Neal Stephenson, Reamde (William Morrow / Atlantic Books 2011)
At 1044 pages, this is to a normal novel what The Wire or The Sopranos is to a feature film. Characters who loom large in the first couple of hundred pages are killed as summarily as any TV character whose actor has had a better offer. New characters turn up who come from whole other continents. Plot strands that appeared to be central are apparently resolved after a mere 350 pages, and, to mash my metaphors a bit, other strands arise from the ashes and shards that remain of them. As the action moves to a new location, that location is described in loving detail, usually over a couple of pages. Yet, with all those shifts of direction and detailed evocations of place, the narrative stays gripping.
Neal Stephenson is the man who raised the info-dump to the level of an art form. In the climactic battle scene, for instance, when two sets of jihadists are shooting it out with a heterogeneous collection of good guys, he pauses to notice that when machine-gun bullets hit the walls of a log cabin, the freshly exposed wood shows up starkly blond against the weathered outside wood. And elsewhere in the same battle, a character has time to reflect that one’s mental functions are less sharp when one is burning fat than when burning carbs. But there are none of the spectacular digressions of earlier books – no lectures on Babylonian mythology, nanotechnology, computer cryptography, advanced mathematics, or the fashions of the court of Charles the Second of England.
If you haven’t read any Neal Stephenson, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this. Snow Crash is a fabulous cyberspace thriller; Cryptonomicon goes deep into Second World War cryptography and modern electronic security; The Diamond Age is set in a world where nanotechnology is achieving wonders, yet has at its heart a book for small children (and a small child who reads it); The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) is a rollicking picaresque novel and also a fictionalised account of the dawn of capitalism, the Enlightenment and the scientific age. Compared to any of them, Reamde is just a thriller.
But it’s wonderful, improbable fun. You can get an idea of the plot from this little ‘story so far’ passage from page 827 (you need to know that T’Rain is a massively popular and profitable multi-user internet game, and it may help to know that Seamus is a semi-disgraced but still potent US secret operative and ‘these three’ are all in their early 20s and not generally inclined to risky living):
Seamus had no idea what level of precautions was appropriate here. Apparently these three had left half of the surviving population of China seriously pissed off at them, as well as making mortal enemies with a rogue, defrocked Russian organised crime figure. In their spare time they had stolen money from millions of T’Rain players, created huge problems for a large multinational corporation that owned the game, and, finally – warming to the task – mounted a frontal attack on al-Qaeda.
I confess that my enthusiasm was beginning to flag in the prolonged climactic battle, where not a lot was happening besides stuff blowing up and people shooting at each other, but generally this was an excellent summer, even all-of-summer, read. And what if my teetering To Be Read pile is calling me to a world history of genocide, a revisionist account of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the next Book Group title? Neal Stephenson is a major Guilty Pleasure, and I am unrepentant.