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By Nell Freudenberger
HarperCollins / ISBN: 978-0-060-75871-4
(Today's review is chock-full of spoilers, for reasons that will become obvious; those who are planning on reading the book themselves would be well-advised to skip this essay altogether until after finishing the novel. For a quick idea of what I thought of the book, please see the first two spoiler-free paragraphs.)
With the 2008 Beijing Olympics just around the corner, there's never been a better time to revisit the subject of Communist China, and especially of the ways that artists are treated under such a system. After all, as with many other subjects, China and the US have dealt with young subversive artists in very different ways over the decades, with quite different results as well: the Communists, for example, for the most part tend to jail and/or kill such artists, making their power to persuade simply grow that much more; while those in charge in America over the decades have tended to co-opt these artists instead, using their cutting-edge messages to sell more hamburgers, and paying these artists obscene amounts of money in order to keep their mouths shut over the entire thing.
So you would think, then, that a book bringing these two worlds clashing together, like short-story veteran Nell Freudenberger does in her first novel The Dissident, would be a delicious affair indeed, a story that would have a lot to say about how difficult it is to pull off truly challenging artistic projects in a consumerist society; and in fact, Freudenberger's novel starts with some truly great characters finding themselves in some truly compelling situations, an environment where all kinds of fascinating conclusions could be drawn under the right hands. Ah, but then Freudenberger unfortunately pisses the entire thing away, taking some of these premises and doing nothing with them, taking others and concentrating on the absolutely least interesting thing about them. It is an infinitely disappointing book, it's my sad duty to report, a much bigger travesty than a novel that's simply bad; because in this case the book is actually good at first, something that could've ranked with the best of Jonathan Franzen if it had been handled right, but by the end achieves the kind of ponderous monotony of a typical 19-year-old's writing exercise in an English 114 class, something that will have most intelligent people scratching their heads and saying, "Seriously, you don't have anything better to say about such a fascinating subject than that?"
The Dissident basically tells two stories at once: the first being the story of Yuan Zhao, a young radical Chinese artist caught up in the momentous affairs of the so-called Student Revolution of the late '80s and early '90s. Except that he's not actually a radical artist, see; he's actually the younger cousin of one of the radical artists, a traditional nature illustrator who just happened to have been hanging out with his cousin and friends in that time period, who is guilty of a heavy form of hero worship which is why he found himself as a bit player in the group's various illegal performance-art projects at the time. It's during one of these elaborately silly projects, in fact, that the group meets Chinese-American art professor Harry Lin, who half a decade later ends up securing the means to bring one of these artists over to UCLA for a year; but instead of sending one of the actual cutting-edge artists, the group decides that it would be a great performance piece unto itself to send Zhao instead, and to pass him off as the wildest and most radical of all of them. And thus does Zhao land with a thud in the middle of suburban Los Angeles, staying in the poolhouse of the wealthy Travers family, accepting a job as an art teacher at their daughter's private high school while also being expected to have a show of new America-influenced radical work finished by the following May.
And this is no ordinary wealthy patron family either, mind you: turns out, for example, that the fortysomething wife Cece, married to stuffy psychiatrist Gordon, years ago had an affair with Gordon's aimless playwright brother Phil, which apparently was never successfully resolved. And not only that, but that Phil wrote an autobiographical play about the entire thing, that was supposed to be an obscure off-Broadway production until being randomly caught one night by a Drew-Barrymore-type woman, a former child actor who now produces edgy Hollywood dramas, and who has optioned the play for a million bucks and is in the process of turning it into a major motion picture, with neither Cece nor Gordon aware yet of what the play is actually about. And meanwhile, there is their sister Joan, a frustrated novelist who has long-suspected that an affair took place, and is thinking of writing a book herself on the subject, who as well develops a crush on the "dissident" the book is named after. And this is not even mentioning the Traverses' two teenage kids, one of whom is a budding modern dancer rapidly developing an eating disorder, the other a sullen alternative-comics artist who was recently discovered pawning his stereo so he could buy a handgun, for reasons no one in the family is quite sure of.
Yeah, I know, it sounds like a great concept for a witty comedy of manners, as well as a chance to make some devastating observations about the worth of art in a Capitalist versus Communist society. But like I said, the premise of The Dissident is as good as the book gets, with the story slipping downwards with each additional word Freudenberger commits to the page. For example, that confessional play that we think is going to lead to all kinds of family problems? Turns out that the daring actress has hired a couple of young script doctors to "punch it up," who end up turning it into the story of a cult leader in Long Island, basically ruining whatever potential family conflict that existed in the first place. And far from being angry or disappointed by this bastardization of his work, Phil instead enthusiastically agrees to the radical changes, thrilled for some perplexing reason to be hanging out with two goofy white kids twenty years younger than himself, who spend their days playing videogames and listening to gangster rap. And not only that, but the production itself ends up getting cancelled altogether in the development phase, completely ending whatever little dramatic tension that was left in the first place. And not only that, but the entirety of what I just related gets told over the course of two chapters, and then is never mentioned or even referred to again, leading one to wonder why Freudenberger bothered introducing the subplot to begin with.
