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Sex Confessions and Protest From a Disillusioned Communist



In 1991, a little-known writer in Beijing named Wang Xiaobo mailed the manuscript of a novel to the eminent historian Cho-yun Hsu, his former professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The book was about China’s Cultural Revolution, the political purge from 1966 to 1976 that killed more than a million people and sent scientists, writers, artists and millions of educated youths to labor in the countryside.

At the time Wang was writing, novels about the Cultural Revolution tended to be fairly conventional tales of how good people suffered nobly during this decade of madness. The system itself was rarely called into question. Wang’s book was radically different. THE GOLDEN AGE (Astra House, 272 pp., $26) — the title itself was a provocation — told the tragic-absurd story of a young man who is exiled, witnesses suicide, endures bullying and beatings by local officials … and spends as much time as possible having sex.

Professor Hsu forwarded the manuscript to the judges of one of Taiwan’s most prominent literary prizes. Wang’s story of lust and loss won, stunning China’s literary world and turning the author into one of the country’s most influential and popular novelists.

Wang’s position in China’s literary canon is remarkable because he was never part of the state-sponsored writers’ association — unlike better-known figures such as the Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, Yu Hua or Jia Pingwa. Wang seemed to have come out of nowhere, and he left nearly as quickly, dying of a heart attack in 1997, at age 44. In just a few years he wrote an avalanche of novels, stories, essays and newspaper articles, many of them published posthumously.

Only one section of “The Golden Age” had been published in English until a new translation by Yan Yan came out this year. The novel recounts the coming-of-age of Wang Er, whose life closely parallels Wang Xiaobo’s. Like the author, he is born in 1952, grows up in Beijing, participates in the Cultural Revolution as a teenager and is sent to work in the countryside.

But while Wang Er ends up in a series of failed relationships back in the capital, Wang Xiaobo in 1980 married one of China’s most formidable academics, Li Yinhe, who had a profound impact on him and remained with him until his death. Part of the first generation of sociologists to be trained after Mao’s ban on the field was lifted, Li went to Pittsburgh to earn her Ph.D., accompanied by her husband, who earned a master’s in Asian studies. Back home, the couple published an early (for China) study of homosexuality, and Li later went on to become a champion of the L.G.B.T.Q. movement.

For Wang, gay people were just one of many groups whose voices were drowned out by the state’s monopoly over media. His thinking crystallized in a hugely influential 1996 essay, “The Silent Majority,” which argued that the state silences not just people of different sexual orientations, but most Chinese people, from migrants and miners to farmers and students. It is a call to action for civil society, for an end to silence — and it remains an inspiration for many Chinese today in a new era of overwhelming state control.

The idea of how to stand up to power underlies “The Golden Age.” At the start, Wang Er is stationed in the tribal border region of Yunnan, herding oxen and smitten with a doctor working in the same commune. He’s 21, buoyant and hungry. “In the golden age of my life, I was full of dreams,” he says. “I wanted to love, to eat and to instantly transform into one of those clouds, part alight, part darkened.”

But he quickly contrasts these dreams with the harshness of life under a powerful state, comparing it to a local method of castrating oxen. For most bulls, it was enough to simply slice the scrotum. Temperamental ones, however, had their testicles pulled out and beaten to a pulp with a wooden club. “It was only later that I understood — life is but a slow, drawn-out process of getting your balls crushed,” our narrator observes. “Day by day, you get older. Day by day, your dreams fade. In the end you are no different from a crushed ox.”

One way to read “The Golden Age” is to focus on the sex — and there is a lot of it. But little of it is described in realistic detail; instead it becomes a device through which the hero and his lover, Chen Qingyang, stand up to the state. Outed for having a premarital affair, which was taboo in the Mao era, they are forced to write erotic “confessions” for horny Communist Party officials and ascend stages to describe their acts to crowds of bug-eyed farmers.

Their increasingly elaborate and lurid admissions, demanded again and again by their superiors, fall somewhere in tone between Harlequin romance and modernist poem: “Chen Qingyang and I committed innumerable crimes in the clearing behind Old Man Liu’s because his fallow, fertile land was almost effortless to clear.” Sex itself is “epic friendship,” as in: “We committed epic friendship in the mountain, breathing wet steamy breaths.” (The narrator is asked to clarify “what is commitment from the front and what is commitment from the rear.”) The confessions amount to an absurdist critique of unchecked state power, making a mockery of its instruments.

Later, Wang Er returns to Beijing in the late 1970s and becomes an obsequious academic, finally hammered into submission. But he is haunted by a suicide that he saw over a decade earlier, before his time in the countryside, when he lived with his family on a college campus. A faculty member had been tortured so much that he jumped out the window of a building. Officials carted off his body for an “autopsy” (diagnosis: no foul play, even though bruises showed how he had been tortured). But they refused to clean the chunks of brain on the pavement, claiming that this was the family’s responsibility.

The night after the suicide, Wang Er gets up at 2 in the morning thinking of the man’s brains. He walks to the site and sees that the pieces are lit up by flickering candles that seem to make them dance. Denied a chance to mourn, the children are keeping a wake over what is left of their father, a scene that the narrator recalls over and over in the novel.

The author’s focus on these details is purposeful. At the end of the book, the narrator recalls that his generation was raised to do something heroic with their lives. When they were young, that meant imitating Mao and being zealous Communists, but their idealism only ended up bringing violence and suffering. Now middle-aged, Wang Er is unsure how to do anything meaningful. His girlfriend tells him he has to break out of the silence that has plagued him since his youth, to “write down everything, including the unbelievable things and the things you don’t dare to write about.” He must report what he has seen — not just the big issues but also the small, telling details that might let the past speak to the present.

THE GOLDEN AGE, by Wang Xiaobo | Translated by Yan Yan | 272 pp. | Astra House | $26


One Man’s Foray Into the Heartland of the Far Right



THE UNDERTOW: Scenes From a Slow Civil War, by Jeff Sharlet

The premise of “The Undertow,” Jeff Sharlet’s anguished new book of reportage, is that the United States is “coming apart.” The disintegration is political. It involves the rise of the autocratically inclined Donald Trump; the attempt by members of the Republican Party to overthrow the election of Joe Biden in January 2021; and, during the Biden presidency, the overturning by the Supreme Court of Roe v Wade.

The extremist maneuvering of right-wing officials has, if anything, only intensified. In the past few weeks, Republican legislators have introduced bills that provide, in effect, for the abolition of the Democratic Party in Florida and the putting to death of women who have abortions in South Carolina. The Supreme Court has requested further briefs in a case about the “independent state legislature theory,” a spurious legal-political doctrine that, if adopted as law, would enable (gerrymandered) Republican legislatures to effectively terminate democratic federal elections in their states. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who sits on the House’s Homeland Security Committee, has floated the idea of a “national divorce” along red state and blue state lines. Sharlet’s premise would seem to be valid.

Not so long ago, Sharlet admits, he declined to characterize the threat to the Republic as “fascism.” Yet,

one by one in recent years, objections to describing militant Trumpism as fascist have fallen away. In addition to “the personality” of Trump, the movement his presidency quickened now cultivates paramilitaries and glorifies violence as a means of purification, thrives on othering its enemies, declares itself persecuted for “Whiteness,” diagnoses the nation as decadent and embraces the revisionist myth of a MAGA past.

But what explains this fascism’s grip on millions of ordinary Americans? It’s an important inquiry, not least because the rise of antidemocratic right-wing fanaticism in America has no good precedent. The fascisms of Europe and postcolonial states arose in response to socioeconomic collapse and dire poverty. The American version, by contrast, flourishes in a society that’s very rich by historical and global standards. Its political party — the G.O.P. — enjoys deeply entrenched power, and its supporters and corporate allies are hardly victims of the status quo. Nonmaterial factors — culture, race, geography, ideology — must be at work. What might these factors be? What is, to adapt Sharlet’s terminology, “the theology” of the cause?

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Unlikely Allies, They Spread the Gospel of Tree-Hugging



GUARDIANS OF THE VALLEY: John Muir and the Friendship That Saved Yosemite, by Dean King

It’s a brave thing, to write about John Muir.

First, you run the risk of contrasting your own writing with his, and whose can compare? Muir shaped his words into piercing, lyrical prose about everything from wildflower meadows to pack burros to San Francisco. More than a century later, his writing is still transporting: When he arrived in California, after leaving his home and timber mill work in Wisconsin, Muir wrote that his walk across the Yosemite Valley was “all one sea of golden and purple bloom, so deep and dense that in walking through it you would press more than a hundred flowers at every step.”

Thankfully, Dean King’s poetry is a match for Muir’s: “He saw God in the fragmentation of the stream and in rays of the sun passing through to make vivid rainbow beads,” he writes of Muir. “He saw God in the rebirth of the stream suddenly expelled from earth, as death and a new life, a new journey, were simultaneously manifest.”

It’s also bold to take on the subject of Muir because so much has already been published; how much more can be said about the exploits and advocacy of America’s most revered conservationist? But “Guardians of the Valley” adds a compelling perspective: an examination of Muir’s relationship and friendship with the editor Robert Underwood Johnson, who brought Muir’s work to the masses.

As such, this is also a book about the power of storytelling. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Muir wrote about the Yosemite Valley and Johnson delivered that work to the (mostly Eastern, urban) readers of his magazine, Century. It is Johnson, King writes, who with Muir “ignited a quarter-century of legislation and environmental activism that would change the shape of the nation and stewardship of nature everywhere.”

