Monday, March 23, 2009

Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven

I had an expectation of what I was in for when I picked up Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman. Gilman is a clever and witty writer, author of Kiss My Tiara, a frothy rumination on feminism and grrl-power, and Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, an anecdote filled memoir about growing up in the 70s.

Gilman has an eye for the ridiculous, and an ear for the clever turn of phrase, but like many humorists, she can overreach for the big laugh, rather than settling for the quieter but more powerful chuckle. Both of these books are fun reads, and I enjoyed them, but they slipped from my mind almost as soon as the covers were closed. I assumed Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, which details Gilman's post-college backpack-through-the-world trip, would be Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress goes on holiday: amusing anecdotes about trying to buy tampons in China (briefly touched on in Kiss My Tiara) or the lack of privacy in youth hostels. A little heartbreak. A little shopping.

The impression of a fluffy travelogue is only reinforced by the cover art of a naked co-ed wearing only a backpack, but to my pleasant surprise, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, is made of much weightier stuff. Under-served by its titillating cover art and Gilman's previous works, this book is a lightweight travelogue like Spaulding Grey's Swimming to Cambodia is a lightweight examination of the film industry. Undress Me has charming travel anecdotes a plenty but at its core, it is something much more profound: a gripping rumination on culture, friendship, and mental illness which kept me reading late into the night.

In 1986 the author, known in the book as Susie, and her college friend Claire impulsively decide that they will forgo the post-graduation panic of job hunting and future finding and set out instead to explore the world. Inspired by a place mat from the International House of Pancakes, they sketch out a plan to visit the globe of their fantasies: Kathmandu, Paris, Bali, Thailand, Greece. Susie spends her post-grad summer working two jobs to save her pennies and then she and Claire set out, beginning their journey in the most exotic, mysterious location imaginable: the People's Republic of China which in 1986 had been open to foreign tourists for "roughly ten minutes".

They set out, over-packed and under-prepared for everything in store. Susie has her 900 page copy of Linda Goodman's Love Signs and Claire the complete works of Nietzsche, but neither remember to bring Kleenex. The girls are full of romantic notions, a longing to embrace the world full on with no fancy hotels or eating at American style restaurants. It's native or nothing! Their images of exotic foreign lands with bamboo bungalows and trees full of low hanging fruit explode instantly upon landing in the urban melee of Hong Kong. Their resolve is immediately tested by roach infested tourist hostels, cold and colder running water and food which alternates between nervously unrecognizable and frighteningly obvious (chicken beak anyone?).

As much as people travel to learn about other cultures, it's their own selves that they usually end up finding the most about. There's nothing better at teaching a person what they are really made of when they're hungry and exhausted and confronted with a weeping mentally ill man wearing a diaper and masturbating on the doorstep of the tourist hovel the Lonely Planet guide book has led them to. How do you like your bourgeois Hilton now my friends?

Adventure finds the girls quickly, and Gilman is skilled and funny at showing the romance-annihilating powers of reality. The girls sign up for what they believe will be an exotic sea journey on a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to the main land, only to discover they're voyaging on a modern cruise liner upon which the 5 or 6 Western passengers have the entire run of the "luxury" upper decks while the several hundred Chinese passengers are sequestered below decks. They befriend a local Chinese man who invites them to join him on a visit to his home, a remote village not found on any maps. When they arrive they discover that this "village" of 800,000 doesn't appear on any maps because it is a strategic military location which has never had any Western visitors, and the local police aren't excited to start now. Both the girls get violently ill on various occasions leading at one point to a terrifying trip to a local hospital which strongly impresses upon both girls that Chinese hospitals are excellent places to go die, but to be avoided at all costs if you want to get better.

Gilman insightfully points out that travel, particularly when you don't speak the language, can be incredibly infantilizing. "Drop any of us, anywhere, in an alien environment and you'll see our IQ plummet. IS THIS THE BUS STOP? we'll holler at strangers while dementedly pointing to the bus stop....There's nothing like feeling helpless to turn you into a world class control freak, to make you forget your manners and throw a tantrum when your room isn't ready and there's no ice in your drink. In a strange environment you feel like a baby, and you're often treated like a baby, and so you act like one." The girls find themselves having to rely on strangers for help and consolation, strangers who often have agendas of their own. For Susie, measuring out trust is a daily struggle, particularly for a New York girl who grew up street smart and wary of the kindness of strangers.

Despite the fact that Susie and Claire were friendly in college, they were not necessarily close when they started out on their journey, never having roomed together or done more than meet once or twice a month for coffee. While they have that illusory sense of soul-mated-ness that can only come from having both survived Freshman English at Brown together, travel begins to emphasize their differences. Gilman is a spunky wise ass who grew up poor and went to Brown on financial aid. Claire is a wealthy Connecticut princess whose brother roomed with JFK Jr in college. Fractures begin to appear in their friendship. Susie finds herself becoming increasingly frustrated with Claire's fastidious quirks, like refusing to eat fish or to use pit toilets which, in China, will leave you hungry and in danger of pooping your pants pretty fast.

Wrestling with her own expectations and fears, Susie easily dismisses Claire's increasingly strange and erratic behavior as either forgivable cultural adjustment or unforgivable spoiled Connecticut princess bratty-ness. When Claire tells Susie about a fling she had over the summer with an Israeli boat hand at the country club who was, Claire is certain, a member of the Mossad, Susie doesn't think twice. What college girl hasn't exaggerated the qualities of some shlub to justify why she made out with them? When Claire freaks out over a Beijing map which shows a building labeled "PLO", Susie understands that it's not actually a consulate for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, but dismisses Claire's hysteria as something caused by sheltered US college kid syndrome combined with foreign travel exhaustion. When Claire announces mysteriously that she must go off on her own to make "contacts" for a graduate level "global curriculum" she is writing, A+ Brown student Susie is only jealous that she hadn't thought of doing such a thing first, and hurt that her friend wont include her.

While it becomes increasingly clear to the reader, and the older wiser author, that Claire is heading for a full blown pschizophrenic breakdown, it also very clear why the obvious is not at all evident to the young Susie. Disassociated and discombobulated herself, her friend's behavior just seems part and parcel of what it means to hurl yourself into the great unknown. When Claire angrily insists that the two leave Shanghai immediately in order to follow their Chinese friend to his village down the coast, Susie thinks Claire is jealous of the cute Australian sailor Susie picked up at the hostel. When Claire complains about the noise, the crowds and all the voices that surround them, it never occurs to Susie that Claire doesn't mean the inescapable millions of people in China, but is in fact talking about the voices in her head. Fresh from college, itself a world full of high hysteria and low melodrama and where erratic behavior is the norm, it's a long time, too long, before Susie realizes that her friend is dissolving right in front of her eyes.

It's safe to say that communist China tops the list of lousy places to have a mental breakdown, falling somewhere between Victorian England and Inquisitorial Spain on the list of Really Shitty Places to be Crazy. If the breakdown in question involves lots of muttering about CIA and Mossad assassination attempts the stakes are even higher, and the losing hand ends up disappeared in a Chinese prison, or worse. The transition the book makes from droll to harrowing is gradual but powerful. Clearly this is a story that Susan Jane Gilman has wanted to tell for a long time, and she writes the hell out of it. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven begins as a travelogue of youthful indiscretion but it ends as a white knuckle thriller, in which the most terrifying enemies are not the Chinese secret police but the myopia of youth and the terrifying specters of the mind.


Georgia said...

WOW -- sounds great!!! I'm getting on the list for it.

Lopez Kilpatrick said...

You had told me about it, but that made it move to the must read list immediately.