Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Lisa Brackmann: China series

A Dystopian China (Lisa Brackmann 101)

Recent news that the Chinese government has allowed the artist Ai Weiwei to exhibit his work in China for the first time in years has an echo in the most recent (and probably last) installment of one of crime fiction’s most successful portrayals of China and the Chinese art world. Lisa Brackmann’s trio of Ellie McEnroe novels are not murder mysteries, though there’s plenty of murder and mystery in them. They’re more like exotic adventure novels or dystopian fantasies rooted in the everyday life of contemporary China. Each of the novels, Rock Paper Tiger (2010), Hour of the Rat (2013), and the new Dragon Day (2015), follows a similar pattern, within an overall story arc. Ellie McEnroe is an expat American, a wounded, PTSD-suffering Iraq-war veteran (having been a National Guard medic) who follows her husband to China and then, after a contentious separation from both the husband (who works for a Blackwater-type security company) and the Christian faith that they had shared, finds herself drawn into an underground culture of artists and video gamers.
The narrative is entirely in Ellie’s conversational, hip, obscene, and occasionally paranoid voice, and the novels depend entirely on the fact that her voice remains compelling and entertaining through the whole series. She’s not an action hero, she’s an ordinary woman who faces ordinary problems as well as extraordinary ones: when her landlady doubles the rent on her apartment in Beijing, it’s “more than I can afford, even if I could sell…Zhang’s art again. On my craptastic disability pension? I could maybe afford the bathroom. But hey, at least my landlady isn’t trying to kill me or have me arrested, right? At least not so far as I know.” The narrowing of point of view to Ellie’s own is also a key element in the portrait of contemporary China: she is an outsider, curious about and sympathetic toward the people and the rapidly transforming culture but always at its fringes.
Because of her character’s perspective, Brackmann’s trilogy is quite different from the other prominent crime series set in China, Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, set mostly in Shanghai. Ellie is based in Beijing but travels frequently to Shanghai and other Chinese cities and villages, but Chen’s view of the country and his city are from an insider’s perspective (albeit an insider not comfortable with the role he has been assigned, a policeman enforcing the power of the Party). Each of the Chen novels uses the story of a crime to portray not only contemporary life in China but also the inner mechanisms of the Communist Party as it exerts its power and control over individuals and the masses. Through Ellie’s eyes, however, we see only results, with the Party itself hidden behind the erratic harassment that Ellie, the artists she works with, and others suffer at the hands of the shadowy security services. The limiting of the perspective to Ellie’s own gives Brackmann’s novels a more dystopian and paranoid tone, while Qiu’s stories are more descriptive or sociological, if also a bit pessimistic about the Chinese system.
Ellie becomes an assistant and (maybe) girlfriend of an artist with a foot in both the art world and the gaming world, Zhang Jianli (whose independent attitude suggests that Ai Weiwei is a model for the character, though Ai himself is also referred to in Dragon Day). Because of that association, she finds herself on the run across China, uncertain of which of the people she encounters are friends and which are enemies — and which are possibly both at the same time. Her paranoia and the (to American eyes) exotic locales through which she passes drive the sense of both threat and adventure in the story, while the overarching government surveillance she encounters and ambiguity of good and evil, friend and foe, and contrast between reality and pretense power the dystopian surveillance and terror underlying everything that she experiences. As she walks toward a subway stop, she says, “when the door of the black Buick parked with two wheels up on the curb opens in front of me, my first reaction is just to step out of the way. Then two guys get out, two muscular guys with short haircuts and nondescript clothes. My heart pounds in my throat. Not this again. ‘Qu lioaotianr,’ one of them says. Let’s go for a chat. ‘Just for tea,’ the other says, smiling.” She’s not being arrested, just interrogated about Zhao, who has himself not been charged with a crime: “That isn’t how things work in China. First they decide you’re a threat. Then they find a label for it.” When the cops remind her that “your status here can change at any time,” she tells herself this could just mean “We’re revoking your visa and kicking you out of the country” or “We’re throwing your ass in jail. An official prison or a black jail, off the books.” Her China also takes on some of the qualities of the science-fiction end of the adventure/dystopia spectrum, in the strange landscapes and otherworldly cities she passes through. In the new book, for example, she describes a view of Shanghai’s “old, restored European buildings, science-fiction skyscrapers lurking behind them like invaders from another planet, obscured by mist.” Later, searching for one of the many art spaces popping up in Beijing’s outskirts, she sees a devastated cityscape: “The sky looks like something out of a science-fiction movie, all yellow, an alien planet. A plastic bag floats by like an airborne jellyfish.” The shadowy policemen who keep inviting her for “tea” fit right into these landscapes, and Ellie’s constant state of anxiety is in keeping with both the interrogators and the atmosphere.
