Book World: Michael Dirda on 'The Shanghai Gesture' by Gary Indiana

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, June 4, 2009


By Gary Indiana

Two Dollar Radio. 207 pp. $15.50

For many readers, Gary Indiana is probably best known for having been the art critic for the Village Voice during the 1980s. But he's also been a movie actor, playwright, essayist and writer of short stories and novels; in short, a multitalented cultural figure.

That said, I initially picked up his latest book for a wholly lowbrow reason. I wanted to read "The Shanghai Gesture" because it's largely a pastiche of a Dr. Fu Manchu adventure.

Tremble, ye mortals, at the sound of that name! Yes, we're speaking of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu! The yellow peril incarnate -- the gigantic intellect with a brow like Shakespeare's and a face like Satan's, the greatest criminal mastermind of all time. During the first half of the previous century, Sax Rohmer chronicled the Devil Doctor's repeated attempts to conquer the world through one nefarious plan after another. Shocking to say, Fu once even meddled in American politics (see "President Fu Manchu"). When this fiend in human form eliminated his enemies, it was never with a mere bullet but through such sinister means as "The Call of Siva" or "The Six Gates of Joyful Wisdom." There must have been a dozen Fu Manchu adventures, and around the age of 13 or 14 I read them all.

Over the decades, Fu's schemes were consistently thwarted by Nayland Smith, often seconded by his companion Dr. Petrie. Nonetheless, the consummate Architect of Evil invariably managed to escape in each book's last chapter so that he might once again send forth his dacoits and Thuggees, his shape-shifters and Cold Men, his sheath-dressed Eurasian temptresses and all the mindless minions of the Si-Fan brotherhood. Given this xenophobia and racism, not to overlook the sheer pulpy trashiness and repetitiveness of the plots, these novels are now little read except by aging nostalgists and a few students of popular culture. But the name of Fu Manchu has nonetheless grown iconic, like that of his rough contemporaries Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan.

In "The Shanghai Gesture," Fu is once again plotting to overthrow the West. As gradually becomes clear, You Know Who -- as he is sometimes called -- has been using the small town of Land's End, England, as a laboratory, a testing ground for narcoleptic drugs, deadly cyborg insects and hideous murders. But Fu is resolutely opposed by (the slightly renamed) Weymouth Smith and Dr. Petrie, the first a trigger-happy Scotland Yard inspector, the latter a rather pathetic heroin addict. As the novel develops, this wisecracking pair track Fu to his labyrinthine South American lair, even as Petrie's friends in Land's End attempt to make sense of a sudden rash of Ripper-like mutilations. Throughout, the novel is slightly hallucinatory and slightly science fictional, half William Burroughs, half William Gibson.

It's also funny, in something of the parodic, tongue-in-cheek mode of "The Princess Bride" or "Austin Powers." At one point, Fu threatens his own cowed scientist with "the exquisite torture of the burrowing centipedes," then says that the geneticist -- or his beautiful daughter -- might be given the hideous "Zaybar Kiss," adding, "Do not ask me what it is, for I do not know. But I can summon it with the snap of my fingers. And don't imagine I cannot snap my fingers, because of my long nails. You'd be very much mistaken. It's an acquired skill. More trouble than it's worth, really, but far from impossible."

Throughout "The Shanghai Gesture," Indiana writes with a kind of rhetorical glee: "From behind those fearsome doors came the gruff, irritated howling of an Irishwoman past her prime." He indulges in campy names such as Dr. Philidor Wellbutrin and calls a mysterious ship "The Ardent Somdomite," that misspelling being a clear nod to the tragic downfall of Oscar Wilde. There are lots of other skewed allusions and in-jokes: After referring to Myanmar as "a ripe sewer," Smith adds that Burma was even worse -- the joke being that Myanmar used to be called . . . Burma. Smith then goes on to complain about "the noise. And the people" -- quoting the famous mot of Ernest Thesiger's about the Battle of the Somme. One of Fu's henchwomen is called Roswitha Klebb, an echo of Col. Rosa Klebb from Ian Fleming's "From Russia, With Love." At one point, while waiting a seemingly endless amount of time for an experiment to start, one character complains to another: "This is worse than reading Gladkov" -- i.e., Fyodor Gladkov, the author of "Cement," an uplifting Soviet novel about a cement factory.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson obviously provide the models for both Rohmer's original heroes and for Indiana's. After seeing one of Fu's victims, who has been transformed into a dried-out insect larva, Smith turns to Petrie: "In only one place on earth have I heard of evidence of this . . . de-speciesification of a human entity. We're about to do some rough travelling, Petrie. To Northwest Guyana, to be precise."

"You mean in the highlands of the Orinoco region?"

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