Apr/May 2009

Culture Crash

Gary Indiana’s carnivalesque novel is both hallucinatory and riotous

James Gibbons


Gary Indiana likes rummaging through the wreckage. He regularly signals as much: Recent essays were gathered last year in a collection titled Utopia’s Debris, and his 2003 novel, Do Everything in the Dark, opens with a section called “The Debris Field.” Later in that book, he coins an aperçu that encapsulates an entire philosophy: “Wherever people attempt life, debris piles up.” The emphasis on detritus suggests that everyone and everything has washed up as flotsam and jetsam on history’s far shore; vital unities are denied us, and we can only gaze back at those of the past. At best, “by understanding things systematically,” as he puts it in the preface to Utopia’s Debris, “we can, sometimes, at least learn to live with the madness around us, recognize what is different about it than the madness of earlier times, and also recognize what hasn’t changed at all.”

Indiana’s criticism is an expression of sheer endurance from within our peculiarly contemporary madness. His take on the psychopathology of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century life, with its malleable celebrity-culture politics and “cretinized mass-culture universe where everyone has information and nobody has knowledge,” exhibits a caustic engagement with the present. He can be withering, as when considering the “excremental republic” of the Bush years, the sunnily fascistic lure of “amiable Cro-Magnon” Schwarzenegger, or, tacking leftward, those with “graduate degree[s] in ‘gender studies,’ ‘deconstructivism’ or the piquantly amorphous ‘theory’ of subjects its specialists never had to learn before theorizing them down to the ground.” You come away a little abashed that so few observers of our current scene can summon the intelligent bile he quite reasonably directs at the status quo.

In Utopia’s Debris, Indiana’s voracious intellect scavenges gamely and assuredly among such highbrow heavy hitters as Wittgenstein, Bresson, Gombrowicz, and Sontag, but his explorations never begin from a received sense of reverence; he proceeds with the same skeptical intelligence he directs toward, say, the consensus view of Brokeback Mountain as responsibly uplifting or of Leni Riefenstahl as irredeemably monstrous. And mass culture is not to be dismissed out of hand: “With all its absurdities and stupidities, America’s pop culture is infinitely more progressive than its politics—intellectually, spiritually, sensually and, as far as that’s concerned, morally.” With his self-reliant sensibility, Indiana reassembles the cultural map according to his own idiosyncrasies and enthusiasms. As dissatisfied as he is with the world, it’s a world in which he is also at play.

An inventive if at times sour playfulness marks Indiana’s latest effort, the novel The Shanghai Gesture, which fans of Josef von Sternberg will recall as the title of his 1941 film starring Gene Tierney (based on John Colton’s 1925 play). Indiana draws on the Sternberg movie, especially at the book’s conclusion, and even more heavily on characters and tropes from the Fu Manchu franchise, at first glance not the likeliest mythology for reclamation because of its retrograde jingoism and yellow-peril attitudes. He pilfers some of the principals of the Manchu universe—Dr. Petrie, the investigator Nayland (here Weymouth) Smith, and naturally Fu himself, ostensibly all-powerful yet hapless—and romps through assorted B-movie scenarios and adventure-fantasy clichés. These provide a sort of dime-novel armature for Indiana’s gallery of lively grotesques, parodic feints, drug gags (the novel is permeated by a narcotic haze), genre pastiches, and evocations of writers ranging from Daniel Defoe to Philip K. Dick. This quirky mélange results in an uproarious, confounding, turbocharged fantasia that manages, alongside all its imaginative bravura, to hold up to our globalized epoch the fun-house mirror it deserves.

At the center of The Shanghai Gesture lies the periphery: Land’s End, a world-that-time-forgot English hamlet that has been afflicted with a mysterious “pestilence of insomnia,” reputed to have bteen brought with the shipwreck of The Ardent Somdomite a century before. (Characteristically, Indiana tweaks a recognizable conceit—something we might find in García Márquez and his ilk—and takes it in an outrageous direction.) Land’s End has long been an upside-down world of “diurnal somnolence and nocturnal abandon,” as the narrator known only as Sam observes, using his anachronistic diction and circumspect phrasing, which call to mind an eighteenth-century raconteur. For those unfortunate enough to be spared the insomnia—the night revels seem by far the best Land’s End has to offer—there is Dr. Petrie’s laudanum, which makes the good doctor the most sought-after man in town (despite having lost his medical license), all the more so because the supply is pinched: He commandeers the lion’s share for himself. His ramshackle Victorian mansion attracts a louche crew of hangers-on who flock to the weekly gatherings held when his “ship [comes] in ahead of schedule.”

