I have a soft spot in my heart for novels that are deceptively simple or straight-forward, and for plots that take their sweet time unraveling their secrets. I appreciate the nuance, the seduction, of well-shaped characters and quiet implications. In certain keys, Nell Freudenberger’s new novel – the chaser to her 2003 short story collection, Lucky Girls – was a well-suited match.
The Dissident certainly takes its time. Opening simultaneously in Los Angeles and Beijing, it takes almost a hundred pages for the present story to begin taking shape. Our dissident is a young man who comes to Los Angeles with his reputation preceding him – his work as a performance artist in Beijing’s edgy East Village in the 90’s, his working class background, his imprisonment for defiance of the government. He arrives in Los Angeles on a cultural exchange, to be the guest of the wealthy Travers family and work on new projects, as well as have his seminal work shown at the University. As a guest of the Travers, he’s also slated to teach art at an exclusive girls’ prep school where Olivia Travers attends.
But even as the Travers family is stumbling from one domestic trauma to another – young Max being caught with a gun, well-heeled matriarch Cece and her brother-in-law Phil’s affection for each other – it’s the dissident, Yuan Zhao, that carries with him the most baggage and controversy. So Freudenberger, in an effort to get everyone’s worthy voice heard, hops gently from the dissident’s first-person narrative into the other adults in the story, but their stories are respectfully cast in an oddly intimate third-person light. There’s Cece, with her angelically-intentioned need to find comfort and a purpose for everyone without doing the same for herself; Phil, returned from his own East Coast exile after ten years and trying to shake off the Peter Pan complex that’s kept him rudderless and in love with his brother’s wife; Joan, sister of Phil and Gordon Travers who seems to serve the sole purpose of being too jealous of Phil and too inquisitive of the dissident.
Sounds like it’s getting loud in there, doesn’t it? Well, perhaps. Freudenberger has an overflowing cup of intricate, worthwhile stories in the novel. But it’s Yuan Zhao’s that we’re most drawn to, perhaps because that’s what drew Freudenberger. There are deceptions and complications lying directly beneath the surface of this quiet man and his tumultuous past – he tells us so, at the very beginning. “In order to keep lying convincingly,” he confides, “and hold on to your sanity, it helps to have a private place where you are simultaneously either speaking or writing down the truth.”
We’re holding it. The novel, intrinsically, is the dissident’s shedding of myths and misunderstandings. As he navigates the unknown waters of teaching at St. Anselm’s and his misplaced affections for his star artistic pupil – a Chinese-American girl named June – he is telling us about the rise and fall of performance art in the East Village. As he watches the fraught dance between Cece and Phil, he tells us about his cousin X, who’s standing as an artist he both worships and despises, and in whose shadow he stands. As he struggles with creating anything of merit on the sunny West Coast, he talks about the heartbreak of his first love, Meiling, and her inextricable ties to those heady artistic days.
So here’s the problem – the novel is a mystery couched in a domestic drama. Ultimately, there is something we don’t know, or understand, about Yuan Zhao. It’s a problem of translation, a miscommunication, but the desire to share across this foreign boundary is there and our dissident is letting it leak slowly, deliciously, into plain English. But first, there is Cece’s unhappiness, and Joan’s envy, and the children’s indifference. There is a story there, some of it moving and relatable, but there was a glitch in the production.
Because as much as Freudenberger has cast Yuan Zhao as the foreign element in the Travers’ life, he never quite integrates, and as a result, we never quite invest in his presence and the effect it has. Rather, like immigrants seeking out their own, we race to hear more of the quiet unfurling of the Beijing story – what really happened? Who is X? And who, ultimately, is Yuan Zhao?
I said I had a soft spot for the seduction of a good novel. It’s true – the story the dissident unravels for us is as gripping as any good mystery. It’s the more straightforward story that’s bound and packaged with Yuan Zhao’s that I found too blunt, too unblended, to flow gracefully alongside it. If the truth about the dissident was the alluring dance that Freudenberger masterfully choreographed, then the Travers and all their messy domesticity felt too much like a scratch on the record.