IN OUR AGE OF ACADEMIC NARRATIVES
littered with uber
-individualistic characters, Rebecca Lee's debut novel, The City is a Rising Tide
, is a hopeful relief. Giving works like Lee's novel a chance is the only risk we can take as readers today, without focusing too much on book jacket accolades, blurbs, and fanciful covers.
The story of Justine Laxness, the daughter of liberal Christian missionaries in Maoist China, isn't a structural masterpiece (in fact, it lacks a dominant plot). What it lacks in story-driven narrative it more than makes up for in intellectualism. Justine proves this with her witty observations, her genuine fear, anger, rage, frustration and poetic controversy, all inwardly manifested and outwardly destructive. When we first meet Justine, she opens her narrative by describing the odd taste of indigenous eel cherished by her love and boss, the aloof and unsympathetic, Peter. In fact, for the first sixty or so pages of Lee's novel, we get a total feeling of selfless observation driven by the complex nature of Justine's love for the man she admired in her foreign upbringing. Her love, poignantly felt in Lee's novel, is painfully invisible: she is so simultaneously selfless and confused. This makes for a difficult slog.
Lee's narrative decidedly breathes its own life once all expectation of plot is abandoned. After all, this is a world on the brink of technological frenzy.
One aspect of Lee's novel troubles once the narrative gets under way. Peter, the focus and drive of Justine's heart, can't remove himself from his sketching and doodling long enough to introduce the real Peter, his soul, and his true
wants – the under-the-surface slur of human compassion. For such a core factor in the novel, his character needs breadth and a more focused mystery. Throughout the beginning of the narrative Peter is a fabricated mystery – surface-watered, cleverly diabetic, lost in the fabric of New York with his daughter-figure, Justine. His character is trapped with a lost love and regret I couldn't similarly feel, sympathize with, or understand. Justine's love for him is so complicated. This, I feel, is a blessing and a curse for new novels in the way that too much complexity can be overwrought with the surface simplicity of rendering characters. The love is there, but it seems almost too painful.
Lee's narrative decidedly breathes its own life once all expectation of plot is abandoned. After all, this is a world on the brink of technological frenzy. Justine and Peter's charity, The Aquinas Foundation, with its shady donors and questionable intentions, dances with the best of New York's debutante philanthropists. Justine and Peter's restaurant-hopping and charity appearances jar the reader with forced pretentiousness. Their somewhat shadow-like father-daughter existence becomes pragmatic in these rooms and events – but beautifully so. As Lee's heroine will indirectly foreshadow at the novel's end. 1993 was a year before the world shrunk, a place before the pain, where "everything is always very clear, even crystalline – the rushing trees, the great city passing by."
But perhaps the greatest characters in Lee's novel aren't characters—they are symbols : the wheat fields of Saskatchewan, the golden sway and flow of the Yangtze, New York's rising steel and concrete. All are foundations for the abandon- ment of convention and the yield to the gravity of progress, and in my opinion, this results in a perfect portrait of pre-Clinton era pessimism.
The story of Justine's eventual downfall relies on the rising tides of interesting characters, poetic language and description of abandon. As a result of Lee's her power for intuitive observation, aided by Lee's unwavering empathy with the workings of a frightening urban America, the reader can easily forget some of the novel's plotlessness. Justine's frustrating love for Peter also provides the divine intervention. She loses herself in the workings of her two cities – past and present, China and New York City—so acutely she eventually makes an ultimate betrayal. At this point, the novel of the idea becomes the novel of the heart.
The story of Justine's downfall includes people, not ideas. Her characters aren't conjured in the banter of the workshop or the blood and toil of crafted uniqueness: they appear real, excited, and dominated by the ebb and flow of her symbolic title concept. James Nutter, a college boyfriend and struggling screen writer vies for Justine's chaotic sympathies and companionship. Justine's friend Bonnie-Beth, a therapy-dependent shaman, is the symbolic foundation for the final scene to Justine's self-realization. She is powerfully-rendered. Su Chen, Justine's mystical childhood amah in mainland China during Mao Tse-tung's reign in the 1970s, is the quintessential idea of freedom within the grip of tyranny. Her disappearance at the hands of Mao's Cultural Revolution shapes Peter and Justine's mode of romantic love to such a violent definition that it becomes silent and unavoidable in 1990s New York.
But perhaps the greatest characters in Lee's novel aren't characters—they are symbols : the wheat fields of Saskatchewan, the golden sway and flow of the Yangtze, New York's rising steel and concrete. All are foundations for the abandonment of convention and the yield to the gravity of progress, and in my opinion, this results in a perfect portrait of pre-Clinton era pessimism. The interplay between character and passion produce a string of unpredictable events and the results are both beautiful and bittersweet.
Lee's novel has the power to reassure the literary skeptic of the future of the novel: marketing and pre-conceived judgments aside. As a whole, the novel will eventually hold up as a result of its ability to reveal markers in world history – pre-online America and Cultural Revolution-era China. Timelessness, for writers of fiction, is a shadow that hangs above the head and tenses the pen. If true novels, like the powerful elements of language in Lee's effort here, are to succeed, they must forget their own identities, living only within the boundaries of beginning, middle and end. While lacking in movement and sluggish in places, Lee's work here makes up for in effort and feeling – as well as the most important goal of the novel, a powerful and poignant conclusion.