People keep their secrets best not when they try to guard them jealously from others, but when others simply don’t want to know them. That might be the moral of Nell Freudenberger’s first novel, “The Dissident,” whose principal characters remain, on various levels, fundamentally unknown to each other. Freudenberger herself, previously known for the story collection “Lucky Girls,” leaps into the upper quartile of American novelists with this impressive debut, whose colorful characters and comical misunderstandings can’t conceal a certain philosophical chill.
First and most obviously, the man known as Yuan Zhao, the putative Chinese dissident artist of the title — whose visit to Los Angeles sets the novel’s plot in motion — remains for most of the book an enigmatic figure. Even though he serves as Freudenberger’s narrator for significant stretches, telling us about his childhood in the city of Harbin and his student days alongside his famous cousin in the art scene of Beijing’s “East Village,” the visitor is as fuzzily focused as the thrice-photocopied photograph of Yuan in an old Taiwanese newspaper story others use to identify him.
Freudenberger is clearly taking a big risk by, first, writing a book with a Chinese man as a principal character and, second, making him — the word fits in this case — inscrutable. But the mystery of Yuan Zhao is not laziness or ethnic cliché. It’s central to her design, and if “The Dissident” has its flaws, careless construction is not among them. Indeed, this is an ingenious and strikingly mature book, entirely free of the callow attitude and self-absorption one associates with first novels. You could say that Freudenberger likes her characters, up to a point. But more important, she respects their independence, and does not presume that because she created them she understands or can explain everything they do. It takes some novelists their entire careers to learn that.
Yuan’s hostess in L.A. is Cece Travers, an attractive, overly chatty, upper-middle-class wife and mom who’s about as un-inscrutable as Americans can get. She too has a secret, and not an especially well-guarded one. Cece and her husband, a gentle, reserved psychiatrist named Gordon, haven’t had sex in years. Her emotional and erotic capital are completely tied up in a tormented, on-and-off, long-running relationship with Gordon’s feckless brother, Phil. Gordon officially doesn’t know about this affair (if that’s what it is), and neither do Cece and Gordon’s teenage kids, the depressed and sullen Max — recently arrested with a gun in his car — or the popular and outgoing Olivia. But the more time we spend with the Travers family, the more it seems that everyone is ignoring the obvious, pretty much by mutual agreement.
Something similar is happening with Yuan Zhao, who has arrived on a cultural exchange program, both to create his own work and also to teach art at St. Anselm’s, the exclusive Beverly Hills girls school where Olivia is a student and Cece is a counselor. According to that news clipping from the Taipei Times, Yuan had been imprisoned by Chinese authorities in 1989 and again in 1994; he became a leader among the generation of avant-garde Chinese artists who absorbed and reprocessed the entire history of Western modernism, from abstract painting to conceptual and performance art, in the course of a few years.
But the Yuan who shows up in Beverly Hills is reluctant to talk about Tiananmen Square, or his time in prison, or to discuss the Beijing East Village scene — broken up by the authorities in 1994 — in any detail. He seems totally uninterested in postmodern or experimental art; he wants to teach the St. Anselm’s girls traditional Chinese brush-stroke technique, and his new original work turns out to be a fastidious copy of the scroll painting “Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao in the Tiantai Mountains,” by the medieval Chinese master Zhao Cangyun.
Sharp-eyed readers will solve the mystery of Yuan Zhao, at least in its general outlines, fairly quickly. But the essentially mysterious nature of Freudenberger’s characters, and the allure of their interlocking but isolated personal histories, goes well beyond whether they are who they claim to be, or whether their entire family life is built on duplicity and hypocrisy.
“The Dissident” is an admirably ambitious novel, with its colliding clusters of characters, its complicated chronology and its three narrative voices (by my count), and Freudenberger handles its challenges with few missteps. Just after Yuan Zhao (or whoever he is) moves into the Traverses’ pool house, Phil shows up unannounced from New York, with a rare Namibian primate named Fionnula but without Aubrey, the lawyer girlfriend who is hoping to drag him to the altar. Phil is one of those surprisingly convincing rakish horndogs that contemporary female novelists seem to relish, constantly checking out long legs, perky breasts and heart-shaped asses; he wouldn’t feel out of place in a book by Francine Prose or Joyce Carol Oates. Phil is supposedly in L.A. because he’s just gotten a million-dollar screenplay deal, to everyone’s amazement. And they don’t even know that his “big summer movie” will be about a guy who’s in love with his brother’s wife.
Perhaps inevitably, Freudenberger’s reconstructions of the vanished world of Beijing’s early-’90s East Village (as remembered by Yuan) have the feeling of careful research and risk avoidance; they aren’t half as vivid as her witty rendering of American bourgeois family life, circa 2000. Some of the minor characters, like Gordon and Phil’s writer sister Joan, Max’s too-sexy Latina girlfriend Jasmine or Olivia’s precociously bitchy gal-pal Emily, are contrivances or splotches of color, rather than people.
But “The Dissident” is always compulsively readable despite its length; Freudenberger has the kind of old-fashioned storytelling gift you can’t learn in any MFA program. She hops confidently from one story line to another, taking us through Yuan’s doomed teaching career at St. Anselm’s and the arrival of the beautiful and supremely talented June Wang, his only Asian student, to the history of Phil and Cece’s long-simmering lust, to Aubrey’s abrupt arrival just before Thanksgiving dinner, to a cagey recounting of such legendary Yuan Zhao performance works of the ’90s as “Something That Is Not Art” and “Drip-Drop.”
“The Dissident” concludes with a conventional happy ending — arriving, I have to say, totally out of the blue — for one of its protagonists. It’s pleasing, in a television sort of way, but not faithful to the underlying spirit of Freudenberger’s work, which is, if this makes sense, both cheerful and cold-eyed. Cece, Phil and the dissident — the three characters who dominate the book — are completely unable to communicate with each other. Cece and Phil will never find out whether they could make it as a couple, since their relationship is just a sleazy-hot taboo generated by a failing marriage. Cece and Yuan’s mutual affection is real, but hopelessly corrupted by falsehood, incomprehension and cultural barriers. (As for Phil and Yuan, they barely speak; Phil jocularly calls Yuan “the Chinaman.”)
As far as I’m concerned, the real ending of “The Dissident” arrives when these three atoms collide and bounce off each other into deep space, returning to their essential state of loneliness. The question of whether this represents an accurate view of human beings or is just, say, an epiphenomenon of late capitalist culture is worth asking, but let’s set it aside. In that light, Freudenberger (who is 31) looks like the polar opposite of the stereotypical young novelist, who professes a powerful faith in love, death, war, salvation or some other grand abstraction. Sticking an audience-pleasing romantic subplot into the book so it will pay improbable dividends in the last chapter feels like a cop-out. In the future, I hope this gifted writer, still early in the process of becoming herself, will stay true to her flinty heart.