A FUNNY EXPERIENCE: READING NEAL STEPHENSON’S REAMDE

I have spent whatever free time I’ve managed to hoard in the last ten days glued to the 1042 pages of Neal Stephenson’s last novel Reamde. The volume is not only very thick but also trade-paperback size, which means it is huge indeed. I’ve gone through Stephenson’s Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon (twice), The Baroque Cycle and Anathem, which what I can only define as glee, particularly for The Baroque Cycle and although Reamde is catastrophically bad in comparison to Stephenson’s best work, something of that glee has stayed in place throughout my reading it.

As a teacher of Literature I try to relax and enjoy the ride when I read for pleasure but with Reamde this has been difficult. Every TV-less evening I have spent plodding through yet another 100-page segment of this book I’ve been telling myself in flat contradiction that a) it is one of the silliest novels I’ve read in a while, b) Stephenson is too clever for that and it must all be a trick. Now that I’m done, I’m disappointed that the novel boils down to nothing at all, yet at the same time I don’t feel I’ve wasted my time, as I have enjoyed the long reading. It’s a very funny experience for the characters are flat, the plot the kind of James Bond-style global chase that airport literature is full of, and the style as transparently camera-ready as possible… yet, I found myself unable to stay away from Zula and Richard, and all the assorted secondary characters of their world, from the Chinese hacker down to the Russian mercenary passing through the Welsh jihadist.

As a reviewer said, this is not a Stephenson I’ll re-read. It is, though, perhaps the perfect Stephenson for our troubled times, since after putting up daily with the crisis-related depression that watching the news inevitably leads to, I just felt relieved to plunge into Zula and Richard’s life-threatening, exciting adventures. I believe this is called escapism and is what gives popular fiction its bad name. I wasn’t looking for that, quite the opposite, when I bought Reamde, for all the other novels by Stephenson are hard reading indeed. Yet it is my wild guess that perhaps Stephenson thought these are not times for deep thinking and chose to tell instead a simple yarn. Or this is just a bad novel, written by a bored writer who couldn’t care less. Occam’s razor…

Strangely enough, although Blue Mars is waiting enticingly on my shelf I’m sorry Reamde is over. Is that what Stephenson wanted? Or is it simply that, for all our sophistication as readers, now and then even Literature teachers just want to know what happens next? Might be that…

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