The first book in the series, Rock Paper Tiger, is set into motion by a dissident from the Uighur community who is on the run from the government, and Ellie’s encounter with him puts Zhang and herself at odds with the Chinese police and security services. Zhang remains in hiding for most of the rest of the trilogy, hunted by the government and reachable by Ellie only within a Second-Life-like online game of his own design. Book two, Hour of the Rat, begins with a request from a former Army buddy to find his missing brother, leading Ellie into the investigation of the ecological horrors being visited upon the Chinese people and environment, and she is battered back and forth among the pervasive government security forces and the corporations and the activists who are at odds with each other over the environmental destruction.
Throughout the series, her role as the missing artist Lao’s official representative gives her a certain cachet among both the art community and rich collectors. She is also constantly threatened and/or rescued by a shadowy Chinese cop she calls “Creepy John,” whose motives for following her may arise from an official assignment or his own interests, as well as by violent and unscrupulous security contractors associated with her former husband. Ellie’s mother, only a voice on the phone in the first novel, arrives in China for a visit in the second and stays, adopting a Chinese boyfriend and complicating Ellie’s life because she needs to protect her mother from the forces, public and private, that hover ominously over her own tenuous life in China.
Dragon Day begins with Ellie obligated to a wealthy man, Sidney Cao, whose mania for art collecting as well as his capacity for ruthlessness were a big part of Hour of the Rat. Cao wants a piece by Lao Zhang, but the artist, still in hiding, refuses to sell anything (because the government may be building a case for tax fraud against him, a strategy that the government has indeed adopted in its attacks on artists: again, Ai Weiwei is the most prominent example, though the government has recently restored Ai’s right to travel). And now Cao also wants Ellie to give an opinion of the sleazy and sinister Marsh Brody, an American entrepreneur who is gaining influence over Cao’s overprivileged son, Gugu. In the process, she encounters Cao’s other overprivileged children as well as Uncle Yang, the father-in-law of one of them, an influential, conservative party member who is worried about changes that may come in the next party congress, and therefore responds with aggression to Ellie’s attempt to infiltrate the family.
From Cao’s ghost city, a millionaire’s dream with as yet no population, to movie studios in the south (where Gugu is trying his hand as a filmmaker), to upscale clubs and restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing, and through the contrasting neighborhoods of still-preserved traditional houses and soulless concrete developments, Ellie tries to get a fix on two deaths that occur in the circle of Cao’s children, while also trying to be certain about the motives of the slimy Brody (since she knows that if she reports her suspicions to him, Cao is fully capable of having him killed). Plus Zhao announces that he’s coming out of hiding, complicating her relations with both her wealthy patrons and the representatives of the state, from Creepy John to the police to Uncle Yang’s thugs.
After the first of the McEnroe novels, Brackmann published a stand-alone thriller, Getaway, which follows a young widow who travels to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and her getaway vacation turns into a getaway of a different sort when she finds herself caught between an attractive stranger and a violent gang. It’s an effective adventure story, of the innocent-abroad sort, but its location (while exotic) lacks the paranoid intensity and political edge of the conflict between the Chinese surveillance state, the rapacious capitalism, and the artists and ordinary citizens Ellie encounters in the trilogy.
The plots in the trilogy can meander a bit, as Ellie travels from place to place and becomes exposed to one threat after another, and her ongoing concerns (with her safety and with access to the Percocet she depends on to alleviate her war wounds) are in her thoughts and her interior monologue repeatedly, but the rambling plots and the repetition hardly matter: the point is Ellie’s voice and her view of this rapidly changing, sometimes oppressive, sometimes permissive culture. She is absolutely convincing, both as a character and as a witness to an unpredictable realm where past, present, and future constantly collide.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Stuart Neville, Those We Left Behind

--> [Since the reviews I published at the late, lamented site The Life Sentence, edited by Lisa Levy, are no longer on-line, I've decided to republish a few of them here. Here's the first one; I posted here a review of Neville's next novel, a sequel to Those We Left Behind, and it appears below.]

