A Dystopian China (Lisa Brackmann 101)
[The review below was published on the late lamented site The Life Sentence, and since the post is no longer available on-line at the original site, I'm posting it here.]
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.