Thursday, March 26, 2009

Nell Freudenberger/THE DISSIDENT

This is one of the best written novels I've read in a while, and, despite its length (just over 400 pages in the edition I have, and the tiniest font I've ever seen), it makes for a very easy and very amusing read. It follows the experiences of a young Chinese artist who comes to spend a year in California, and is welcomed as a houseguest by the wealthy Cece and Gordon Travers in Beverley Hills. It's full of engaging characters and witty observations, and yet I found it rather less than wholly satisfying. I felt there was a lack of resolution about it - with certain characters or plot-strands not being fully developed, or being set up and then abandoned (Cece's bratty teenage children and her novelist sister-in-law remain peripheral characters; an accusation of sexual misconduct by a teacher at a private girls' school, which might seem to be a key element of the story, actually becomes something of an irrelevance). For me, perhaps, the novel is insufficiently plot-driven (one of the key characters doesn't appear until the half-way point!). I found it rather like becoming engrossed in a soap opera; I was so interested in the characters that I constantly wanted to know what would happen next - but nothing very much did.

Readers hoping for comedy or observation on the theme of culture clash may be disappointed too. This is nothing like Lost In Translation (although one of the blurbs on the cover drew this analogy). The Chinese protagonist speaks such fluent English that nothing much fazes him. And the story is only partly told from his point of view, anyway.

Structurally, too, many readers will find the book flawed. It is essentially a comedy of manners dissecting the dysfunctionalities of a well-to-do Los Angeles family, and it is most successful and engaging when detailing the home life of the Travers. The 'main plot' about the visiting Chinese artist feels rather grafted on, to create a more distinctive and saleable concept. This theme provides the more serious levels of the book, giving an opportunity for some interesting - if not particularly deep - philosophizing on the nature of art and the attribution of art (and some of the 'performance art' pieces described are pretty damned funny; although with this kind of thing it's hard to know if satire is intended). And, as an incorrigible China-enthusiast (I live here, for heaven's sake!), I was fascinated by the flashbacks to life in the "East Village", a celebrated though short-lived 'artists' colony' which sprang up on the outskirts of Beijing in the early '90s. However, it's probably a bit indulgent, a bit undisciplined to devote nearly a third of the book to the back-story of the main character; it makes the novel rather too long, and somewhat unbalanced. The Dissident is essentially two novels blended together; and, for me, that blending doesn't quite work.

And there's a related structural difficulty, of course, in the different narrative personas: most of the story is told in a detached, third-person narration (though usually focusing on the perspective of Cece, or her charming but feckless brother-in-law, Phil), but parts of it are presented as the autobiographical writing of the Chinese artist. I'm always a bit impatient of such shifts of narrative perspective, and while it does here provide some moments of humour, on the whole I found it tended to underline rather too heavily the separateness of the two strands of the story. Moreover, the 'voice' of the artist just isn't convincing: his English is far too sophisticated and idiomatic for a non-native speaker, certainly for one who's never previously been outside of his home country.

However, you can readily forgive such imperfections in a first novel, particularly when the quality of the writing itself is so outstanding. This book keeps you consistently entertained, and it fizzes with good lines on almost every page. I leave you with just one example:
In some unhappy marriages I've heard the child is ignored, but in my case, it was the reverse. Both of my parents watched me with the intensity of a pair of gamblers, waiting with clenched hands to see whether I might find the satisfactions that had eluded them.

Disclosure: Nell Freudenberger is a friend (gosh, I hope she doesn't read this review!), and tried to send me - not once but twice, I think - an advance copy of this book. Evidently it must have been confiscated by the Chinese authorities - only to be expected with a title like that! I'd met her when she was in Beijing on a reading tour to promote her debut book, the short story collection Lucky Girls. We kept in touch by e-mail thereafter, and hung out a few times when she visited China again a year or so later. On that second trip, she was investigating Beijing's modern art scene for a magazine article (I think she'd already formed the notion of using this as background to a novel, and had cannily pitched the magazine article idea to obtain some funding for a research trip). I introduced her to a couple of friends of mine with connections in that scene, and they in turn helped with the translation and the introductions to artists that made both the article and the book possible. I therefore feel a close personal connection to this work, and might perhaps be inclined to overpraise it - although in fact, I fear, I may have overcompensated for that tendency and instead been rather too acerbic in my quibbles. Setting aside any personal feeling, I really do have the highest admiration for Nell's abilities as a writer.


moonrat said...

rats!! sounds long!! oh well, i've already ordered it on amazon :) im vetting it for the june book club per your proposal. thanks!

x@y said...

Read the review - couldn't help it.

Read three pages last night and was struck by the tiny tiny type! My eyes will be numb after 400 pages. However believe it or not I think the book was drawing me in after only those three pages... quite promising

(and I am a 'hard to please' customer.)

Allie said...

I really enjoyed this book. It was an interesting read.