79 China: Was (Not Was)

I was attending a panel at WisCon entitled “Neglected Authors” or somesuch. Actually, I was supposed to have been on the panel (not that I’m neglected or anything, that’s another story) having volunteered and been volunteered for it at dinner the night before, but when I arrived, I noticed that the other panelists had come prepared: they had actually brought copies of books by neglected authors! I made one of those lightning-fast decisions I’m known for, and took a seat on the aisle, managing to hide the list of authors that I had made off the top of my head the night before. Wow, I said to myself, and not for the first time, this convention’s serious.

Sure enough, the panelists not only displayed the books they had brought, but they actually read passages from the books. At fifteen minutes before the end of the panel, the presenters opened the floor to comments and additional neglected authors that the audience would like to share. Ah! Now was my turn. I was quick to second the commendations for Thorne Smith and James Branch Cabell, but I wanted to take the panel on a more modern track: I offered an author who could benefit now from being unneglected. I proposed that everyone read Barry Hughart.

For those of you who haven’t yet discovered the adventures of Number Ten Ox and Master Li (he with the slight flaw in his character), they are set in a China ‘that never was.’ Hughart’s source material is the wealth of folk tradition that China has to offer, and if it seems like a breath of fresh air, it’s because your nose is finally smelling something other than the putrid mess that is medieval England and Wales. Hughart is a fantasist, though, and his world is filled with magic and wonder, gods, maidens, drunk philosophers, mad tyrants, and deluded monks. He is also a very good writer, and these books contain belly-laughs and tear-wringers–phrases that you would have sold your dog to the butcher to have written.

The panelists and audience who had read The Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone or Eight Skilled Gentlemen agreed with me, and the panel came to a close. I patted myself on the back, being careful not to strain my arm, for accomplishing another good deed, certainly this early in the morning, when an audience member came up to me and said, “The Laughing Sutra.”

“The what?” I answered. I’m not quite as brilliant when I’m put on the spot.

The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman,” she repeated for my enlightenment. “You were the one recommending Hughart, right?”

“Yes, yes.” I rummaged in my sports coat for a pen and a piece of paper. “Would you please spell it for me?” That’s the trouble with conventions: don’t go if you aren’t prepared to do some serious addition to the stack of books going unread beside your bed.

“S-A-L-Z-M-A-N. He also wrote a non-fiction book called Iron & Silk about his experiences living in China. The Laughing Sutra is a novel, similar to Hughart’s except it’s set in modern China. The Monkey King is a character. You’ll like it.”

Don’t ask me how she was able to judge my tastes in such a short time. I figure she had some mysterious power of gong fu, or ‘the skill that transcends mere surface beauty.’ I said, “Thank you. I’m sure I will.”

Returning to Los Angeles after the con (stay with me here), I rewrote my lists of recommended books. Although it wasn’t quite as long as the lists I get after going to ArmadilloCon (or any time I see Lew Shiner, the most dangerous book-pusher [besides Mark Ziesing] this side of the Mississippi), it weighed heavy with George Zebrowski’s picks for five great neglected novels (Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Andrew Biely’s St. Petersburg, Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, and one that I’m sorry to say was too blotted from rain or alcohol experienced in Chicago to be legible). These, I say to myself, I will look for, and then look at, and maybe, possibly, if they pass my exacting standards, I will buy. (This, I am told, is a potent Buddhist mantra for delivery from the horrors of uncontrolled book purchasing. Or is it delivery to the horrors of uncontrolled book purchasing? No, no–that’s Ziesing’s toll-free number.)

But then, what should appear before my eyes in the Los Angeles Times Calendar (that’s the entertainment section) but an ad for a new movie titled Iron & Silk. I look closer. It’s about a young American’s rite of passage in China. I look at the list of stars. Starring Mark Salzman. I read the fine print. Based on the book by Mark Salzman. Read his new novel, The Laughing Sutra, from Random House.

Zounds! My interest has reached its pique. It’s time to make a friendly phone call to upstate California wherein resides that hermitish bookseller, Ziesing. “Zo,” I say to this Mark fellow on the phone, “have you heard of zis Salzman?”

“Can’t say that I have, Glen, let me look ‘er up in these catalogs here.”

“The new book is from a major publisher, and the movie….”

“Got it right here, Glen. Now, how many am I supposed to order of these things?”

“Uh…how about you just order one and I read it. If it’s any good, I’ll send you something for your catalog?”

“Okey-dokey. Anything else.” Since the mantra has failed me, I go ahead and order more books. “These books’ll go out later, maybe even next week,” Mark asks, “Is that okay?” Heavens to murgatroid, I think, looking at the nice bookshelf containing part of the 100+ books that I have yet to read. “That will be fine. Be seeing you,” I say.

Well, the next week I’m down in Westwood seing the new Albert Brooks film, Defending Your Life. (I’d give it two thumbs up, although I think Broadcast News was a more sustained satirical work. Defending Your Life does have a wonderful Shirley McClain cameo. You know, if L. Ron or Whitley could act like Shirley, I think I could forgive them some of their brain-washing. But then, I think again, probably not.) Anyway, I’m leafing through the Los Angeles Reader, when what do I see but, “Book Soup presents MARK SALZMAN, star of Iron & Silk, signing The Laughing Sutra. Wednesday, 7:00 p.m.”

