A hero in China, but status uncertain in L.A.
Nell Freudenberger's debut novel probes the creative process.
They say that behind every celebrity lurks a feeling of fraudulence, a nagging fear that all that adulation is simply not merited. Greatness, apparently, often feels like nothing more than an uneasy illusion.
It's the small and large frauds that we all create and then perpetuate that are at the heart of Nell Freudenberger's clever, readable first novel The Dissident.
The title character is Yuan Zhao, a Chinese performance artist and leader of his country's democracy movement. Having been lionized by Western academics and done time in a Chinese jail, Yuan Zhao has achieved celebrity status – at least, enough so to be granted an artist's residency in Los Angeles.
There, he is invited to become the guest of Cece and Gordon Travers. Gordon is a psychiatrist who, on the strength of one book written long ago, enjoys a cozy berth at UCLA. Cece is a worried mom who broods over her teens, the sullen (and possibly suicidal) Max, and Olivia, a young dancer who has fallen under the snarky sway of Emily, the school's meanest and most popular girl. (Emily is a nubile but nasty lass who spouts French phrases and withers adults with a single glance. "It's just that we don't like to be around people who aren't interesting – Emily can't stand anything pedestrian," Olivia explains to her hapless mom.)
Understandably, Cece's spirits are low, and they are not improved when Gordon's slacker brother Phil (with whom Cece once had an affair) suddenly reappears in their lives, having sold a screenplay expected to score as Hollywood's next blockbuster film.
Cece and Gordon's marriage, already staggering under the combined weight of ennui and disappointment, seems unlikely to survive the unveiling of Phil's secret: His screenplay is the story of his affair with Cece.
But into the midst of the Traverses' problems steps the dissident, bearing burdensome secrets of his own. He begins the novel by telling the reader that his greatest skill is his ability to mimic (which explains his very good English), and from the start he shows an aversion to creating art of any sort. The reader can't help but wonder if this man is really who he says he is – but then again, the novel asks, who is?
The story's action shifts neatly between Yuan Zhao's student days in Beijing and this uneasy L.A. sojourn. The residency requires Yuan Zhao to teach art at the private girls' school that Olivia and Emily attend, and the artist's interactions with the girls there spawn further questions about the nature of art, originality, plagiarism, and identity itself.
Which of us, this novel queries, makes an authentically original contribution in life? Gordon, who hides behind one youthful success? Phil, who recycles his own (and Cece's) life for his art? Joan, Cece's competitive novelist sister-in-law, who hopes to mine the dissident's life for a novel? The dissident himself, whose best work was performance art that now exists only in photographs that belong to someone else?
Freudenberger is a sly stylist with an eye for the pretensions of the cultured. "What did one wear to meet a dissident?" Joan, the would-be intellectual, worries. Even as an academic expounds on questions of artistic freedom at an exhibit of Yuan Zhao's work, audience members inch stealthily toward the cheese on the banquet table.
One of Freudenberger's gifts is creating characters who live and breathe and amuse. Even the novel's most minor characters are served up in deliciously observed detail, such as vice principal Laurel Diller at Olivia's school, who wears seashell jewelry and, as soon as trouble rears its head, looks "like a racehorse, pawing the gate, eager to demonstrate the qualities for which she'd been bred."
A reader cannot help but wonder if one of the novel's central dramas – Yuan Zhao's need to produce art that will validate his status with his Western hosts – was not inspired by Freudenberger's own story. The recipient of acclaim and attention for "Lucky Girls," her short-story collection, Freudenberger faced huge expectations of fresh originality in bringing out this first novel.
It is perhaps in the face of such pressure that the artist in Freudenberger also does a bit of a vanishing act. For all its skill, in the end "The Dissident" never quite delivers the punch it first seems to promise.
But it certainly does entertain, and, beyond that, it requires us to ask ourselves some interesting questions about the nature of the creative process – which might be a more humble one than we'd sometimes like to think.
"The writer moved behind [other people], like a ragpicker," thinks Joan, as she speculates on her own vocation as novelist. "She cleaned and separated their garbage, culled and collected it. She made something of their leavings...."
It's not a glamorous vision but perhaps, in the end, an accurate one.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe