The back cover of Xu Xi’s latest book proclaims it “The Transnational 21st Century Novel” hinting at the vastness of the geography and time it encompasses. However, one is still left unprepared for the huge cast of characters and the sheer complexity of navigating their connections with each other as well as the dynamics of 20th century US-Sino relations, while also shifting across different time periods and piecing together the numerous facets of the absent protagonist as lover, friend, brother, musician, businessman and force of nature. All this combined with a narrative that alternates between several points of view renders That Man in Our Lives into something of a postmodern epic tale that performs/affects the complexities of the transnational lived experience.
Xu Xi draws inspiration from the Chinese classic novel-slash-play, Dream of the Red Chamber. She works with the idea that what is not there is just as important as what is there, and consequently, the performing characters are instrumental in creating and outlining the main character who is absent. Like in Dream of the Red Chamber, there are at least 30 characters that are referenced throughout the book at various times, places, and by various people, and they are fascinating to follow. As in the classic, That Man describes the manners, cuisines, music, culture, and art of a few privileged families albeit, in the 20th and 21st centuries. And like the classic, That Man tracks the prestige of one family’s old east coast money to the end of its wealth.
Gordie Ashberry is the only child of an American aristocrat and her husband, a philanderer who flew for the Flying Tigers in China. We successfully learn about the life, the love and the character of a man through his friends, family and acquaintances. Is Gordie’s character fully fleshed out? Yes. Is he both likeable and unlikeable? Yes. Does he succeed as a character we can emotionally connect with? Not necessarily. Perhaps it’s because Gordie’s life is measured in “love spaces, like long and intense jazz solos during which the singer is silent.” But, then again, it’s also punctuated by frequent references to Looney Tunes that throws the unwilling reader into a Bugs Bunny or Yogi Bear impression. “What’s up doc with all this high anxiety? You’re being way too Elmer Fudd-ish,” says a friend to Gordie.
The novel is written in five acts with a brief intermission that follows the third act. Each act follows a different character or set of characters, telling the story in a close third person narrative. The first act is offered through the vantage point of Peter Haight, the 28-year-old godson of Gordie, the titular Man in Our Lives. At the beginning of the novel, Pete arrives in Hong Kong ostensibly to study, but is actually there to search for the missing Gordie. In many respects, Xu Xi’s portrayal of Pete is more an exercise in caricature than a creation of a character who registers as real. His dialogue is peppered with words and phrases, which feel postured and artificial -- one doubts, for example, that any contemporary young American male would find “crashingly” or “babaliciousiest grrrrllllll” occupying a place in their conversations.
The narrative in a future act, however, is framed around Minnie Chang’s point of view who is far more believable and one of the more interesting characters in the novel. The way her character unfolds is the way we often meet people and have first impressions that are later refined if not refuted. Throughout the book she is shown to be a shameless opportunist (she plagiarized a high school student’s essay for her biography on Gordie) under the guise of a cultural journalist. It isn’t until the end, through the eyes of a different narrator, that we find the true intentions behind her actions and for those familiar with contemporary China can empathize with some who don’t “understand how to relate to people properly” and the way guanxi culture is often unfair to those who need help the most.
Every main character is somehow transnational, is enamored of Gordie, and has personal motivations for remembering and fawning over him, especially Larry Woo. He met Gordie when they were both college-age on a flight to the U.S. where Larry gave Gordie his Mandarin name, “Hui Guo” or “grey fruit” and they bonded over jazz music. The main characters all seem to be highly accomplished, wealthy and/or privileged in some way. Larry’s the “weird child” in his family who gets a PhD in American Studies and whose love interest is a critically acclaimed writer. Throughout the book overt and subtle announcements of different characters’ accomplishments in matters of fame, wealth and prestige holds a mirror to a society that values acclaim and fortune as admirable and necessary qualities in human relationships. Whether Xu Xi is lionizing these traits or parodying this elite community’s preoccupation with image and wealth is unclear.
As a work of metafiction, That Man prioritizes fragmentation and play over craft and plotlines. It is not in need of any resolution. Like his friends, we may be content with having known him, a man who knew that “the line between illusion and life was, at best, imaginary.” At the end, Xu Xi succeeds in questioning the relationship between fiction and reality, as we never do forget that we are viewing a play.