Lobsters do not have eyelashes!

Joanna Biggs

  • The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger
    Picador, 427 pp, £14.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 330 49343 7

In Nell Freudenberger’s first novel, Yuan Zhao, a Chinese artist, is invited to Los Angeles as a visiting scholar at St Anselm’s School for Girls. He is famous for the experimental performance art and painting he made as a member of the artists’ community in Beijing’s East Village during the early 1990s, and what is more alluring, for being arrested for his art, but he hasn’t ‘done anything more than pencil sketches for the past five years’. His cousin, an artist who introduced him to the East Village, is encouraging: ‘An artist is an artist, no matter what he’s doing,’ he tells Yuan. Perhaps Yuan will be inspired by his new surroundings, and his cousin, X, as he is called throughout Yuan’s narrative ‘because of his continuing activity in China’, looks forward to what the painter-in-exile will produce:

‘It’s not an exile,’ I said. ‘I’m choosing to go.’

‘In pseudo-exile,’ X agreed. ‘Even more interesting.’

Yuan is to stay with an American family. Cece Travers, whose initiative this is, has made him a studio, supplying watercolours, wooden manikins and a skylight; she also paints a sign in Chinese characters with which to greet Yuan at the airport. She takes an article about him to her disapproving novelist sister-in-law Joan (‘A skylight! . . . Well that’s generous’) and hopes that the arrival of Yuan Zhao will have ‘a salutary effect’ on her ‘scattered family’.

The Travers family is scattered in a stereotypically Californian way. The son, Max, is doing community service after the police found a gun in the glove compartment of the car he was driving. Max had told the police that he wanted to kill himself. The daughter, Olivia, has come back from a school trip to France thinner and with a new best friend, Emily. ‘At school some people think we’re bitches,’ Olivia explains to Cece, ‘but we’re not. It’s that we don’t like to be around people who aren’t interesting – Emily can’t stand anything pedestrian.’ Cece’s husband, Gordon, a psychotherapist who got tenure at UCLA because of the fuss made over his first book, Manias and Obsessions: A Symbiosis, now divides his time between writing unnoticed volumes about bulimia and trying to find his ‘crossing ancestor’, the French de Travestère or the English Travis who made it across the Atlantic in the 17th century.

The arrival of Yuan Zhao coincides with the return of another member of the Travers family, Phil, Gordon’s younger brother. When Gordon was writing Manias and Obsessions and needed the house to be quiet at weekends, Phil would go on outings with Cece, Max and Olivia. They’d go to the tar pits, where Max questioned Phil about dinosaurs, to the beach, the zoo and the Griffith Park Observatory, where Phil would draw Cece out of the show into the lobby and kiss her ‘a little too earnestly, without the necessary forethought or restraint’. Phil has written a novel, which has been optioned for $1 million, and is coming to LA to meet the screenwriters. It is the story of a man who falls in love with his older brother’s wife.

One of Yuan Zhao’s ways of dealing with his new environment is to write his story down. In his first-person narrated sections, he tells us that he is an expert in ‘just one thing; and so this will be a story about counterfeiting.’ Anxious that he’ll produce no art at all, he copies episodes from Cangyun Shanren’s scroll Lui Chen and Ruan Zhao in the Tiantai Mountains and remembers his drawing teacher’s advice: ‘What is original does not come out of air.’ The idea is that by trying on someone else’s style, you can come to your own voice, which is of course contrary to the usual notion that you go abroad to be inspired by what you see there. Things don’t always work out so neatly, Freudenberger is telling us (perhaps from experience: she has ‘travelled extensively in Asia’); sometimes you end up in a place, with a pencil, doing the opposite of what you went there to do.

Copying isn’t only a way out of a problem. Teaching an art class at St Anselm’s, Yuan wants the girls to draw lobsters. Olivia Travers’s lobster has ‘very short antennae, a cluster of them streaming back behind each eye’. ‘The antennae must move forward,’ Yuan tells her:

‘The lobster uses them to make his way. He can’t see well from his eyes, you know.’

‘Those aren’t antennae.’

I confess, I was relieved. ‘What are they?’

‘They’re eyelashes.’

To a copyist, it is obvious: ‘Lobsters do not have eyelashes!’ But to Olivia it isn’t obvious at all: ‘I was trying to make it unique . . . I was just trying to express myself.’ Copying is a way of holding onto a fleeting moment, drawing the lobster before it scuttles away. For Phil, writing about his affair with Cece is also a kind of copying, a way of making something concrete out of a relationship that takes place in lobbies and snatched telephone calls, and hardly seems to exist at all.

Perhaps, then, it’s ironic that Freudenberger is doing some copying of her own in The Dissident. Yuan Zhao tells us about seeing his cousin in a performance piece called Something That Is Not Art: he was naked, splayed, tied to two stepladders, a row of heaters at maximum strength on his left side and fans at full speed on his right. At intervals, water was poured over his head. In the novel, a picture of this performance taken by a friend, Tianmeng, becomes the most striking image of the East Village movement. Last April, Nell Freudenberger wrote an article for Travel and Leisure magazine about a trip she made to Beijing to talk to contemporary artists. She said she had seen a photo in New York that she ‘couldn’t stop thinking about. It showed a young Chinese man, naked from the waist up . . . His arms and one knee . . . glistened as if they’d been oiled; around his eyes, his ears and all up and down his arms were clusters of black flies.’ The photo, taken by Rong Rong, is called East Village, Beijing, No 20, 1994 and records the hour Zhang Huan spent in a public toilet in 100º heat, covered in honey and fish sauce. Freudenberger notes that a series of 16 prints by Rong Rong and his wife, the Japanese artist Inri, recently sold for $100,000. But she cannot do what she came to do, which was to visit the East Village, because the streets and studios have been razed and a park put in their place.

