The Terrified Copyist

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…

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