In time, we learn that the 150-year-old Fu Manchu has plans to take over the village as part of his diabolical scheme for—what else?—world domination. By then, there have been mysterious murders in Land’s End, and Petrie has been whisked away by Scotland Yard’s Smith on an urgent mission, first to deliver the archaeologist Sir Lionel Parker from imminent peril (to wit, his transformation into a gooey slab of insect larva; they arrive too late) and then to investigate Fu’s involvement in corpse trafficking in the remote Guyanan highlands. The hoary scenario of the cherished Heimat being threatened by an invading Other is pricked with multiple deflations. Far from being the nation’s earnest defender, Petrie is so nauseated by his ennui back in Land’s End that he’d do nearly anything to escape “the Uriah Heeps of my clientele, the recidivist syphilitics and low-rent junkies,” and in any case he’s usually fixated on his next high, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. Land’s End is less a merry-olde-England burg than a suppurating sore on the flesh of the country, and when Britain itself is invoked, it’s in for some ironic abrasion: “The glorious history of our Nation flashed before my eyes like a ten-second condensation of Masterpiece Theater.”

Part of the queasy fun of The Shanghai Gesture lies in its refusal to be grounded securely in time or history. Eschewing stable moorings, the novel swims in a free-floating fog, so that Land’s End’s winking anachronisms coexist with a world in which Selfridges, the London department store, has been bombed by Islamic terrorists; Pakistan has been renamed Osamaland; and Fu, through his sullen chief underling, a clubfooted former Stasi operative named Roswitha Klebb, is negotiating the sale of spent nuclear-fuel rods with an al-Qaeda-like cell. London possesses futuristic accents but is never placed comfortably outside an all-too-recognizable present: “Solitary males used their phones to shave. Some transmitted their clearance cards to airport check-in counters. Still others, ears grafted to iMe’s, collided with utility poles and shop windows, enraptured by the iMe’s menu of simultaneous functions, notorious for scrambling the user’s belfry into euphoric obliviousness.”

On the other side of the world, Caracas, a far cry from the capital of Hugo Chávez’s defiant socialism, stands in for any number of slash-and-burn boomtowns in the developing world; flashes of cinematic realism—“shanty villages where peasants beat laundry on rocks in marsh water”—are joined with wry evocations of the covetousness of the global elite: “Landfills of artificial peninsulas extruded from the hub, ringed by artificial islands. These, it was said, were being grabbed up by the world’s wealthiest who could not obtain private islands in Dubai.” Scathing social observations abound, and there are timely swipes directed at ecological ruin, the “homogenized, bleakly uniform” gentrification driven ruthlessly by developers, and “digitized capital,” with its “shell game played on small fluctuations of stock prices and rapid flow of money based on no tangible productive goods.”

Satire, though, makes up but one strand of the fabric of The Shanghai Gesture, whose gibes arrive unpredictably as part of a cluster of comic ambitions. Indiana is just as interested in creating outlandish caricatures: Klebb, the townsfolk of Land’s End, or Piya Chiwa Terry Aden, a blond, Yale-educated anthropologist whose uncanny resemblance to Barbara Stanwyck hasn’t stopped her from masquerading as a shaman in the Guyanan hinterland. The storytelling, too, makes room for digressions, set pieces, and excursions into the absurdly fantastic (as when Petrie is enabled to inhabit simultaneously his own mind and that of Cutie, Fu’s pet marmoset) but is controlled enough to maintain an undertow of narrative tension as Fu’s world-domination plot steams toward its climax. When the payoff arrives, it isn’t one we could have anticipated, as Indiana shanghais the tale and takes it, well, to Shanghai (or rather, Sternberg’s Shanghai), before wrapping the story up with some metafictional puppeteering. The tone shifts, and while the change is too jarring for me to find the ending fully satisfying, we realize that what we’ve been reading is a madcap mosaic of its creator’s consciousness, an assemblage of fragments that, if not necessarily shored against his ruins, offered him a vast and wide-ranging storehouse of references with which to build the novel’s structured delirium. It turns out that this most socially astute writer has fashioned a riotous artifact that is both self-contained and self-consuming; The Shanghai Gesture is at once a wicked riposte to contemporary failings and an aesthete’s hallucinatory folktale. That the writing can balance Indiana’s thoroughgoing pessimism with a yarn of such imaginative buoyancy is not the least of its achievements.

James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.

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