Nell Freudenberger is unquestionably a gifted writer and will, if we’re fortunate, become a major one. Her story collection Lucky Girls, published when she was 28, earned ink from Vogue and Elle and hardware from PEN, and if Marisha Pessl has since eclipsed her as lit-fic’s “It Girl,” well… so much the better. Slipping out of the prurient heat of emergence and into the relative tedium of an established reputation can only be good for the work, right?
In this case, yes and no. The Dissident shows off many of the traits that endeared Lucky Girls to reviewers: a clean prose line, a facility with dialogue, a Hogarthian ability to sketch a character, and, most substantively, an interest in the bad connections, missed connections, and disconnects that separate West and East and lover from beloved. And as a novel should, it broadens the writer’s palette. Yet The Dissident sometimes feels beholden to Freudenberger’s brilliant early notices, and overly eager to please.
The set-up is promising: Yuan Zhao, a Chinese conceptual artist once jailed for his art, gets invited to spend a year teaching at a private high school for girls in Los Angeles. His hosts are to be the Traverses, the kind of semi-functional affluent family much beloved of American independent cinema and M.F.A. workshops. A comedy-of-manners-cum-novel-of-ideas will ensue.
Or may ensue.
Unlike many of our younger writers, Freudenberger knows how to underplay a hand. She lays out the story of her protagonist’s visit to Los Angeles with a touch so light it’s almost Austenish. Every bench, tree, and closet at the St. Anselm’s School for Girls has been named for a donor. Characters insist on referring to an outdoor space as “the Malmsted Courtyard.” A Vice Principal approaches a conflict “like a racehorse, pawing the gate, eager to demonstrate the qualities for which she’d been bred.” Thanks to such keen attention to surfaces, Cece, mother of the Travers clan (no relation to Pynchon’s Traverses), instantly comes to life, and if the pretensions of The Dissident’s Angelenos are familiar, it’s still fun to see them lampooned in set-pieces: the awkward dinner party, the dance recital. But as many of the characters – especially the men – collapse into types, the comedy is defanged. That the protagonist must, of necessity, be a cipher puts even more pressure on the supporting cast. Still, motivations remain opaque, or perhaps underimagined, and we too rarely see ourselves in these characters. Mostly we laugh at them comfortably, from afar.
We look, then, to plot to draw us in, and here The Dissident underplays as well. The most exciting writing – the freest, it seemed to me, from the need to be “literary” – takes place in China, as we learn about Yuan’s small circle of friends in Beijing’s “East Village” underground, who have in common only their hunger for the radical, even frightening liberation of honest-to-God art. By contrast, the book’s Romantic Subplot and its Big Twist feel dutiful, not to say inevitable.
As for the ideas… in the realist novel, ideas come to life when embedded in dramatic situations, and as The Dissident hurries blithely past opportunities for complication and confrontation, never dropping its tone of wry self-assurance, potentially interesting notions about the provenance of art and identity and the cultural construction thereof sit inert on the page, like notes toward an undergrad thesis.
But then suddenly, in the final pages, a brief and piercing ray of pain blazes up, like a Tolstoian candle: in the space of a single scene, Cece and Howard Travers become real. Their leave-taking has the characteristic heart-in-throat assault of a great short story, and remind us why Freudenberger’s writing stirred such excitement in the first place.
In The Dissident, she aces the basic requirements of the novel – modulation of point-of-view, slowing and speeding of time, and gradual revelation of information – with the same seeming aplomb with which she approached the short-story form. But we want less of an “approach” and more of an “attack.” Then again, perhaps Freudenberger is aware of the learning curve: in her first novel, she’s given us a protagonist who also has to live with premature accolades, and compares himself unfavorably to a more passionate alter-ego. And she’s placed him in a milieu where the pressure to succeed reaches absurd extremes.”Young writers as… good as Nell Freudenberger give us reason to hope,” the Times effused, of Lucky Girls. The Dissident will lead no one to abandon that hope – but in order to fulfill it, Nell Freudenberger will need to discover and seize those things that can’t be taught. It is enjoyable this time around to watch the young woman at the head of the class pass the critical and commercial tests put to her, but in the future, we’ll look to her to be an artist, not an art student. We encourage her to aim for the private ferocity of marks on paper, and to hell with anybody else’s gold star.