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The Dissident


The Dissident

There are writers who claim to be more comfortable (and readable)
when working in a specific format. Raymond Carver was championed
for his quick and dirty yet immensely powerful short stories, while
a writer like Orhan Pamuk is known for his captivating and
expansive full-length fiction. Then there are those who try their
hand at both and find that they are just as adept at creating one
as they are at creating the other. With a highly acclaimed
collection of short stories (LUCKY GIRLS) under her belt, and this
slightly longer than average novel recently published to mostly
rave reviews, Nell Freudenberger seems to be one of those versatile
authors who can shine in either realm.

THE DISSIDENT is both a multilayered story meant to entertain its
audience and a meandering exposé on the very nature of art,
truth and perception. As expertly noted by one of its central
narrators, Yuan Zhao, while it "might seem to be a story about
politics and art and even death, it will touch on those topics in
only the most superficial ways." Instead, it is "a story about
counterfeiting, and also about the one thing you cannot
counterfeit." Right from the beginning, Freudenberger establishes
(through Zhao's words) that not everything is what it seems to be
and that readers should be aware of this before embarking on their

The novel opens as the man who refers to himself as Yuan Zhao (the
"dissident" of the book's title) has just moved to Los Angeles from
China to perfect his craft and integrate himself into American
culture. He has accepted a teaching position at the exclusive St.
Anselm School for Girls in Beverly Hills, where he hopes to
instruct fledgling artists on the intricacies of traditionalist
Chinese painting. According to a Taipei Times article (and much to
the excitement of the school and his host family), Yuan had been a
member of an ultra-radical group of artists in the East Village of
Beijing, and was twice imprisoned for his avant-garde approach to
digesting and reinterpreting both Western and Eastern artistic
practices and for advocating a revolutionary style of artistic
expression. In America, he hoped to distance himself from his
volatile reputation and Chinese censorship in order to create a new
and impressive body of work. Or so it might seem...

Yuan's upper-middle-class host family is a collection of ruddy
characters who, like the dissident, each hold secrets of their own.
Cece is perhaps the book's most developed character, with a depth
and deep sincerity that is both generous and heartbreaking to
behold. She is a doting mother to her two teenage children --- the
girlishly popular Olivia who attends St. Anselm and the typically
sullen Max --- and a good wife to her stiff and sexless
psychiatrist husband, Gordon. Good, aside from the clandestine
affair she's been having on-again, off-again with Gordon's
feeble-minded brother, Phil, who can't seem to make heads or tails
of his own life, despite a deceptively healthy relationship with
Aubrey --- his girlfriend back in New York --- and a screenwriting
deal he just closed on a play he wrote based on his indiscretions
with Cece.

Other minor characters include Joan, Gordon's supposedly successful
but somewhat ingratiating younger sister whose writing career never
seems to please her and who consequently is always on the lookout
for the next lead (translation: Yuan's "real" story); June, Yuan's
most talented student and the only character in the book who seems
to possess true inner strength, vision and self-awareness; and X,
Yuan's mysterious cousin back in China who was a forerunner in the
East Village movement and an implacable influence on Yuan in more
ways than one.

Most of the plot is a back-and-forth saga between the characters as
they fumble to communicate and understand each other's intentions.
Gordon and Cece's marriage is a sham and ultimately crumbles,
despite their best efforts to stay together for the kids. Cece and
Phil dance madly (and pathetically) around their affection for each
other, leaving Aubrey to finally ditch Phil in a fit of desperation
and long-needed self-preservation. Joan putters doggedly yet
emptily after her story on Yuan. And Yuan --- well, that mystery is
finally revealed.

Freudenberger is a true master at depicting the fragility and
complexity of relationships. In both LUCKY GIRLS and THE DISSIDENT,
her characters push and pull at each other in hopes of finding
communion, understanding and acceptance. Although THE DISSIDENT
tackles broader themes when examining the political and artistic
differences inherent in Chinese and American culture, the bulk of
its impact lies in its exploration of its characters' interactions.
Some readers might wish that Freudenberger would have delved a bit
further into Yuan's past (the descriptions never quite take hold)
and that his future (the ending) wasn't so easily and neatly
resolved. (How could it be, after such thorough deception?) But
nonetheless they will be left pondering the fate of the book's
vivid characters long after the story has been told.


Reviewed by Alexis Burling on December 29, 2010

The Dissident
by Nell Freudenberger

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060758724
  • ISBN-13: 9780060758721