With Lucky Girls, her 2003 story collection about privileged young Americans abroad, Nell Freudenberger announced herself as a young writer of unusual grace and promise. If she didn’t make the subject entirely new, she updated it for the early twenty-first century, when the grand tour takes recent graduates not to the Uffizi and the banks of the Seine but to AIDS orphanages in Bangkok and half-baked language schools in Delhi, and the goal isn’t sentimental education but a kind of inner evasion. As a housekeeper in one of the stories puts it, “Traveling is for people who don’t know how to be happy.”
Now, in her ambitious first novel, Freudenberger tells the story of another melancholy voyager, this time traveling in the opposite direction. Yuan Zhao, a dissident artist famous for the daring performance pieces staged in a Beijing artists’ community called the East Village in the early 1990s, has come to Los Angeles for a stint as an artist in residence at UCLA and a teacher at a tony private school for girls. In the glory days of the East Village, Yuan Zhao and his fellow provocateurs would suspend themselves between stepladders while heating units burned their naked flesh, or stand crouching on top of a ping-pong table against a backdrop of Chinese and American flags until the sweat poured off them, or bury themselves in a pig farmer’s field until the police come to “resurrect” them. To the authorities who came to arrest them, it was all obscurely subversive. But to the artists, it was a way of turning life itself into the materials of art. As Yuan Zhao’s older cousin, a magnetic fellow artist referred to only as “X” “because of his continuing activity in China,” declares in his playfully portentous way, “An artist is an artist, no matter what he’s doing.”
Yuan Zhao hasn’t come to America to escape repression but to get away from romantic disappointment and the boring office job he’s fallen into. (“In pseudo-exile,” his cousin observes, “…Even more interesting.”) But in making the voyage from East to West, Freudenberger’s dissident has landed smack in the middle of another set of questions about what it means to be living in truth. His hosts, the Traverses of Beverly Hills, are your typical unhappy upper-upper-middle-class American family, with a cat named Ptolemy and a rabbit named Freud, a real Diebenkorn on the wall, and a nagging feeling that they’re stuck in the wrong life, or not actually living the right one. Cece Travers, a fortysomething mother of two, longs for something more ennobling than her routine of gardening, volunteer work, and managing passionate feelings toward her brother-in-law Phil, a flaky actor-turned-screenwriter who has suddenly resurfaced after years in New York. Her sister-in-law Joan, a brittle divorced writer, is scavenging in the family’s business for material for her next novel. And Cece’s husband Gordon, an emotionally frigid psychiatrist modestly famous for a book called Manias and Obsessions, mostly wants to be left alone to pursue his genealogical research right back to the “crossing ancestor.”
For the Traverses, Yuan Zhao is the real thing—an emissary from a world where choices matter and dissatisfaction with the way things are is more than an embarrassing failure to be happy. “Americans love June Fourth. Just tell them that was you,” X advises Yuan Zhao before his departure, mimicking the famous image of the lone man facing down a line of government tanks on the way to Tiananmen Square. (Famous to Westerners, that is—Yuan Zhao, apparently like many other Chinese, has never seen it.) But ensconced in his luxurious, skylit studio, Yuan Zhao is terrified that his hosts will discover that he hasn’t done any new work in years. And so he begins copying a scroll by the Song dynasty master Zhao Cangyun, showing two pilgrims crossing a river to meet two ladies on the other side, in the realm of the immortals. “My teacher had always encouraged me to copy as a way of coming to my own ideas,” he writes. “What is original does not come out of air, he told me, and it occurred to me that I might begin by painting an appreciation of one of those masterpieces. Who knew where it might lead?”
What follows is a subtly intelligent exploration of identity and authenticity, along with a useful evocation of the post-Tiananmen Chinese experimental art scene. Freudenberger, who has clearly done a good deal of research, takes a distinctly antiheroic view of contemporary Chinese art, which is presented more as a set of wry existential puzzles than a matter of life and death. Even with the authorities breathing down their necks, the East Village artists (whose story is told in extended flashbacks) seem mostly preoccupied with the same questions—what is art? who owns it?—that have long bedeviled their Western counterparts. Yuan Zhao calls it “the problem of copying”: not just the problem of how Chinese artists, freed from the harshest censorship and enforced traditionalism, can avoid aping Western art, but the way in which the question of originality itself can seem like a borrowed Western concern, imported into a culture whose own visual tradition is based in large part on a repetition of traditional themes and the stylized reproduction of nature.
