Visions of Paradise

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Quin's Shanghai Circus

Old Earth Books is one of the more ambitious sf specialty presses. It reprinted the entire Lensman series of E.E. Smith, and awhile ago it reprinted the entire ouevre of unknown writer Edward Whittemore, consisting of the four-novel Jerusalem Quartet and the standalone novel Quin’s Shanghai Circus. All five novels were reviewed fairly extensively in fandom, including Jeff Vandermeer reviewing them at SF Site, Gary K. Wolfe in Locus, and Anne Syndenham in The New York Review of Science Fiction.

All three were rave reviews, of the likes usually reserved for such works as the early novels of Zelazny, Varley or Le Guin. Vandermeer called Quin’s “a surreal mélange of images and characters in which each element is lucid in its madness.”

What was most interesting about the reviews was that none of them indicated any aspect of either sf or fantasy in the novels. The books are basically speculative history, or “secret history”, which is another undefined sub-genre which, to the best I can determine, differs from historical fiction as follows:

1. regular historical fiction tells the story of real historical characters “between” the famous moments which have come down in historical annals, fleshing out their lives and characters

2. “secret history” tells of imaginary events which were never revealed in the historical annals but which make everything we have learned about history merely a facade

So Quin’s is neither historical fiction, nor alternate history, since no basic premises have been changed, but it is surely speculative enough to qualify as some sub-genre of f&sf.

With three rave reviews in three publications I respected, I was anxious to sample some of Whittemore’s fiction, but I certainly was not going to dive unprepared into a four-volume series, especially when Quin’s Shanghai Circus had the more fascinating premise for me anyway, involving Chinese and Japanese history circa World War II, with part of it set during the Nanking Massacre, which is one of my major interest in recent years and the topic of my own recent nonfiction book.

It did not take me long into Quin's to realize that Edward Whittemore is one of the more extravagant writers I’ve ever encountered. Every scene, virtually every line, is written with verve, color, and thought- provoking images. Whenever a new character is introduced, we are treated to several pages describing that person’s extravagant background and experiences. Every event is enmeshed in wondrousness. There is never a dull moment, nor a single page which consists of linear but dull plot-movement.

And yet, although its constant extravagance leads to constant page-turning seeking the next wonder, this style of writing is also the novel’s main problem. Quin’s Shanghai Circus is written so much for effect it is detrimental to the novel in several ways. In the hands of a master, good writing serves to amplify both the plot and the characters. In this case, they overwhelm it so much it is very difficult to believe that anything happening beneath the surface veneer is worth taking seriously. At times I almost had to ignore the surface razz-a-ma-tazz to concentrate on the plot itself.

There is a plot to the novel, a fairly complex one involving both an underground movement to protect mainland China from the Japanese army during World War II and the relationships between a handful of characters during that era and their offspring twenty years later. The viewpoint character named Quin is the son of the title character who was one of the key people involved in the World War II espionage.

But even as the novel reached its climax, the plot never seemed as important as Whittemore’s attempt to pile wondrous scene on top of wondrous scene. The novel’s two high points–the depiction of the Nanking Massacre and the Shanghai Circus itself–were so enveloped by over-the-top writing they had the effect of both repulsing me with their grotesqueries and holding my attention like a raging fire that is impossible to look away from. Both scenes have the effect of raising the novel’s incredibility level even higher than previously, doing more damage to the believability of the plot itself.

So I finished reading Quin’s Shanghai Circus in a similar mode as finishing a tasty dessert, feeling as if I’d eaten lots of cream and sugar but no real substance. I enjoyed the experience, and I was pleased I had read the book, but it did not convince me to wade through the four-volume Jerusalem Quartet, since a single volume of extravagant fluff was more than sufficient for me.

But my thoughts kept drifting back to those rave reviews. Pleasant though the reading experience had been, it was light-years removed from Zelazny/Varley/ Le Guin as I had been [mis]lead to believe. Had I missed something in the reading? Or in the reviews themselves? I unabashedly admit I am not a scholar on the level of a Gary K. Wolfe, or a talented writer like Jeff Vandermeer. What had they seen in the novel that I had not? Curious, I returned to all three reviews and read them a second time (which is always an interesting experience after having read the novel in question).

While Gary Wolfe praised the novel, his specific comments were limited to its inventiveness. The same with Vandermeer. While they described the characters and the plot, neither actually praised those aspects of the novel. Does that mean they were so awed by Whittemore’s circus of wonders that they also lost credibility in the novel’s plot structure?

As for Anne Sydenham, she had more specific comments that went way beyond infatuation with the novel’s wonders. She claimed it “captures the essence of the Orient” and captured “an understanding of its main philosophical concepts and cultural practices.”

I chuckled at that comment for three reasons: 1. Whittemore lived in the far East for several years, so he certainly should have absorbed some of its essence and concepts.

2. How did Sydenham know he captured that essence and concepts accurately? Is she a student of East Asia? Such a comment can only be taken seriously if we know something of her own expertise in making it. Otherwise, it is possible Whittemore’s glib writing fooled her into believing what was not actually true.

3. While I am certainly not an expert in East Asian culture and philosophy, I do have some knowledge in that area, and I felt that in keeping with his over-the-top writing, some of what Whittemore portrayed swerved back and forth between factuality and stereotyping. It did not come across as a vicious or condescending stereotyping, but some elements of it were still present.

So do I recommend your reading this novel? It was fun, the writing was colorful and wondrous, and the characters quirky enough to be enjoyable. But if you’ve been lured by the positive reviews, I strongly suggest you read this relatively short stand-alone novel before wading into the considerably longer–and presumably more complex–Jerusalem Quartet.


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