Wonderful, well developed characters modeled on silly, overchewed, Oprah-certified victim-types. The victim of an alcoholic, depressive, schadenfreude-mother, the victim of a childhood kidnapping by a pedophile, the victim of an unforgiving corrections system, the victim of overwhelming emotions, overwhelming fears, overwhelming doubts, of poor parents, poor teachers, poor morals, poor taste. But magnetic and memorable, nonetheless. The woman who for no apparent reason leaves a pleasant husband and a pleasant child is a curiosity: for the police, for us. The mild mannered husband with quiet habits and no past is, likewise, unusual, and leaves us wondering.
The open-faced innocence of Anna Field’s voice offers up a ripe acoustical image of a woman artist in New York: Faith Crowl. Faith is commissioned by an old and wealthy New York City socialite to paint the ballroom of her storied mansion in trompe l’oeil. Faith accepts, reluctantly, after a heavy dose of gossip by her gay friend, Harry. As Faith paints the ballroom, the old woman becomes curiouser and curiouser. Her personality is baroque, gargoyle-like, impenetrable, suspect. Faith suspects. She looks for the truth behind the old woman’s past and finds that the woman is herself a work of art, an illusion.
Oliver August, correspondent for the Times of London in China is learning Chinese. His teacher asks him what Oliver means. Oliver responds: ‘Since a man that works on a farm was a farmer, a man who harvested olives was an Oliver’. His teacher then couples two radicals – olive (gan) and farmer ( no ). The 26 year old reporter is thereafter laughingly referred to as Farmer.
“Nobody in their right minds called themselves a farmer. Millions are fleeing the land to become city dwellers, to partake in the industrial revolution, to become richer. When I introduced myself people guffawed to each other. A foreign farmer has come to our China… !”
Oliver August is a sieve of a China in transformation from below. We get the language, the images, the words, the emotions, the slogans, the mixture of groundlessness and lawlessness, the sense that a Chinese being can rely neither on the earth nor on the sky for his limits. “Modern China was a magic mirror: you could see whatever you wanted to see…,” writes Oliver.
The country was both free and oppressed, at once anarchic and authoritarian, totally chaotic yet highly regulated.
Lai Changxing is an emblem of this new country; hence his is the story tracked by Oliver.
But alongside the story of the legendary Lai, a rogue reminiscent of America’s 19th century captains of industry, Oliver gives us the gossip, the rumours, the news. And the only way to report this news is “to get out and report what you saw yourself,” in sideways glances, from overnight trains, from hired cars driven by monks, from the streets and the restaurants…
But still more, Oliver gives us economics, politics, philosophy. Not cut and pasted out of wikipedia but lovely, incisive, pieces of thought, fresh from the sea, still smelling of fish.
The more China modernizes the more ravenous its appetite for the past becomes….
These wealthy Chinese who finally thought it safe to return from abroad “were known as sea-turtles who had finally brought home their nest eggs…”
A myo tan low is a building that scratches the sky…
A big-faced building iDam yam zi dasha is a building that gives the owner a lot of face…
Solid, sensible text hulled out of an old, heavy earth:
The farmer was a tense willowy man with a German name and a head as bald as a rock.
The farmer’s wife was fine cook and a generous woman.
Meals, too, are solid and heavy and bald: boiled ham, baked chicken, wax beans, mashed potatoes, corn fritters, brown bread, rhubarb pie.
Food centers the story and exposes economic differences. Sam’s Place is a local diner for poor white trash, where Minnesota Indians eat fried balony and jelloed fruit. The proprietor is an ex-sheriff with three children, a busy wife, and local loyalties. One of them is an old odd Indian who gives him a mission: find my son and deliver a message.
The rich, Canadian son does not want to be found. He is unmined, along with a local past, dirty, unpleasant, but rich with truth.
The skinny long legged girl with patch pockets shimmies down the fire escape to meet him, and hovers just a little bit above the ground, hanging, swinging above Castle street, in his dream, and forty years ago. After the dream, the old man wakes up, and hears the neighborhood kids destroying the neighborhood. He jumps down to the sidewalk, and shoots up and into the night at them. One of the kids dies. He sweeps up the broken glass in front of his house before he man goes to prison.
He is Tess Monaghan’s first client. She needs the business. Her second client is a sassy business woman and a liar. But Tess takes her case too.
The past comes back like a prisoner or a dream. There is no place for it, no place to put it.