Okay, fine. God or Buddha or the Fickle Finger of Fate has spoken. Who cares if my books from Mark haven’t arrived yet. A signing is a signing! So, I see this Mark fellow (that’s Salzman, not Ziesing) at this Book Soup place. I walk in and he’s talking about his new novel, and it goes something like this:

“Okay, well, this new book is fiction and one of the main characters is the Monkey King. Now, in Chinese folk lore, the Monkey King is actually a monkey who acts like a man but has all these strange and wonderful powers. Well, I didn’t really want to write about a monkey, so I changed him into this man, this immortal who wakes up every now and then. When the people see him they feel awed at first and can’t believe that it’s him, but he convinces them, but then later they get tired of the novelty, so he’s gotten tired of revealing himself to the people. But he’s not the main character. The main character is this orphan who’s been raised by a Buddhist monk who’s read all the sutras except for one, The Laughing Sutra, and the orphan has to find it. It’s a quest novel, really.”

I think, oh, great. That’s an original idea.

But the audience seems more interested by the non-fiction book. My guess is that they saw the movie (this is West Hollywood, after all). So he starts talking about that:

“Well, I didn’t really know I was writing a book. You see, I came back from China in 1984 and I had nothing to do. Really, I was sitting around Connecticut, and all my friends were investment bankers (they’re all in jail now) and they said, ‘Mark, you’re always telling us these stories from China, why don’t you write them down.’ I thought, ok, so I wrote some down. Then another friend had a friend who was in banking or publishing, he really didn’t know, and suggested I send these stories to her. Well, I did. She calls, says that she liked the stories, asks if I have any more. I go, yeah (even though I didn’t). She said she’d like to see them. So I wrote a few more and sent them off. She called and said she’d like to see the rest. I said that I preferred sending them a little at a time.” The audience, and I, laughed.

“The way publishing works is I finished the book and it didn’t come out for a year. I went back to China to visit, and it hadn’t been published when I left. So, here I am returning on this international flight, and the matron that sits next to me says, ‘You look like a very nice boy,'” he imitates a doddering woman, “‘What do you do?’ she asks me. I say that I just wrote this book about my travels in China, and she says, ‘That’s nice.’ Later on this flight, she’s reading the New York Times and says, ‘Look at this here. This man also wrote a book about his stay in China, and they say it’s very good.’ So I’m fuming, thinking, Damn, my book didn’t get out in time, and here this fellow is stealing my thunder. And then I look over and see myself in the paper, and it’s my book.” The crowd laughs again.

Someone asks him about playing himself in the movie: “That was an unfortunate act of ego. Someone had offered me some money to make the movie, but I was really naive about the business and just pushed it aside. Then I heard about this independent filmmaker (whose film about the Great Wall I had just loved) who was in town. I was trying to figure out how I could meet her when a friend called me up, saying that he was supposed to take someone to the airport and that he couldn’t, and asked if I’d do it for him. I go pick up this person, and it’s the filmmaker. So, here we are in my trashy VW, she has to hold her feet up because it’s got no floorboard, and she says, ‘You’re Mark Salzman, aren’t you?’ She says, ‘Don’t sell the rights to your book, I may be interested.’ She talks to me later and says, ‘I’m an independent filmmaker, which means that I can’t pay you money, but how would you like to be in the film? You could play yourself.’ Who would turn down a chance like this?”

Someone asks him about making the movie in China: “The Chinese want you to make a movie there, but you have to co-produce it with one of their movie-making companies. This is how they train their movie-makers. We paid up front and were promised the best equipment, workers, actors. When we arrived, we had freshman college students who had never seen a camera and a bunch of toasters.”

I’m sold–two books, in fact. I get them signed, saying nice things to this Salzman fellow who acts like a comedian, is only 31, and has starred in his own major motion picture.

What are the books like? (You knew I would get around to it sometime, right?)

Iron & Silk is a book of vignettes from Salzman’s experience as a foreigner in China. Sent to teach English to medical students, Salzman soon discovers that he is as much student as teacher. The cultural differences are portrayed without the slightest degree of bias, either pro- or anti-Western. These shorts are almost Zen, neither explained nor explainable, just there. If one can comprehend the situation, or the motivations of all participants, then they make sense–otherwise, they remain hidden, waiting for the reader to achieve the knowledge necessary for enlightenment. But the stories are always entertaining.

The Laughing Sutra, although fiction, is the perfect counterpoint to Iron & Silk. Salzman is the main figure in Iron & Silk, showing the cultural differences between the American and Chinese through his viewpoint. In The Laughing Sutra, he is able to turn the tables and present these differences from the viewpoints of a modern Chinese and an ancient Chinese (Salzman’s language specialty was classical Chinese, which is to modern Mandarin what Latin is to Italian). The story line may be a quest, but it is a quest under a different sort of rules than American fantasy. Here, the quest is one of duty, one of loyalty. Here, the heroes are brave yet unsure, truly innocents abroad. The immortal Monkey King is the only ‘fantastic’ thing about the book, but the viewpoints are so much more different than our own that the entire world seems strange, even when they reach San Francisco.

I once recommended Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides and A.A. Anastasio’s Wyvern for being two sides of the same coin. In these novels of piracy on the Carribbean, Powers had taken real history and grafted on fantasy elements, while Attanasio had taken fantasy and made it seem real. And so are Barry Hughart and Mark Salzman fellows of a coin too. Hughart takes folklore that is alien to us and explains it to us in terms we can understand, while Salzman (in The Laughing Sutra) has taken a portion of reality, and used it to make our world seem alien.

In science fiction, we make much ado about our aliens, but I think Salzman knows the real story: we are our own best aliens.

[Originally published in The Shingletown Inquirer (Mark V. Ziesing’s book catalogue), #93, May 1991.]

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