Freudenberger would probably argue, along with Yuan, that copying makes it possible to pay attention to unnoticed things, like lobster antennae. Beijing’s East Village has never really come into focus in the West. Freudenberger’s article quotes Wang Wei, whose work has been shown in London and New York: ‘Any article you read in the West starts with one of two things: the Cultural Revolution or 4 June . . . If people don’t understand your work, they’ll look for something exotic in it.’ Freudenberger has devoted many pages and lots of research to bringing this lost world to life: she has copied in order to resurrect. There are solid reasons why this is worth doing, but the duty to portray things faithfully and in all their complexity often deadens Yuan’s account. He is not a native English speaker, and can often sound like a museum audio guide, cramming facts into sentences too small for them.

Freudenberger finds the Travers family easier to deal with. Emily and Olivia, newly initiated into French ways, sunbathe topless by the pool; Max is grounded, but manages to fool Gordon into letting him go out with his girlfriend in the car; Joan decides that she will write about Yuan and questions him indiscreetly, managing to infer that his girlfriend died in prison following police raids on the East Village. We get a lively sense of family life, but Freudenberger lets the plots get messy; strands trail off and get forgotten about. It is like life that Max absconding is terrible and vital at the time, but isn’t remarked on later. And yet any dramatic interest built up is dissipated by the interruption of another story. Freudenberger’s reader stays with the novel because of the strength of the characters: the story doesn’t grip.

In this respect, Cece is important. In a novel full of writers, painters, performers, it is a relief to hear an untricksy voice. There is a fine moment when the reality of her relationship with Phil and Gordon comes through. Phil has given Cece Ambien to help her sleep; Gordon sees the bottle:

‘Did Dr Plotkin give you those?’ Gordon asked that night, when they were brushing their teeth.

She wondered if he really thought that Dr Plotkin had given her an unlabelled bottle, with the name of the drug in permanent marker across the cap. Why would Dr Plotkin tie a red ribbon around a prescription? She might have said they had come from Pam or Carol, or even the nurse at St Anselm’s – but she decided not to bother.

‘Yes,’ she said.

Gordon replaced the pills and closed the medicine cabinet. ‘Be conservative,’ he advised.

The same light touch was evident in Freudenberger’s collection of short stories, Lucky Girls, which came out in 2004. Lucky Girls cares about the same things as The Dissident: being abroad, writing, the allure of places, growing up. But there is an elegance about the stories. In ‘The Tutor’, Julia, in her senior year of high school in Bombay, wants to go to Berkeley, so her father arranges for her to be coached by Zubin, a Bombay native who studied at Harvard. Zubin’s first few days there had been difficult:

He had been 18, and in America for only the second time. It was cold. The sweaters he’d bought in Bombay looked wrong – he saw that the first week – and they weren’t warm enough anyway. He saw the same sweaters, of cheap, shiny wool, in too bright colours, at the ‘international’ table in the Freshman Union. He would not sit there.

Zubin borrows a jumper from his roommate, Jason, which he barely takes off, and is happy with the arrangement until Jason notices he’s taken to the jumper and offers him others, ones he’s grown out of. Zubin immediately gives back the sweater, saying he wants ‘something less preppy’. The next day he sells his textbooks and uses the money to buy ‘a down jacket . . . as warm as a sleeping bag’ and a ‘wool watchman’s cap with a Nike swoosh’. Our introduction to Zubin is just a few pages long and seemingly quite offhand, but Freudenberger uses the shiny woollen jumper to negotiate the unsaids and misunderstandings that relationships are made of. There are many such occasions in Lucky Girls.

It was just as well. Freudenberger made her literary debut in the New Yorker’s fiction issue of summer 2001. She had been interning there and, in true Cinderella style, had given her story to Bill Buford, who was then the fiction editor, and subsequently found herself at the centre of a bidding war for her as yet unwritten first book. Her apparently effortless ascent raised hackles: Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep, talked of feeling ‘Schadenfreudenberger’ as gossip spread that Freudenberger was having difficulty getting started on the book. The publication of Lucky Girls proved her detractors wrong, but US critics were equivocal about The Dissident when it was published there last autumn. It has its strengths: Cece Travers, set pieces that are both funny and moving, some very nice writing. But the elegant reserve and slow unfolding of the short stories isn’t so evident in the novel. It is as if Freudenberger felt she couldn’t trust the reader to remember the hard-working details in a book that will be put down and picked up over several sittings. I wonder if she’s considered writing Muriel Spark-length novels; not so long that she’d need multiple plots, but not so short that she could only have one character. Perhaps Travel and Leisure could arrange for her to go to Edinburgh.