The Art of Identity

By Han Ong,
who is the author of "Fixer Chao" and "The Disinherited"
Tuesday, November 7, 2006


By Nell Freudenberger

Ecco. 427 pp. $25.95

The short-story writer Nell Freudenberger has written her first novel, and it's about a well-to-do Los Angeles family who takes in a Chinese political artist for a year-long residency. Although the novel is called "The Dissident" and interlaces a first-person account by this artist with its third-person narration, the book comes fully alive only when the family appears in view.

Yuan Zhao, the dissident, begins the book, filling us in on his recent history, which twines around the story of his cousin, a more famous artist known for reasons of political safety as X. Already something is off. It's not only that he peppers his stories with clues of some personal secret but also that the accounts themselves, though rich in detail and filled with accurate transliterations from the Chinese, do not add up to a wholly convincing person. Freudenberger persuasively puts across both the pettiness of Chinese daily life and the let's-put-on-a-show excitement of a burgeoning Beijing art scene, but there is such a thing as spirit, and despite all her research, she has no access to that of the main character. At times, Yuan seems nothing more than a walking catalogue raisonne: Fact follows incident follows description; the light behind his eyes is always of the same evenness.

But then the Travers family comes on the scene, and the light starts getting more dappled and more varied. Cece Travers, Yuan's hostess, is 40-something, the mother of two, and despite an affair a decade ago, has reconciled herself to a sexless marriage with Gordon, a psychotherapist more passionate about his amateur genealogical sleuthing than about her. Cece is the hub of a shimmering network of family members each with his or her own small but meaningful predicament, and it is a pleasure to turn from the blandness of Yuan's narration to this alert, nimble, effortlessly assembled world of early-21st-century American manners and mores.

The Travers family, being upper middle class, super-liberal and Southern Californian, seems at first ripe for comedy. And one could be forgiven for thinking, based on nothing more than a rough outline of the book, that the foreigner's cohabitation with them had been jury-rigged to yield the raucous, if easy, farce of (as the book's jacket puts it) "cultures in collision." But Freudenberger is a gentler, more generous, more expansive writer than that. Thank goodness, or we would have, instead of the poignant, full creation that is Cece Travers, some bubblehead gorgon waiting for her cross-cultural comeuppance.

Cece's teenage son, Max, has a Latina girlfriend who lives in Echo Park, infamous for its gang warfare. The two met while Max was doing community service after being caught by the cops with a gun in his car. The Traverses' other teenager, Olivia, has just become friends with a popular girl who is a shoplifter and a snob. As heavy as this sounds, Freudenberger's touch is light. She arrays these developments as merely two among many plates in the banquet of Cece's life. This has to do, I think, with the modesty of her prose -- a skillful modesty that, like Cece Travers herself, seeks to submerge a roiling world underneath an exterior of calm.

Cece is the book's miracle, and I dreaded leaving her to return to Yuan Zhao. To be fair, there is a short stretch in the middle when the artist does indeed come alive. Plopped down in a private girls' school, where he teaches as part of his artist's residency, he is saved from an existence that increasingly comes to seem, as the novel progresses, just a series of items to be checked off a list on the way to the book's final revelation. As for that revelation, Freudenberger keeps dropping coy hints: "I was not meant to be a dissident"; "I have always been impressionable, skilled at mimicry"; "I am . . . a brilliant copyist." And that's just on the first page.

It could be that Freudenberger undertook a first-person account by Yuan because she is sensitive to the bad taste of trotting out an "other" to serve as a catalyst for the personal transformation of affluent Americans, whose predicaments are then put in the foreground. She wanted Yuan to have equal weight. This scrupulousness deserves praise, even if, in the end, the experiment is not wholly successful.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company