September 06, 2006
Aspiring fiction writers might want to study this debut novel, an odd, inconclusive, lyrical tale about personal and professional drifting that compels for its poetic phrasing, surprising sentence sequences and piercing look into the mind and heart of a sad, sympathetic but sly, sarcastic and savvy young woman, born into money but given to erratic, unrepentant and self-destructive behavior.
Rebecca Lee, who won a National Magazine Award for Fiction a few years ago and whose stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Zoetrope, has managed in a spare 200 pages, to yoke together by way of her 31-year-old narrator, Justine, a number of disparate settings and characters. The novel begins and ends in New York City in 1993, including a brief detour to Saskatchewan and, by way of Justine's memories, a revisiting of Beijing. Cultures don't clash in The City Is a Rising Tide so much as press their different beauties and truths on Justine, as she moves around Manhattan, frustrated and aimless. The novel excels in descriptions of the Yangtze River area and New York (Greenwich Village, Central Park, Brooklyn).
Deliberately, the author keeps Justine at some distance, showing a self-absorbed woman whose manner with most others is curt and caustic but who can also be sensitive and generous. The child of trust-fund parents who emigrated to China to do missionary work until Mao's reign of terror drove them back to the States, Justine works as a bookkeeper of sorts at a nonprofit charity called the Aquinas Foundation, run by Peter, an old friend of her parents from their China days. He is 20 years her senior, a brilliant architectural environmental designer who once worked for Nixon, a severe diabetic and the one-time lover of Justine's nurse-governess, Su Chen, who went from Mao's bed to his death camps. Moody, detached, but totally involved in building a "healing center" on the banks of the Yangtze river, he's a mix, like Justine, of cynicism and idealism — and blind to the fact that Justine has always loved him.
Justine is a shrewd observer and gets off some sharp social criticism, particularly about those who use charity as a means of self-aggrandizement — even Mother Teresa "took her money from Pol Pot, from Duvalier." She also appreciates irony: "The Chinese in love will tolerate any distance at all, said the work of the great Italo-fascist Sinophile Ezra Pound." For all her intelligence, however, Justine lacks the will to alter her behavior. Xanax, a few parties, some good food with friends, the consolation that comes from listening to the troubles of others, all these tide her over from day to day.
She remains in control of the collapsing China project, however, even after she learns that the Chinese government will be taking over the designated land for an extension of Three Gorges Dam. Protectively, she does not tell Peter about the change and embezzles funds to keep the project going and also to lend money to an old boyfriend for his screenplay. She rationalizes that she is a bit of an artist in this way, moving funds around, "shaping the world, not just supporting it."
Despite what a Chinese friend tells me are some inaccuracies in Rebecca Lee's geography, The City Is a Rising Tide comes elegantly alive in its description of the dam area, a fragile ecological wonder that Justine remembers from her childhood and that she invokes as a place where she might "retreat from the world, and become whole again, staring out at the blood red fields, and at the Yangtze, floating away alongside, serene and fast, wild and peaceful, blue-black at twilight." Ms. Lee also captures the rising tide of her narrator's stream of consciousness as it begins to overflow its riverbanks.
The City Is a Rising Tide by Rebecca Lee. Simon & Schuster, 200 pp.,$21.