Who can believe in Beijing? Only those who’ve never been and those who’ve left…
Not too long ago I wrote about Jonathan Tel’s 2003 novel Freud’s Alphabet, which has embedded photographs at the head of selected chapters. His new book of short stories The Beijing of Possibilities (Other Press, 2009) also contains embedded photographs, but this time they are more randomly placed in the manner of W.G. Sebald. Tel’s cities (Freud’s Alphabet is really about London) are wonderful constructs of the imagination. “While in New York he writes about Beijing, while in Beijing he writes about New York,” reads the blurb about Tel on the cover of Beijing. His books continue a rich literary tradition going back at least to Baudelaire of presenting cities as juxtapositions of the random and the fortuitous, where it’s almost possible to believe in the impossible.
Tel’s Beijing is a vast, unknowable stage where opposites clash. In a number of his stories, almost like a scientist working with lab rats, Tel drops honest but naive country people down in the midst of urban chaos to see how they manage. Other stories pit sophisticated world travelers against Chinese who have never left their neighborhood, the technological present against the fading traditions of grinding hard work, people with scruples against those without. In Tel’s world the result is not a morality play. Instead, things are often resolved by blending, twining, or mirroring the protagonists. People exchange lives, a maid and her employer’s daughter become one, characters disappear into their fate.
She slipped on her robe and got a screwdriver and went out into the corridor and removed the 23 from the apartment door – because those who know where they live, know, and those who are invited will be told, and those who neither know nor are invited really have no business here.
The book itself is set up like the ouroboros, the serpent which turns and swallows its own tail. It begins with a Foreword about Beijing (“the center of the universe”) by a “Helan Xiao”, followed by Tel’s Preface, in which he mentions befriending the poet Helan Xiao. In the book’s final story, The Most Beautiful Woman in China, Helan Xiao is a struggling writer who is given the opportunity to write the libretto for an opera called The Most Beautiful Woman in China. In the end she is cheated out of both credit and fame and decides to write a book of short stories to be published abroad under a foreign pseudonym. “She pretended a foreign author had made up these stories – a tall, handsome, courteous man – …[who] humbly requested the right to translate her own works into English and to publish it under his name…” At the very end, The Beijing of Possibilities turns and swallows its own tale.
It strikes me as rather arbitrary that Tel uses one and only one photograph for each of his stories (plus a final photograph facing the Acknowledgements page). The photographs – which I like as images – nevertheless seem incidental, contributing little to the text or to the sense of Beijing as a largely imaginary place. If anything, the photographs seem more like source material for ideas and characters within the story. Highly recommended.