ASK an unpublished author about the so-called burden of early fame and he'd likely as not bite your head off. Ask Nell Freudenberger -- she, for whom fellow literary phenom Curtis Sittenfeld coined the neologism "schadenfreudenberger" -- and you might get a more nuanced reaction.
Freudenberger hit the jackpot at the tender age of 26 when she was selected as one of four writers making their debuts in the New Yorker's 2001 summer fiction issue. (Jonathan Safran Foer, who achieved early fame with his "Everything Is Illuminated," was another.) The powerful agent came next, followed by the bidding war for the as-yet-unwritten book; the rejection of the stratospheric advance in favor of the lesser one with the more prestigious publishing house; the release of the highly acclaimed short-story collection "Lucky Girls"; the PEN/Malamud Award (among many accolades); and the deluge of snarky commentary that focused far more on Freudenberger's glamorous (i.e., highly suspect) publicity photos than on her prose. The publication this month of Freudenberger's "The Dissident" seems likely to ignite another deluge of media attention and public scrutiny, which is more than most first novels should have to withstand. But it's hard to outrun a deluge.
"The Dissident" tells the story of a dysfunctional Beverly Hills family composed of Gordon Travers, a distant patriarch with a genealogy obsession; his well-intentioned wife, Cece, who is having an affair with the Peter Pan-esque Phil, who is, inconveniently, her husband's brother; a possibly suicidal teenage son, Max; and a daughter, Olivia, whose chief attribute appears to be her ability to speak French and whose Machiavellian Lolita of a best friend sets a key plot point in motion.
Like so many with live-in maids and sparkling blue pools, the Traverses' lives, in Cece's words, have "all at once, without warning
But, as is the case in all good 19th century novels -- and this 21st century incarnation is one that William Makepeace Thackeray would have no trouble recognizing -- plans go awry, relationships fall apart, skulduggery transpires, lies are told and exposed.
Freudenberger is interested in Big Ideas -- truth, beauty, authenticity -- and is at pains to construct characters and a narrative that allow her to explore them. To that end, Gordon's siblings -- Joan and the philandering Phil -- are both writers, the former holed up in her "semi-valuable house in Cheviot Hills" pondering the novelistic use/value of friends and relatives; the latter getting down to brass tacks by writing a play about a man who falls in love with his brother's wife, named -- surprise! -- Cece.
The question of appropriation -- of other people's lives, of other people's work -- also reverberates throughout the dissident's backstory, which is told in first person. The dissident, Yuan Zhao, was trained as an artist in the traditional Chinese manner, which involves a long apprenticeship spent copying the works and techniques of the masters. Skilled at mimicry, he was from a young age able to reproduce the bird drawings of John James Audubon and Chinese master Bada Shanren on command.
The larger implications of this talent (Joan, in one example of the East/West divide, considers it a form of plagiarism) only become clear in light of the novel's denouement. But Freudenberger presses hard the whole way there, raising questions specific to Yuan's experience in Beijng's East Village, but not exclusive to it. Who owns a performance: the performer or the photographer who documented it? Is identity itself a performance? Is the term "con artist" a redundancy?
That Freudenberger ties up so many disparate narrative strands is a testament to careful planning, to be sure. But it also suggests a certain timidity, which plays out not only in her adherence to the conventions of plotting but also in her propensity for stock situations. "Cliches are insidious," comments Joan in what looks like a meta-critical aside. And yet we have the farcical family Thanksgiving, which (however well-rendered here) is to the novel of manners what the chase through Chinatown during Chinese New Year is to the low-rent thriller.
This is not to say that Freudenberger is not good at set pieces; she is. Particularly funny is the scene on an airplane when the West African galago (a rare lemur-like creature with huge eyes) Phil is bringing to Cece as a token of his love escapes from its metal cage. (" 'Excuse me,' Phil said. 'That's my -- kitten.' ") But at times the book feels dangerously like a collection of such pieces, each orchestrated to underscore one of the larger themes.