A Review of Xu Xi’s “That Man in Our Lives,” by Jennifer Lee

Xu Xi, raised in Hong Kong but long occupying the “flight path connecting New York, Hong Kong, and the South Island of New Zealand,” might be called a writer of the diaspora. But diasporic stories often move from origin to destination, periphery to center. This novel, however, has no center, no periphery; its origins are hybrid, its destinations temporary. That Man in Our Lives extends the transnational universe of Xu Xi’s previous novels and references some familiar characters, but through its structure the novel undermines assumptions of movement from East to West.

The novel steadily defies convention and expectations. It begins with a mystery that is neither solved nor completely explained, while moving idiosyncratically through time, place, and character. The “man in our lives” is Gordie, a.k.a. Gordon Haight Ashberry, Gordon Marc Ashberry, “G,” Hui Guo, or Bugs Bunny. Gordie disappears in transit at Narita Airport, leaving his wallet, passport, and a twenty-year-old camel cashmere coat, “purchased at the Peninsula Hotel’s shopping arcade in Kowloon.” He dons a different outfit, and, with a passport under the name of Marshall Hayden, he books a flight to Detroit. After this, his whereabouts are unknown.

Xu Xi frays the reliability of the narrative in so many small ways, calling attention to the fraught nature of witnessing. “He stayed a month, the untreated cancer raging through him, and expired one night with only Gordie at his bedside, at least, that is how Annabel recalled it.” When characters die, the reader is given no sense of closure, just more loose ends. The story always backs away from something definitive, always moves in time and perspective, depicting the hybridity and hypocrisy of globalism which offers an increasingly large and widespread cache of symbols, but their meanings are neither consistent nor static.

Gordie is an absent central protagonist.He represents a certain fantasy of place which globalism has not alleviated, only complicated: the longing of the West for the East and all its exotic promises; as well as a certain Eastern longing for the America of manicured lawns, the bright lights of New York, the sultry sound of jazz, the possibility of reinvention. After his disappearance, That Man in Our Lives winds through the lives and memories of Gordie’s friends and their families, tracing their tangled relationships with one another, with America, and with China. Gordie is the figure who helps them articulate their secret selves: longings or transgressions hidden from those with whom they are closest. Gordie, after all, is the blue-blooded, Connecticut-raised man with an English butler who takes on a Chinese name and speaks the language like a native, whose father may or may not have been a spy. He embodies Money, Charm, Freedom, Sex, Jazz; alternately, he embodies their fears: full of movement but directionless, seeking love but never content.

In  Xu Xi’s work, social relationships are both globally dispersed and unavoidably interconnected. The investigator whom Pete Haight meets on the train knows Gordie’s family. Harold’s new girlfriend Laura’s ex-husband is his ex-wife Isobel’s new husband. This tapestry of interconnected and interdependent relationships brings to mind not only Dream of the Red Chamber but also Crazy Rich Asians, strikingly different books that, as Gish Jen might say, are more attentive to social roles and context than individual agency. By linking characters of heterogeneous national and cultural origin, Xu Xi challenges the implication that globalism equals Westernization.  Rather than becoming uniformly Western, these characters are described as flavors of Chinese. His best friend Larry Woo calls Gordie “Sino-American, which is not the same as being Chinese-American, which is what Larry is, or not, depending on your perspective.” Gordie’s former fiancee Stella, a government advisor on Sino-American relations, has a Kuomintang family heritage but is in favor of the People’s Republic. That Man in Our Lives subverts the dichotomies still so present in writing about China and “Chineseness”: insider/outsider, native/foreigner, victim/oppressor.  Characters change their names as they move from place to place, reinventing themselves in the process, drawing from a mishmash of Eastern and Western mythologies as well as high and low culture. Gordie is both the Monkey King and Bugs Bunny. Suet-fa becomes Tiara and then Tempest. Zhang Lianhe, also known as Minnie Chang, writes two different books: in English, she writes a pop culture, gossipy book; in Chinese, a serious examination of her alienation. Colette is described as “Tinkerbell, resonant as a Buddhist gong.” The pleasure of these sentences is in the way in which Xu Xi both acknowledges and subverts stereotype. To the staid, loyal English butler, Gordie says, “You sound too much like a Merchant Ivory film.” Because, let’s remember, that race/ethnicity is not a scientific construct but a social one, and we are all, in some way, defined, whether it is by favor or opposition.

The characters in this novel are all, like Gordie, in transit between cultures and languages, sometimes resisting and sometimes embracing the legacies of their parents, their countries, their personal histories. Xu Xi traces the provenance of the camel coat and the table which “once graced a tea shop in an English village and which Annabel had found in a thrift shop.”  Gordie and the other characters are the sum of all and yet none of these origins and dislocations, the sum of all and yet none of their relationships. The book is never really about Gordie’s disappearance, but about the problem of knowledge and authority in this world of global interconnection.

Who, for instance, is the narrator, who begins, ends, and comments on the story through “interludes”?  She last saw Gordie during Happy Hour in a bar called Morton’s, in the Sheraton in Hong Kong, when it was raining, but we never learn the details of her long relationship with Gordie, nor how she fits into the otherwise tight network of his friends and their families.      Any answer to the narrator’s identity must come, not from the story itself, but from the world outside the novel. Gordie calls her “X-woman;” she hails from Hong Kong; she attends the Asian-American Writer’s Workshop in New York. Xu Xi thus invites the reader to conflate author and narrator, to be aware of the ways in which the reader brings knowledge of the novel’s context into the process of interpreting its meaning.

The diasporas of the twenty-first century are no longer East to West but multi-directional, and people don’t stay put. Rather, they move back and forth, “desires adopted and shed at will in transnational, multicultural mingling.” On one hand, That Man in Our Lives is a mystery with no resolution, a romance with no orgasmic resolution, a story with no center. But it is also a novel which celebrates the pleasure of movement, of lawless mixing of language and register, and of reinvention.

 

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