IN CHINA, the word is Tao -- "The Way": an ancient system of wisdom and liberation of the spirit. It was devised and reluctantly revealed to the world 25 centuries ago by Lao-tse in his slender, holy book the Tao Te Ching -- distilled poetry of the higest order; an indefinitely simple, infinitely subtle guide to living at peace; a theology in which no god is named but a "way," a process (the eternal interaction of yin and yang) is revealed.
From the Tao, another book was devised by many hands in the dim past: the I Ching or "Book of Changes." It divides the realities of life into 64 basic situations with many possible refinements and variations for each. In it, a person with the right kind of vision can read the storyof his life and some believe they can read the future. From it, as David Payne demonstrates, a writer can draw the raw material of a fascinating first novel.
In America, the Tao has an exact homonym that is also a curious, inexact equivalent: the Dow, short for Dow Jones, the daily fever chart of ups and downs in the American economy, the constantly shifting chronicle of a nation's hopes and fears. Tao and Dow are both enigmatic, ambiguous; they are Rorschach structures into which you stare for hidden meanings and see, ultimately, the recesses of your own soul.
Can the Tao provide a key to the Dow? Can the I Ching be used to master the mysteries of the stock market? Is there more affinity between Tao and Dow than the accident of a polyglot rhyme? This is the central question raised and answered with appropriate sublety and ambiguity, in Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street.
The novel, with its glorious style and rich profusion of detail, should remind readers of the time, fading into memory, when the works of John Barth began to burst on the literary horizon. It is, for all its length, a book to be read twice -- first to be gulped down in great chunks during sleepless nights; later to be sipped slowly, savoring details, like a well- brewed cup of tea.
It tells the story of Sun I, a sort of Chinese Parsifal, raised in a monastery, who comes to lower Manhattan seeking his personal equivalent of the Holy Grail. He is the son of a Chinese woman who died giving him birth and an American flyer, a Flying Tiger, who simply flew away when the fighting was over. What begins as a quest for his father becomes a pursuit of something less definable -- knowledge, power, perhaps himself, though he comes from a tradition in which the "self" is ideally formless.
SUN I was raised as a student of the Tao -- and was on the verge of becoming a Taoist monk when the mystery of his parentage was revealed to him. The first part of the Confessions explores this background in beautifully precise detail; it has a flavor as pungent as the cuisine of Sichuan, the Chinese province from which he set out to explore the American half of his roots.
In part two Sun I reaches America after years of wanderings and painful learning in the school of hard knocks. He is an illegal alien, having arrived as a merchant seaman on a ship that carried heroin hidden inside Tibetan statues. He jumps overboard, swims ashore through the corrosive waters of New York Harbor, then wanders around the financial district marveling at the Western myths and philosophies embodied in the electronic images of the Big Board and the stained- glass images of Trinity Church.
Finally, he finds Chinatown, a little bit of home in this strange landscape; he rents a room on Mulberry Street, within walking distance of Wall Street, and proceeds to break his Taoist vows -- with a neighbor's daughter and, more subtly, in the stock market. Within a week, he has become a messenger in the Stock Exchange and a disciple of the maverick broker Aaron Kahn, from whom he learns the disciplines of yet another esoteric "way" called chutzpah. "I wish to understand the workings of the Dow," he explains. "I have no interest in making money. . . The wealth I seek is of another sort."
Sun I thinks he is searching for the "delta" where Tao and Dow flow together -- an abstract, philosophical quest. But almost before he knows it, he is involved in a do-or-die effort to take over a company called America Power and Light. The name is, of course, symbolic -- a distillation of all that is yang in Taoism. But many of the names in this novel are symbols, including Sun, I and Kahn (or Kan), all of which are elements in the I Ching, the book that Sun I and Kahn use in their effort to conquer Wall Street.
Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street will remind readers of other atypical picaresque novels -- the kind that are most familiar tday -- such as Candide and Don Quixote. Like these books, it is the story of an innocent venturing out into a strange world and being exposed to corruption. Unlike the others, it is imbued with an Eastern philosophy that sees corruption not only as the end of one process but the beginning of another. For a brief period, around the center of the narrative, it embodies a curious, enlightening and disturbing view of America from the perspective of another culture. But above all, it is a story rich in incidents and characters, sometimes self-indulgent in its wordplay and manipulation of symbols, perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, but absorbing and deeply rewarding.