I have a friend. Really. And that's all she is, although we sometimes let people with overactive imaginations think it's more than that to distract their attention from what's really going on. And given that she is a close friend, and even a few years ago was a close friend, it came to pass that she lent me a book, saying 'I think you might like it,' and was right. I read it in a surprisingly short space of time, considering how much else I had to do. Which reminds me...
When I was much much younger than now, before you were born, and far less happy, I frequented a public lending library. I was allowed to borrow five books at a time. Sometimes those five books were barely enough to last a weekend. In the school holidays I had to go to the library twice a week to have enough to read. At the time I regarded this as a measure of my love for books, possibly under the influence of pro-literacy propaganda smuggled into my mind by the authors of some of those books.
Funnily enough, the friend I mentioned above often passed by that library on the way to the swimming pool, a swimming pool that I also often frequented, and where I once knocked myself out doing backward somersault from the side of the pool onto the side of the pool. But I didn't know her then, and even if I had, we would probably have had little to do with each other, she even now being around 10% younger than I. (The years count for more when you have fewer of them, despite being worth less.) Do not imagine that the environment of our early years provides us even now with a rich vein of shared experience to revive and exploit in our many conversations: the word 'rich' was not designed for that place in that time, and we speak of other things.
Therefore let us speak of other things: as I was saying, in my early to mid-teens I had an insatiable appetite for books. This was because they provided some kind of escape from the crushing grayness of North-East England in the 70s and because I had nothing better to do. I no longer live there or then and I have. So reading a book in that short a span of elapsed time now really means something.
That book was The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. In the few years that have passed since then, I have read every novel that Neal Stephenson has published, and liked them. One thing I did notice, in The Diamond Age as in several of his other books, was that he didn't seem to be very good at endings: many of the novels just seemed to stop, rather than concluding. This tendency did not escape the attention of other readers or of critics (who I do not count among readers), and somewhere I once read that his take on this criticism was that his idea of a good ending was different from that of the critics.
Therefore the first thing I shall tell you about Neal Stephenson's latest book Reamde is that it has a very good ending, in the sense that all of the sub-plots and the various groups of characters involved in them come together in a climactic closing sequence and are suitably rounded off, killed off, or married off, as appropriate.
Having said which, given the way that the said sub-plots have been set up, and the way that the various characters have been pushed around more or less the entire world (except South America), the chances of them all converging on the same place at the same time for this satisfying conclusion are so remote that the author might as well have had a character struck by lightning at a crucial point to help to move the plot along: it would not have made anything less implausible.
And I think perhaps that this may be the reason why one character in the book is indeed struck by lightning, although not at a crucial point in the development of the plot.
But maybe I should start at the beginning. (Although in the olden days in bookshops I did not read books from the beginning to decide whether I wanted to buy them: I started in the middle, to see if the writer was still doing good work after the first pages had worn off, and was likely to make me want to stay until the last page. I didn't know anything about style and good or bad prose, but as I found out many years later, what I was doing was judging the quality of the writing.)
But what is a beginning, and is it the same as a start? Allow me a short digression into a field of which I know more or less nothing: literary theory, my contact with which is limited to a few works of 1980s feminism, which I was expecting to be something else, and one aspect of the absence of my father. Let us address the way that a novel works:
A novel tells a story. For there to be a story, there has to be something that happens. This something has to be in some way unusual, otherwise it is not interesting enough to tell a story about it. (This does not preclude telling stories about very ordinary people doing very ordinary things, as long as the story is told in such a way as to make it clear what is unusual about those people and things, and indeed possibly about all people and things). The unusual starting point for the story is its 'premise'. The premise need not be revealed or related at the start of the story, but is its logical starting point, regardless of where in the actual telling of the story it comes. There may be more than one premise, but the plausibility of the story may suffer if there are too many independent ones. The premise may be wildly improbable, but as long as what flows from it is not overly driven by convenient coincidences, this does not affect the plausibility of the story itself: after all, unusual things happen.
But what is unusual depends on what is usual. An American in New York is just another Yank, but an American in Paris ... is just another tourist. Oh well... But an American in Paris who happens to meet and fall in love with a real live Princess? — that reminds me of a song. Or several songs. Maybe a film. And a A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? We could do something with that. The set of circumstances that provide the background against which the premise stands out is the 'setting' of the story.
Which leaves but one more ingredient for The Novel in Itself: the characters. People are social animals, as Aristotle said, and they quite like stories about other people. So if you're writing a novel, you will put the characters in the setting, have them react to the premise, and when everything has been more or less sorted out and is back to some kind of normality, you have finished your story. The way this happens is the 'plot' of the story.
Reamde is unusual in that several of its main characters are so unusual that their very existence could be regarded as the premise of a story. One of them is an Eritrean orphan who was lucky to survive after walking hundreds of miles barefoot and was later adopted by her adoptive aunt and uncle after her American adoptive parents died, one by being struck by lightning. Another is one of her other adoptive uncles, who is fabulously rich as the result of the success of a business venture that he financed with the relative riches he earned from smuggling marijuana, a business he got into quite by accident after stumbling across a good route while transporting something completely different. We could imagine a book in which she disappears and the resourcefulness she has learned stands her in good stead as he uses the considerable resources at his disposal to try to find her. And that book would be 'Reamde.'
However, it turns out that the reason she stays disappeared is intimately linked to the peculiar nature of her uncle's business, without which the problem she is co-opted to solve could not exist. This is a complete coincidence: it is her expertise in information technology that is required, not her relationship with her uncle. So Reamde is also a book about a cool hacker chick experiencing some wild adventures because someone needs her skillz.
To avoid giving anything away, I won't mention the other five essential characters and the way that their extremely unusual qualities drive the plot given the coincidences that bring them into it. But the way things develop could be summarised by saying that Reamde does not have a setting, since more or less everything that is presented as if it were 'setting' is in fact another premise.
Which brings me back to the mother struck by lightning: one conceivable function of this episode in the narrative economy of the book is that it lowers the reader's expectations for the plausibility of events. Unlikely things do happen, after all. So why shouldn't more of them happen? And as the various one-in-a-million characters slip usefully and coincidentally into the story, you do not necessarily immediately realise just how special they are. Everything seems to develop quite plausibly and smoothly, the obvious qualities of the characters explain why they are where they are, and their extraordinary qualities emerge unobtrusively over time. The result being that that you don't necessarily notice how implausible developments have been over the first few hundred pages. Until you get to the loud part in China. I don't want to spoil the story for you: suffice it to say that around half way through the book, when everything that has been driving the action so far is about to be resolved one way or another, there is a coincidence of such stupendous, almost geological magnitude (although it is in fact more geopolitical than anything else) that there is more or less nothing that could possibly have prepared you for the brilliant, daring, absolutely ludicrous and harebrained idiocy of making it drive the whole second half of the book. Killing off your character's mother with a bolt of lightning is positively mundane in comparison.
Having said which: I rolled (only partly metaphorically) on the floor laughing, rolled my eyes for added effect, polished my varifocals and read the rest of the book. I would recommend you do the same. It has everything you would expect from a Neal Stephenson novel: hackers, Linux, the Internet, nutty American backwoods families, spies, big guns, the Philippines, China, big bangs, love, death and the warm and cuddly face of organised crime.
And the boy gets the girl. And the other boy gets the other girl. And the other girl gets the remaining boy. But that's no less unlikely than the rest of the fun. And after all: unlikely things happen. My best friend in Berlin, who I know through a profession shared by only a few thousand people in the entire world, used to go to school across the road from me in Newcastle.