The Book Club

Feast or Stir-Fry?

Dear Jim,

No, alas: You aren’t too harsh. I happen to have hated Becoming Madame Mao rather less than you did. The first half pulses with a decent page-turner energy, and though I know what you mean about Anchee Min’s flat sentences, I like it that she’s crazy for metaphors and similes, and the whacked comparisons that she pulls off on nearly every page kept me going even when her ideas got on my nerves. “I follow the man, my heart a rabbit in a bag,” she says of one of Madame Mao’s early lovers. A rabbit in a bag–that’s some economical, weirdly vivid prose. Sometimes, it’s true, Min’s mind-pictures make you gasp and giggle, they land with such a thud. See the scene on Page 171, where a literary critic tries to tell Mao his ideas aren’t as original as he thinks: “Sir,” the critic insists, “you’re stir-frying an overnight dish!” In places like this, the novel could be a negligible kung fu movie dubbed in a hurry by my 6-year-old niece. But at least on this level of language Min kept me guessing; there’s a writer in there somewhere (albeit an unfocused one), and an unpredictable mind.

Still, all along I suspected someone more thoroughly grounded in recent Chinese history would find the book frustrating. I know the basic outlines of that history, but not much more, and even I could tell there’s a whole lot of stir-frying of overnight dishes going on. We may differ over how much this matters. At her very best, Anchee reminds me of a less disciplined, poor man’s Joan Didion–i.e., someone who excels at taking a well-covered story (the Patty Hearst saga, the rape of the Central Park jogger) and highlighting all the comic, ominous, and otherwise paradoxical details that don’t always come out in the straight historian’s version. The point isn’t so much to present new material as to evocatively rearrange what’s already known–to make the reader experience it again, with new (but, hopefully, subtly rendered) insight.

So I’m open to this kind of thing. On the other hand, it seems significant that Didion’s suggestive essays are almost always more powerful than her schematic novels–and something similar is at work with Becoming Madame Mao. Whenever I stopped thinking of it as strange, episodic nonfiction and tried to experience it as a novel, it came up, as you said, “a loser.” A good novel always reserves some of its mystery. But Min explains Jiang’s and Mao’s behavior too easily, too often, in psychotherapeutic terms so reductive it’s a scandal. There are sentences in this book (“No one in China ever imagined that Mao would be capable of mass destruction simply over his jealousy of someone’s talent,” or “She was in it to get close to the man she loved but ended up losing herself”) that make it very hard to take Min seriously as a thinker, historian, or imaginative artist.

She really seems to argue (another thing a novel shouldn’t so obviously do) that what brought on the Cultural Revolution was low self-esteem. I think we can agree that this idea is worse than stupid. I don’t want to exoticize things here–to get hung up on the differences between the Eastern mind and the Western mind and so on. But I was struck by how familiar, and how crassly, dumbed-downedly American some of Min’s psychology sounded. All week long I’ve looked forward to asking you: How common is this kind of therapeutic language in China? Is it something Min would have picked up in our poor confused country? I’d also liked to tap your expertise on the hovering specter of Buddha, whom Min suggests Mao wants to incarnate. And on a lighter, cruder note, I just have to ask: What is up with all the farting?!! There’s that scene where Fairlynn, one of Jiang’s rivals for Mao’s affection, farts and then tries to cover it up. And when Premier Zhou is sick with pancreatic cancer, as a touching final display of loyalty he dies reciting Mao’s poem “No Need To Fart.” Does flatulence play some special role in Chinese culture, or is this another strange bugaboo of Min’s?

Please, enlighten us.

All best,