How welcome is an enjoyable novel that seems so unapologetically on the wrong side of today's literary and cultural politics!
Though not without its limitations, Adam Lewis Schroeder's third book, In the Fabled East, comes across in just such promising terms: It's a straightforward historical novel, from a white Western male, about an array of white Westerners seeking various kinds of respite and restoration from an array of Western maladies, by travelling to, and through, an exotic, beguiling and dangerous Far East.
There are no apologies for this premise, which seems so self-evidently outmoded by decades of postcolonial and academic developments, which suggest that someone like Schroeder ought not pursue a story like this one, based on a premise that inspires privileged, white, Western characters to quest after nothing less than "the East" itself, whether in the "clangour of automobile horns" that sound across teeming Saigon or before a "thousand-year-old temple [that]juts out from a hillside to vanish the next moment behind a jungle canopy."
To be sure, Schroeder, whose prior novels also feature the Far East, is too intelligent a writer to imply that such idealized reductions and stereotypical essentialisms do, in fact, correspond to "the East," as is implied by the telling adjective he uses in the novel's title. Indeed, this "fabled" place, and the states of mind and being that it inspires, represents "an ever-fleeting thing" that serves to compel so much of the novel's movement and feeling.
Dating from the late 19th century through the 1950s, the novel is set in urban and rural settings throughout then-French Indochina (today Vietnam), which are occasionally interleaved with scenes set in France. Within these contexts, the novel explores the experiences of well-to-do French men and women whose relationships and involvements with larger historical and political events bring them from France to Indochina in search of wealth, health, sex and scholarship - and, at the novel's most moving moments, each other.
At the heart of the novel is Adelie Tremier. Widowed as a young mother, this Parisian woman devotes her energies to advancing the prospects of her son Emmanuel. These ambitions lead her to host an elaborate Eastern-themed party in hopes of introducing her son, whom she's certain is a child-prodigy painter, to the art world's potentates. Adelie's ambitions allow Schroeder to juxtapose the realities of life in the Far East with its costume-and-curio-cabinet version in Paris, where the party's hostess, dressed in pantaloons and a turban, presides over a room decked out in Orientalist clichés: incense and hookah smoke, pajama-clad boys fanning guests with palm leaves, and belly-bared servant girls bearing trays of orange slices and sweetbreads to lounging, decadent guests.
These imagined and real worlds come together when a very sick Adelie goes East herself, leaving behind her son, in search of a cure for tuberculosis, which in turn sets off a series of related quests by various members of the French colonial establishment in Indochina who want to find her, and, decades later, her own son's quest, when his military commission brings him and the men he commands to the jungles of a rebelling Indochina in the 1950s.
This latter event leads to an improbable but nevertheless moving and dramatic reunion between the soldier son and his French mother, who's gone native and gained access to a mystical spring of miraculous, age-defying powers. It sounds altogether ridiculous, and the time schemes around these intersecting quests are jumbled, but Schroeder brings off the main event persuasively.
If only the same could be said for other stretches of the novel, where his efforts to establish his bona fides as a revealer of the novel's many historical, cultural and political elements overwhelms the human drama that's supposed to emerge from them. In the Fabled East frequently feels loaded down with research, and even though Schroeder is canny enough to displace such informative burdens onto his characters - making them competing mouthpieces for learned, wry, disaffected or entranced observations about most every dimension of life in Indochina - the effect is still the same: We're learning more about the author's learning than we are about his characters' lives, which, when he focuses his evident talents on their revelation, can be just as mysterious, difficult and beguiling as the fabled world around them.
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of literature at Ryerson University and the author of Governor of the Northern Province, a novel.