Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Dissident

Nell Freudenberger's one of those hot new authors - gorgeous and brilliant and young. Her book of short stories, Lucky Girls, came out in 2003 to critical acclaim. I read it then and liked it, although I can't really remember it very well now. She sparked a lot of gossip from other artists and even the coined phrase, "schadenfreudenberger," which, as far as I can tell, means "an author you hope will suck but who, you must grudgingly admit, is actually pretty good." Guess who? Curtis Sittenfeld of Prep was one of the admirers who made that grudging admission in Salon, although it was obviously hard for her to do without mentioning the Iowa Writers Workshop over and over again and doing some serious name-dropping along the way.

Freudenberger's latest (by which I mean 2nd) book is The Dissident, a book about culture clash in Los Angeles, when a wealthy family hosts a Chinese artist for a year while he creates new work and teaches art at an exclusive private school. The book bounces back and forth between previous events in China involving a group of performance artists and present events in LA. The interactions and creative process of the Chinese artists must be at least loosely based on the actual artistry of the Gutai Group, Japanese performance artists of the 1960s and 70s. Through conversation of the artists, Freudenberger raises (somewhat awkwardly) various questions related to performance art - such as who the author ultimately is (photographer or performing artist?) or what the art is (the photograph or the performance?).

A good deal of The Dissident has to do with cultural and racial interactions, as the wealthy (Caucasian) mother of the central family struggling to relate to both her Chinese guest, her son's less affluent, African American girlfriend, and an immigrant student at the private school in a politically correct way. This very struggle, or need to strive toward political correctness, illustrates her discomfort with those outside her social strata. Although a kind woman, this central character suffers in her relatively isolated world, unable to really connect with those around her.

Ultimately I found the plot rather dull and the soi-disant twist unsurprising. Many of the themes that Freudenberger slips into this book are explored much more fully and wonderfully in Zadie Smith's masterpiece, On Beauty, which is one of the more stunning books I've had the pleasure of reading in the past few years. Smith's deeper understanding of the artistic and racial issues led not only to greater insight into those important matters, but also to a much more satisfying read.


Sonya Worthy said...

Hi Kelly
Thanks for your message. What a great blog yours is! Hope you are well.

Sonya Worthy said...

I just added a link to you, too : ).