It’s been three years since Nell Freudenberger quieted most of her critics with a sharp collection of short stories, Lucky Girls. And yes, it speaks to the unique pettiness of the literary world that she already had critics, despite the fact that her publishing history consisted of one short story in The New Yorker’s 2001 summer fiction issue. But there were sexy photo features in Elle and Vogue; news of a book-deal bidding war; a résumé that mentioned Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; and a contributor’s note to the New Yorker story that revealed that she was 26 and happened to work at the magazine—in short, a lot of people, as Curtis Sittenfeld explained in “Too Young, Too Pretty, Too Successful,” a catty Salon article, were prepared to “hate Nell Freudenberger.”
The problem with hating Ms. Freudenberger, as Ms. Sittenfeld and others grudgingly admitted, was that Lucky Girls was good (although this was also another reason to hate her). In places, it was really good. The five stories in the collection were about privileged but displaced young women, battling isolation abroad while families fell apart back home. For a generation of students and young adults who gather “experiences” in foreign countries like an obscure form of currency, Ms. Freudenberger’s depictions said something about what it is—and what it is not—to be an American abroad: “Americans could go all over the world and still be Americans,” Zubin, an Indian SAT tutor, observes in one story, “they could live just the way they did at home and nobody wondered who they were, or why they were doing the things they did.”
Though set in exotic locations—Bangkok, New Delhi, Bombay—the stories in Lucky Girls did not depend on cultural dislocation for their punch. The “language gap” between Americans and their foreign hosts concerned Ms. Freudenberger primarily as a metaphor for deeper miscommunications between mothers and daughters and husbands and wives. In a characteristic instance of warring vocabularies, a New York mother, Alice, tries to discover what exactly her daughter Mandy, working with AIDS babies in Thailand, really means by the word “rape”:
“‘It was a misunderstanding,’ [Mandy] said. ‘It was a cultural thing, actually.’ And when Alice expressed skepticism about the need for cross-cultural understanding with rapists, Mandy said, ‘He’s not a rapist.’
“‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘but if he raped you, he is a rapist.’
“And Mandy said, ‘Don’t call him that, Mom. He’s my boyfriend.’”
It was Ms. Freudenberger’s superb ear for family dynamics, rather than her unpretentious travel writing, that allowed readers of Lucky Girls such bracing access to the emotional lives of her characters. How perplexing, then, that in Ms. Freudenberger’s debut novel, The Dissident, her ear seems to have failed her. The novel, though concerned with themes similar to those of her previous work, indulges in stock reflections on cultural misunderstanding and generic domestic melodrama.
Part of the problem is that Ms. Freudenberger, who drew on her experiences teaching English in India and Thailand for her first collection, seems to rely in her novel preponderantly on research. Her protagonist and part-time narrator is an avant-garde Chinese artist who lands a residency in Beverly Hills, teaching studio art at St. Anselm’s School for Girls and boarding with a privileged but dysfunctional family named Travers. To tell the story of what happens to him in Los Angeles, the dissident insists, he has to tell another story, of his teenage years in a subversive Beijing artistic clique formed in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square uprisings.
This backstory is told mostly through the kind of exposition better suited to textbooks than novels. The upshot is that, in June of 1994, Chinese police raided and destroyed the enclave for political reasons, a crisis foreshadowed in the dissident’s personal life by the discovery two months earlier that his university girlfriend and his cousin were having an affair. These episodes are meant to connect—though the ties are discouragingly tenuous—to a string of events set off when a ragged Chinese student named June Wang wanders into the dissident’s honors art class at St. Anselm’s.
If Americans can live “just the way they did at home” all over the world, Ms. Freudenberger suggests that the opposite is true for the dissident, who arouses suspicion—or, worse, an overbearing sensitivity—wherever he treads. At school, a jealous student accuses him of sexual misconduct. Chez Travers, the matronly Cece overdoes her welcome and her novelist sister-in-law, Joan, digs intrusively into the dissident’s past.
The past is a delicate matter for the dissident, but he quickly discovers that he has little to fear from the rest of the Travers family—they’re kept busy by their own problems. Cece and her distant husband, Gordon, are discussing a divorce. Their teenage son, Max, has been arrested for driving with a gun in his car. Their daughter, Olivia, may be anorexic. And Gordon’s estranged brother Phil—who is also Cece’s former lover—has shown up unexpectedly from New York.
If these situations sound predictable, it’s because they are. Still, when describing the Travers family life, Ms. Freudenberger displays flashes of the insight and sensitivity that distinguished her previous writing. It is no accident that the novel’s most eloquent scene occurs after the dissident has gone home: when Cece and Gordon, left alone, banter over the consequences of their imminent separation. Gordon, a professor, explains that he would like to stay in the house until the end of the school year, because it’s a “convenient commute” to his office. Cece is confident enough to translate:
“She had gotten so used to the way Gordon spoke; when he said the house was a ‘convenient commute,’ what he meant was that he loved it. What would he do, if he couldn’t go out every afternoon and check the temperature of the pool?”
One senses here a reserve of perspicacity that fails to illuminate the more diligently explored relationships in the book. Indeed, the novel slides like a magnet toward the themes that resonated most powerfully in Ms. Freudenberger’s earlier fiction—the grim details of a dissolving marriage, the emotional innuendo that lurks behind every sensible compromise.
But Ms. Freudenberger strays from these themes when she allows the dissident to take over a significant portion of her story. He’s an uninspired wordsmith for whom English is a second language: At the American consulate in Wulumuqi Nan Lu, the dissident passes guards who are “stone-faced”; his stomach “is growling” and his anxiety is “similar to stage-fright”; everyone in line is quiet like “students in an examination.” Yes, it sounds like a foreigner attempting to communicate in colloquial English, but the tax on the reader is too high.
The dissident’s trip to the visa office also furnishes a good example of Ms. Freudenberger’s penchant for research overload. As he waits in line, we learn about all the different kinds of visas the dissident could have applied for (“O” visa, “J-1 Exchange Visitor” visa, etc.). We learn that “these days” the U.S. visa section is “located in the five-star Portman Ritz-Carlton Hotel complex, but at that time they were still operating out of the old consulate.” We learn that the old consulate was really a house that used to belong to the Qing finance minister. We learn that there are ginkgo trees and frogs.
The passage, like so much contemporary writing set abroad, is strangled by irrelevant information—irrelevant not because it is uninteresting (although in this case it is), but because it fails to illuminate anything significant about the character. By the end of the novel, the dissident strikes us as little more than a funnel through which pours useless detail. Ms. Freudenberger’s research yields some compelling ruminations on Chinese politics and art, but nothing that saves her protagonist from falling flat on the page. Publicity materials for the novel promise the reader will be “introduced to an influential subculture of artists living in contemporary Beijing.” This is precisely the case: The reader is introduced to “a subculture” (two subcultures, actually, if you count Beverly Hills)—but nary a human being.
Nell Freudenberger, like the traveling students she delicately satirized in Lucky Girls, seems here to subscribe to the idea that the “culture clash” represented by a Chinese dissident in Beverly Hills is significant in itself. But she never gets around to explaining why. This is disappointing, especially coming from a writer whose previous work suggested that cultural comedy would be her beginning rather than her endpoint.
Jon Baskin has written for Salon and Bookforum.