King frames Johnson and Muir’s relationship as “unlikely” — Johnson was an “urbane” Manhattan-dweller, from a well-connected family, albeit socially awkward and with a “nervous stomach.” Muir, although he had many friends, preferred solitude in the woods, ate an almost comically austere diet and hated the city. When Johnson joined Century (previously Scribner’s Monthly), he was tasked with persuading Ulysses S. Grant to write for the magazine (which he did), and staying “on top of John Muir.”

Their relationship provides a compelling narrative that guides the reader through decades of what might otherwise have read as dense statecraft and legislative history. Instead, King deftly contrasts Johnson’s lobbying with Muir’s exploits. We tag along with Muir to timber mills and on hikes to backwoods huts; we stand with Johnson as Chicago burns in 1871. We ford streams with Muir as he herds sheep; write letters to Muir from a New York City magazine office.

We encounter Muir as a dashing explorer and scientific investigator, hammering stakes into the Nisqually Glacier and weathering storms on Mount Shasta. But when Johnson travels west to develop a special issue of Century about the California Gold Rush, Muir is thrust into his editor’s world, starting with his first meeting with Johnson at an ornate San Francisco hotel. Muir, who had been writing regularly for publications like The Oakland Ledger, The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin and even The San Francisco Real Estate Circular, would in turn take Johnson on an excursion into the Yosemite Valley. The stories Muir told along the way led Johnson to adopt preservation of the valley as his cause.

Johnson returned to New York and started lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. And he began to pester Muir for more articles, which he used as a tool to influence politicians to establish a national park around Yosemite. Muir was a procrastinator who had to be reminded numerous times to submit his essays, letters and maps. Based on Muir’s eloquent writing, other Eastern journalists at larger publications jumped on board to advocate the valley’s preservation. Johnson had swiftly mastered the manipulation of legislation and power, in which the media played a large part.

King’s book adds much-needed perspective on the power of the press in lobbying for conservation. Journalism became the issue’s battleground, with California newspapers (some owned by timber magnates) arguing against Muir’s assertions and Johnson lobbying for government intervention. An East-West divide was stoked in the pages of these newspapers — and would not fade with the formal recognition of Yosemite National Park in 1890.

Indeed, King explains that preserving Muir and Johnson’s success required constant vigilance. We follow as Johnson and Muir become founding members of the Sierra Club, whose first campaign was in response to ranchers who lived around the park, lobbying to redraw the park’s boundaries to increase lumber, mining and grazing revenues. A bill in support of the locals was introduced by a California congressman and Johnson would, according to King, “work the press,” placing stories to successfully oppose the shrinking of the park. “You of course know that this whole policy has grown out of your three articles printed in the Century, which in turn grew out of our talk by the campfire in the upper Tuolomne,” Johnson wrote to Muir.

The battles continued as the Sierra Club fought to protect California’s redwoods. King follows Muir and Johnson’s work in protest of the Hetch Hetchy dam outside San Francisco, which would come to be known as one of the country’s first environmental controversies. City officials wrote editorials suggesting that idealistic nature lovers would negatively impact daily life for city residents — not Eastern tourists. The Sierra Club, for its part, released fliers that made liberal use of all-caps; Johnson decried the “rape of Hetchy” — before being fired for his activism.

These battles are far from over. More than a century later, King argues that, now firmly in the climate crisis, we can take motivation and strength from Muir’s writing and activism. Followers of conservation politics will note that there has been fierce debate surrounding Muir’s legacy in recent years. In 2020, the Sierra Club called out his racist statements and acknowledged their own troubled history of bias. King refers to these larger discussions, pointing out that while Muir appeared to be reverent and respectful of Native American knowledge of the land, he rarely acknowledged the country’s violent displacement of Indigenous peoples.

We see through this book the immense power of language to sway, the ability for selectively chosen words to convey awe and power, resentment and raw anger, to change the minds of lawmakers and tourists alike. To effectively draw strength from Muir’s writing, as King suggests we do, we might reconsider which stories are told around the campfire.

Lyndsie Bourgon is the author of “Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods.”

GUARDIANS OF THE VALLEY: John Muir and the Friendship That Saved Yosemite | By Dean King | Illustrated | 437 pp. | Scribner | $30

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Three Novels Where Love Takes Center Stage



Madelaine Lucas’s debut novel, THIRST FOR SALT (Tin House, 262 pp., paperback, $16.95), opens by describing a photograph that shows a man and a child. The narrator sees, for the first time, a picture of her former lover Jude with what she presumes to be his daughter. Confronting bad news about her fertility and nearing the same age Jude had been during their relationship, the unnamed protagonist is ripe for reminiscence, and the photograph sends her deep into the act of remembering.