UGH! The entire book is like this, to tell you the sad truth, just an endless series of great premises that go nowhere, just nowhere at all; Cece and Phil never resume their affair, Joan never writes her novel, Zhao never takes the slightest interest in her, we never learn why the son bought a gun in the first place. The entire thing, in fact, becomes an aimless, meandering mess very quickly, a quagmire of ennui that will have you angrily flipping the pages faster and faster, desperate to get to something that's of the least bit of interest, resenting both Freudenberger and HarperCollins more and more with each page for releasing such dreck in the first place. I mean, even the conflict regarding Zhao being a traditional artist instead of a radical one goes nowhere, which is almost the biggest shame of all; because it would've been so easy to make something entertaining out of that premise, in that the clueless wealthy Caucasians Zhao is surrounded by are just so eager to assign overly complicated rationales to every little thing Zhao does, from his clothing to his off-handed remarks around the dinner table.
For example, why not have Zhao experience a fit of remorse and confess the entire scam to his hosts, just to have the hosts mistake the confession for an elaborate postmodern performance piece unto itself? Why not have Zhao simply release his traditional work accompanied by one of those snotty incomprehensible "mission statements" that American conceptual artists have gotten so good at, turning the entire thing into the exact radical work Zhao thinks he's unable to pull off? Here, Freudenberger, I'll write one for you right off the top of my head: "My plagiarism of a traditional Chinese nature scroll is a comment on the consumer-based culture of the Los Angeles area, and of the lack of awareness found in most of its inhabitants towards the real events of the Chinese arts community of the 1990s. In a society where such radical work is easily packaged into a disposable consumer good, the only logical response we can have is to revert to an age of sacred objects and an emphasis on the representational wandering gaze." See, that wasn't so hard!
Even with all this, though, I still haven't gotten to the worst thing about The Dissident; no, the worst thing about this book is that over half of it takes place back in Beijing in flashback form, with Zhao painting us a picture of what it was like to be a radical student artist in those days. And look, I admit that it's always a great thing when a society's youth can step out from under the steel boot of cultural oppression, and finally for the first time start making art that openly challenges societal norms; but as anyone who's studied art history can tell you, what this usually means in such situations is a group of artists endlessly debating cultural questions for the first time that we in the West already came up with answers for decades ago, and that are usually associated anymore with spoiled stoned college students sitting around a dorm room and blowing off their classes. Like, here's a typical question that Freudenberger devotes dozens and dozens of pages to exploring within the chapters set in China -- "If a photograph is made of an ephemeral performance piece, does the photo itself become its own piece of art? And if so, is that photographer ethically obliged to share whatever revenue that photo generates with the original performers in question?" And the answers: "Yes; no; and will you please f---ing get off the subject now, you stupid undergraduates, because YOU ARE BORING THE SH-T OUT OF ME!"
I get what Freudenberger is trying to do, and agree that it's an important point to get across in such a story, that these kinds of debates are important for artists to have within an oppressive society that usually doesn't allow such debates; but man, a little of this goes a long, long way, especially when concentrating as Freudenberger does on an artistic medium (conceptual performance art) that most intelligent people in the West were already making fun of 25 years ago, and is now mostly considered a sign of everything that went wrong with the art scene in those years, not what is daring and right. It's hard enough for me to care about a bunch of naked 21-year-olds hanging upside-down from crosses while rotten fish are smeared over their bodies, something that makes me want to just roll my eyes and slap all the pretentious asses who are taking it seriously; much less 200 damn pages of it.
I'm willing to cut Freudenberger a little slack when it comes to her overall career -- after all, she's the past winner of several literary awards, and no less an author than Richard Ford (who I'm a big fan of) has called her "a truly prodigious talent." But let's face it, The Dissident in particular is a stinker of a book, even more so than normal precisely because of having such a great beginning. For now, I think Freudenberger needs to stick with the short stories which is where she garnered such praise in the first place, and leave the novels to those who actually know how to develop a compelling long-form narrative. The Dissident is a noble failure to be sure, but a failure nonetheless, and a dismal one at that.
Out of 10:
P.S. I welcome dissenting opinions on this book, by the way; if you've read it yourself and ended up liking it, I encourage you to detail the reasons why in the comment section below.