Freudenberger writes beautifully about the subtleties of traditional Chinese painting, whereby a lobster comes to life through a few strokes of the brush and even mythical demons are “so persuasively human that you feel as if their faces have been copied off of people you know.” But modern means of reproduction only complicate the question of originality. Back in the East Village, Yuan Zhao and his collaborators had argued about how to title and credit the photographic records of their work: Should authorship be attributed to the photographer or to the performance artist in the picture? In Los Angeles, the normally mild-mannered Yuan finds himself annoyed to discover that a professor at UCLA is putting together a book called Tianming’s East Village, in collaboration with the photographer who recorded his and his cousin’s pieces, without any input from them.
Freudenberger has her own problem of copying here. There was a real Beijing East Village, a settlement of crumbling rural buildings outside the city center where, in the 1990s, a group of artists staged performance pieces and installations that drew the frequent attention of the police. Today it survives pretty much only in the images gathered in Rong Rong’s East Village (2003), which show young men and women in situations ranging from the coolly erotic to the suggestively abject. In one picture, titled simply East Village, Beijing, No. 20 (1994), the performance artist Zhang Huan sits naked in a dingy public bathroom, covered in honey, fish sauce, and patches of flies. (At the end of the piece, he submerged himself in a nearby pond.) The shot, described in Freudenberger’s novel in somewhat altered form, could almost be a man under torture, except for the radiantly serene expression on his face, which recalls workers on a propaganda poster, gazing into the glorious future.
Today, that future has taken on a smog- and money-colored cast, and the site of the East Village lies buried by the enormous Chaoyang Park. “You can wander through the park for hours,” Yuan Zhao recalls, “…trying to identify trees or mounds of dirt, or remember the placement of courtyards, but it’s no use. There’s no passageway back.” Having endured arrest and abuse, the scattered East Villagers now face stiff competition from the new generation of artists and curators flooding into sexy “live-work” spaces springing up around Beijing. “The rent just went up at the Factory again,” X complains. “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to stay here. All kinds of artists are starting to move in.”
And all kinds of foreigners, too. In a recent Travel and Leisure article on the Beijing art scene, Freudenberger quotes an artist who complains that Western exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art tend to be artificially organized around political themes, while the new Chinese generation is making art that is entirely apolitical. And in her novel she’s acutely self-conscious of the way in which Westerners project their own longings onto Chinese art, and of the moral glamour that political repression holds for a society where everything is permitted and the avant-garde’s gestures of rebellion have long since been taken over by the market.
But she takes things too far in the other direction, ironizing the idea of the “dissident” to the extent that it undermines the emotional force of her story. Yuan—a self-described “brilliant copyist”—is ultimately a bit of a cipher. And despite a ginned-up love story (in which the dissident trades one mortal lady for another) and a heavily foreshadowed surprise twist (in which he’s revealed to be both less and more of an original artist than initially thought), the story of Yuan Zhao ends up being more of an intellectual performance than a dramatic embodiment. For all the parallel themes of intrafamily borrowings and rivalries, Yuan’s first-person confession isn’t fully knit together with the story of the imploding Travers family, who sometimes seem to have wandered in from Lucky Girls, where Freudenberger’s imagistic tales of alienated, privileged Americans could float on beautifully evoked currents of feeling and observation without any need for the jerkier twists of plot that tie this more plainspoken book together.
Still, Freudenberger has made the brave leap from writing what you know to writing what you want to know but can really only imagine. And if the novel isn’t entirely successful, it’s a testament to the difficulties of the kind of translation attempted here. In a gallery talk at Yuan’s first exhibition in Los Angeles, which consists of paintings from his early days, before he gave up painting for rawer materials, a Chinese-American professor sums up the issues at the heart of the novel:
By transposing this show from China to Los Angeles, is Yuan Zhao giving us another kind of experimental self-portrait?… Could we say that the presentation of this show tonight is in fact another performance? One in which Yuan Zhao has resolved the central paradox facing the Chinese experimental artist? That in order to establish himself he must show abroad, while in order to remain authentic he must keep Chinese art in China?
If the answer is elusive, it’s a question this impressive young American novelist deserves credit for asking.