The description of their love affair has much of the same feeling as the photograph, a static moment held captive and mined for meaning. The focus of the novel, ultimately, is the act of remembering itself. (“You’re hung up on the past,” the narrator’s mother unsubtly points out.) Jumping back in time, the narrator revisits her first encounter with Jude on an Australian tourist beach the summer she is 24 and he is 42. What follows is a quick, hot love affair bracketed by “I remembers” and glimpses of later conflicts, constant reminders that the relationship is long finished and absorbed into the narrator’s personal mythology.

But the retrospective voice is also lush and gorgeous. As Jude shifts from calling the narrator “Sharkbait” to calling her “love,” their sun-soaked fling turns to winter domesticity, and she leaves behind the bare beginnings of an adult life with her college friends to hole up with Jude in his lovingly restored A-frame near the ocean. The scenes at Jude’s home have a luxurious physicality, a sensual attention focused on homey objects laced with a languid nostalgia for the romance’s most vivid scenes, such as Jude using rotting fruit to lure tropical birds to the narrator’s bare arms. The result is a story with a pristine, time-capsule-like feeling. The cost, however, is an inability to fully sense the effects of the relationship on the rest of the narrator’s later, more cosmopolitan life — a flaw the book tries to remedy by having the narrator indulge at times in some heavy-handed meaning-making, her purpose and message bearing down on the reader. But “Thirst for Salt” is a delicious read, beautifully written and emotionally satisfying.

The title of Keiran Goddard’s novel, HOURGLASS (Europa, 199 pp., $25), makes sense if you think about the different ways we measure time. Every clock or watch belongs to a network of timekeepers, their usefulness derived from collective agreement. An hourglass, however, is a closed system built of trapped particles. Unless it has been calibrated to a clock, a turn of an hourglass is a unit of measurement that refers only to itself.

To read the incredibly spare writing of “Hourglass” is to be trapped with a consciousness struggling to point to or refer to anything in the outside world. This is an accurate representation of solipsistic masculine heartbreak, but it is, by its nature, extremely frustrating to read. The narrator, who writes essays like “People Bloody Love Astrology Right Now Because They Fear We Have Funneled the Entirety of Our Collective Divinatory Power Into Predictive Algorithms!,” meets an editor at one of the magazines where he insistently sends these pitches. We don’t learn much about this editor, who is addressed throughout as “you” and is described as the author of several “slim books about Restoration drama.” But we do learn that “all of the things happened again and again” (translation: they had a lot of sex) and that these two people fall in love.

The substance of the book is so general that it becomes essentially nothing, empty universality punctuated from time to time with a vaguely gross detail, like the narrator eating balls of his love object’s hair (“object” is the right word, since the editor never seems like a distinct individual) or, later, the narrator’s drunken attempt to run a marathon while dressed in a sweater, collapsing less than a mile in. Sometimes the writing is funny, but often it’s just deliberately opaque. Instead of dialogue, the reader gets, “We started telling each other all of the things that people who are falling in love tell one another.” Instead of specifics about the editor, the reader gets, “You were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.” This should be considered a great compliment, the narrator declares, because there are more things in the world than there are people. But that explanation works only if the reader is willing to live inside the narrator’s cyclical reasoning, a herculean task. Outside of this logic, in a world where people are at least trying to agree on a shared reality, you’re left with someone calling the person he loves a thing.

Originally published in 1974 and too long out of print, Alison Mills Newman’s FRANCISCO (New Directions, 117 pp., paperback, $14.95) is a dazzling book written with the immediacy of life. The novel’s sharp, funny, first-person narrator makes her way through the Black Arts movement of the 1970s, searching for her own way of seeing and describing the world. The sentences brim with rebellion and pleasure, creating a sensual odyssey of self-discovery and experience.

The narrator is, as Mills Newman was in real life, a young Black actress who is tired of working in white-dominated Hollywood. She falls in love with an intense and driven independent filmmaker, the titular Francisco. Francisco becomes a sort of anti-muse, their relationship inspiring the narrator not to create, but to experience. (Francisco himself finds lust detrimental to work, frequently shutting himself away from the narrator to finish his film.) In this novel, the creative impulse is cut off from the urge to create products for consumption. Instead, this energy is funneled into the sheer exuberance of being alive.

The result is a loose narrative written with keen observations and driven by the narrator’s own hunger for Francisco, food and connection. (Some of the best writing takes the form of descriptions of meals, demonstrating how the narrator and Francisco seduce and care for each other through their stomachs.) Each scene is wonderful on its own and refuses to build into a traditional narrative structure: a filmed dance party in a borrowed mansion for one of Francisco’s movies, a naked confrontation with the “madness” of the ocean, sex in other people’s beach houses, a drawn-out battle with a waiter for just one more bowl of guacamole. This delightfully smart and funny protagonist is a reminder of the difficulty and beauty of a life lived on its own terms.

Alyssa Songsiridej is the author of “Little Rabbit,” a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.

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