 Stuart Neville is one of the most distinctive of the new crime writers from Ireland and Northern Ireland. His debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast (2009), was a sort-of ghost story, featuring a former Republican hitman, Gerry Fagan, who is haunted by the 12 victims of his own political killings. In the UK, the novel was released as The Twelve — perhaps the memory of Britain’s own ghosts of Belfast dictated the change. Neville is among several current crime writers (Deon Meyer and Tana French, for instance) who use a rolling cast of characters, with a minor character in one novel emerging as the central character in the next. Gerry Fagan is still around for the second book, Collusion (2010), but the central focus has shifted to policeman Jack Lennon, whose disastrous personal and professional life plays out in the next two books as well, Stolen Souls (2011), and The Final Silence (2014). Those We Left Behind, the fifth book in the series and Neville’s sixth novel (Ratlines is a standalone historical thriller dealing with escaped Nazis in Ireland after the war published in 2014), shifts the central focus to DCI Serena Flanagan, who was dealing with the fallout of Lennon’s last case and with her own breast cancer diagnosis in The Final Silence.

On the day Flanagan returns to work after her cancer treatment, she is sidelined to desk duty but also asked to meet with Paula Cunningham, the parole officer for Ciaran Devine, being released from prison after serving time as a juvenile for a brutal murder committed when he was 12 years old, a case in which Flanagan was deeply involved. She was removed from that case before the trial (for reasons we witness during a series of flashbacks to the investigation and interrogation during that case), but was convinced that Ciaran had confessed to protect his older brother, Thomas, who would have been sentenced as an adult.

Ciaran and Thomas are entwined in a destructive (to them and to others) folie a deux, the younger brother emotionally dependent on the older, who controls him with emotional and physical abuse. After their father died in an accident and their mother succumbed to drug abuse, they were put in foster homes. The crime for which they both went to jail (Thomas for a shorter sentence, as an accessory) was the murder of their foster father.
As the flashbacks illuminate the facts of the original case, the present-day story follows Flanagan and Cunningham as they attempt to deal with the socially inept Ciaran, damaged by his time in prison, his terrible upbringing, his near-total dependence on his brother, and perhaps some degree of disability akin to autism. The reader is witness to Ciaran’s own struggles as well as the rage for revenge on the part of the murdered foster father’s surviving son. While Cunningham is trying to manage Ciaran’s parole in the face of Thomas’s reassertion of control over him, Flanagan is caught up in both her difficulties of adjusting to her status as a cancer survivor (which presents difficulties for her at home and at work) and her unprofessionally close relationship with Ciaran, who bonded with her at the time of the original investigation as a sort of mother-substitute but with troubling overtones.

The plot of Those We Left Behind follows an arc that it shares with some of Neville’s earlier books, descending inexorably toward a final confrontation. But the social situation that dominated the earlier books, the continuation of remainder of anger and violence after the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is replaced here with a more universal problem: the damage inflicted upon the most vulnerable, the children, in the collapse of troubled families. That is not to say that the children are portrayed as innocent in any way: Neville is far too subtle a writer to rely on any simple view of human nature. No one in this story, in fact, is without guilt. The resolution occurs in an appropriately barren location from the brothers’ past, in the spectral shadow of their dead mother, in a barrage of violence precipitated by Ciaran’s discovery of the limits to his festering relationship to his brother.

There is an important subplot dealing with the apparent suicide of Flanagan’s friend from a cancer support group that provides a coda showing the DCI’s investigative skills in a more favorable light than is the case in the main plot; the subplot also provides a coda that, if not positive, at least provides an example of a conventional variety of justice, something that is not possible in the case of the Devine brothers and their crimes. If their family name has echoes with any sort of divinity, it is with the old gods and the Old Testament, where stories of fraternal violence and harsh retribution abound.