chapters is this. He’s competent enough to escape Ivanov, Sokolov, and their gang, which even if it was Sokolov alone would be no mean feat. We know he has a sense of humor, however dark its direction. Telling Zula that “I would suggest an end to pluck, or spunk, or whatever label you like to attach to the sort of behavior you were showing back on that pier, and a decisive turn toward Islam: which means submission. Just a thought,” is scary and evidence of a midset distinctly unlike our own, but undeniably funny. Ditto for their exchange: “What’s the only thing more attention getting, on the streets of Xiamen, than two niggers handcuffed together?” “I give up.” “Two niggers handcuffed together with a Kalashnikov.” We know he’s a creative, improvisational thinker: thus the deal with the pilots. And we have his basic biography, which is sort of a combination of George Jackson and Osama bin Laden:
..The Welsh terrorist Abdallah Jones, who was of particular interest to Olivia because he had once blown up Olivia’s great-aunt’s bridge partner on a bus in Cardiff. He was (as she learned) of West Indian ancestry, that is, the descendant of slaves brought to the Caribbean to work on sugar cane plantations. He had grown up in a Cardiff slum where he had acquired an addiction to heroin. He had kicked that addiction with the assistance of a local mullah who had converted him to Islam. Chemically unshackled, he had taken an undergraduate degree in earth sciences at Aberystwyth and followed that up with graduate instruction at the Colorado School of Mines, where he seemed to have learned a hell of a lot about explosives. Returning to Wales, he had fallen in with a radical cell of Islamists and cut his teeth blowing up buses in Wales and the Midlands before migrating to London and graduating to tube stations. When those activities had rendered him the object of intense police curiosity, he had moved to Northern Africa, then Somalia, then Pakistan (the site of his largest single exploit, killing 111 people in a hotel blast), then Indonesia, the southern Philippines, Manila, Taiwan, and now — strange to relate — Xiamen. All those steps had made perfect sense except for the last two. To say, as people frequently did, that Abdallah Jones was to MI6 what Osama bin Laden had been to the CIA was to miss a few important points, as far as Olivia was concerned. It was true that Jones was MI6’s highest-priority target. So to that point, the comparison served. Beyond that, as Olivia took every opportunity to point out, comparing Jones to bin Laden was dangerous in that it minimized the danger posed by Jones. Bin Laden’s best days had been over on September 12. One of the most famous men in history, he’d spent the rest of his life huddled in various hiding places, watching himself on TV. Jones, on the other hand, was little known outside of the United Kingdom, and even though he had blown up 163 people in eight separate incidents before his thirtieth birthday, there was little doubt that he would kill many more than that in the future.
I haven’t really decided yet if Jones is a walking trope or an actual character, but I do like that his biography, and his journey to terrorism, is really rooted in the sprawl of British history, from Caribbean colonialism, to the rise of Islam in the contemporary UK, to regional terrorism that’s analogous to IRA terrorism, to the great beyond. There’s an interesting reversal here in the journey from the Commonwealth countries to the U.S., a sense that what came before is practice, and things may be able to get much worse. America’s where you go when you have big dreams, whatever their variety.
And it’s an interesting question, if ten years after September 11, we’re ready for slightly wacky, and reasonably relatable stories about murderous fanaticism. Four Lions is funny, but not exactly a mass audience product. Stephenson’s core readers may be more ready than America at large to approach our national trauma with a degree if irony and curiosity. And while Stephenson’s doing a bit to make Jones unsettling, this is not exactly a radical exercise in sympathy. Of course terrorists can be somewhat physically attractive. Zula’s realization “She had gone beyond all that, was part of a reality much bigger and more intense than anything they could possibly imagine. They and their opinions of her were irrelevant. Puny. To be a man who had been helpless his entire life? And to have this power? To be able to access this feeling that she was just tasting now? It must be the most potent drug in the world,” is interesting to her, and to us because we’re interested in how she’s feeling, but it doesn’t actually communicate the kind of profound sense of powerlessness, rage, and entitlement that I imagine you have to feel to think that being a terrorist is not just justified but that it makes you superior.
I also feel like that exercise in trying to understand someone profoundly different is also a bit of a mixed success when it comes to Qian Yuxia. As an aside, it bothers me that Zula uses the term “dyke” to describe her, not because I don’t think that it’s impermissible for fictional characters to use slurs that they, personally, don’t have the right to reclaim and reforge, but because it seems somewhat out of character, a bit of edginess Stephenson throws in there that doesn’t really comport with what makes Zula compelling. But it is interesting to hear her think through Yuxia’s culture, mostly as a reminder of the fact that it’s not only white people who can categorize other folks and other cultures: “They were the only Chinese who had refused to take up the practice of foot binding. So “Big-Footed Woman” was not just a throwaway line. Not only that, but they would buy the unwanted female children of their Cantonese-speaking neighbors and raise them. Yuxia was not the type to deploy terminology like “feminist” or “matriarchal,” but the picture was clear enough to Zula. She was able to draw comparisons to her early years being raised by Marxist-feminist teachers in caves in Eritrea.” We’ve all got limited tools to understand the world, even when we aren’t understandably stressed by the experience of being kidnapped by villainous Russians prior to being taken hostage by fanatics who claim commonality with you based on your skin color.