The Book Club

Madame Mao, American-Style

Dear Jim,

Aha–I knew it. Actually, I didn’t know it, but thanks to you and your greater knowledge of China for confirming a couple of gut inklings I had, namely 1) that Min’s comparison of Mao to Buddha was a shallow absurdity with little iconic, philosophical, or politico-historical basis, and 2) that there isn’t enough of China–kind of a big country, kind of old, sort of different from our own–in this book. I’d like to quote from a scene near the end of Becoming Madame Mao; it’s from the paragraph right after Madame is finally arrested as an enemy of the republic, ending her improbable drive to take over the rule of China upon Mao’s death:

When the imaginary curtain comes up the actress presses herself forward. She envisions the billion-large audience cheering at the top of their lungs and waving flags. An ocean of red. The color sears her eyes. She smells the warm sun. In the music of the opera she strides. In her head, the drums and trumpets come together.

Have you ever seen or heard something like this before? I have. I’m thinking of Gloria Swanson’s judgment day at the end of Sunset Boulevard. You know: her head tilted back, brows hiked up near the top of her forehead, lips lifted in a degenerate grin as she slithers toward the camera and huskily meows, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.” What a divine scene, unprecedented in 1952 for its insightful look at the corruptions and built-in Darwinian instability of fame, as well as its cynical grasp of the audience, for whom spying on corrupt and unstable fame-mongers as they go crazy and sink into hell is often the best show in town. Five decades later, these ideas are so safe, so taken for granted in the popular culture, that Andrew Lloyd Webber could turn Sunset into a Broadway extravaganza. (Not to mention Evita, another story with similar themes and obvious parallels to Madame Mao’s.) Yet something about the cynicism of the “dangers of fame” tale and its vestigial quality of dark exposé makes some people still greet new versions as tough and novel. I think Becoming Madame Mao has more kitschy energy in the writing than you do, but like you I was amazed at how trite and steeped in fundamentally American clichés its interpretation of Jiang’s story was. Min’s Madame was neglected and abused as a child and thus trained to crave love at all costs and punish anyone who withholds it; as an adult she neither knows nor cares about politics–all she wants is for a man to stick around, and one billion people to clap when she enters a room.

I’m glad you’re here to object to the fudged history in this novel; as someone who reads and sees and writes about a lot of movies and books, I see my role in our discussion as suggesting that the all-she-wanted-was-to-be-adored-but-she-lied-too-many-times-and-betrayed-too-many-people-but-it’s-ok-because-now-she’s-going-to-be-punished-and-maybe-we-should-even-be-sad-because-she-wasn’t-just-a-monster-she-was-a-woman-too story is obvious, and worn out.

Meanwhile, I don’t want to waste this opportunity to ask you about the real Madame Mao. I’m curious, do you think she was at all attractive, physically or otherwise? A good political strategist or a fool? How would you trace the arc of her power? What feelings did she inspire in people, if any, besides fear?

Till tomorrow,