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Quin's Shanghai Circus
Edward Whittemore
Old Earth Books, 311 pages

Quin's Shanghai Circus
Edward Whittemore
Edward Whittemore was born in 1933 in Maine, He graduated from Yale in 1955, afterwards joining the US Marine Corps. In 1958, he was recruited by CIA in Japan and worked for them in the Far East, Europe, Crete and Jerusalem. Quin's Shanghai Circus was published in 1974 followed by the titles comprising the Jerusalem Quartet [Sinai Tapestry (1977), Jerusalem Poker (1978), Nile Shadows (1983) and Jericho Mosaic (1987)] In 1995, he died of prostate cancer.

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A review by Jeff VanderMeer

In 1974, Henry Holt published an ex-CIA operative's first novel, Quin's Shanghai Circus. It was one of the most astonishingly original and assured debuts by any 20th century fiction writer. It received great praise in such venues as The New York Times Book Review and Harper's, but soon fell out of print. The author, Edward Whittemore, went on to write the four novels that formed his marvelous Jerusalem Quartet. Since then, Quin's Shanghai Circus, by virtue of being a stand-alone, has often been seen as a lesser work.

I approached Quin's warily on a personal level as well. How would I react to a book I had last read in 1994? Ironically enough, Whittemore comments on this very possibility in the novel:

Now let us recall that other circus, the circus we knew as children. The sweep of the trapeze acts, the grace of the dangerous cats, the ridiculous clowns, the lumbering elephants, the confusing jugglers, the flying bareback riders. A magical show without end because of the magic in a child's heart. Yet when we go back years later we see a different performance. The costumes are shoddy, the smells cheap, the clowns not quite so funny, the aerialists not quite so daring. The dream is gone and what we see is crude, even grotesque. Sadness? Yes. Because we know the circus hasn't changed.
Has Quin's Shanghai Circus changed, though? In re-reading the new Old Earth Books edition, which brings Quin's back into print after more than 20 years, I was relieved to find the same novel I remember -- audacious, unflinching, uncompromising. Ethereal yet savage. Tender yet coarse. An absurdist fantasy. A poignant snapshot of characters caught in the throes of history and in the throes of sin and redemption.

As is customary for a Whittemore novel, Quin's opens audaciously:

Some twenty years after the end of the war with Japan a freighter arrived in Brooklyn with the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue. The owner of the collection, a huge, smiling fat man named Geraty, presented a passport to customs that showed he was a native-born American about as old as the century, an exile who had left the United States nearly four decades before. The collection contained all the pornographic works written in Japan during the last three hundred and fifty years, or since the time when Japan first closed itself to the West... The manuscripts were illustrated with ink drawings exquisitely detailed to show every hair. Even the cat hairs could be counted, where cats appeared.
Geraty has returned to New York to find a man named Quin and send him on a quest to find out what happened to his parents, long presumed lost in Shanghai during World War II. Traveling to Japan with a mentally challenged orphan named Gobi, Quin finds himself drawn back through the past to discover the connections between a one-eyed man, a pederastic priest, and a Russian anarchist-pornographer who knew each other during the war.

In Whittemore's books, the past and present exist simultaneously because they exist simultaneously in his characters' minds. For example, Geraty, in a bar, trying to convince Quin to go to Japan toward the beginning of the book, exists in a kind of twilight between the present and the past:

He muttered to himself, Manchurian telephone numbers and Chinese addresses, the name of a bar in Mukden where he had gone to get drunk after buying a supply of films before the war, a description of Bubbling Well Road early one winter morning when he was on his way to a warehouse on the outskirts of Shanghai... He sneaked through the black-market district of Mukden late in 1934 and again in 1935, noting discrepancies... Smiling affably during the early months of the Occupation in Japan, having just stolen a secret intelligence report market with the code name Gobi, he ordered drinks for everyone in his favorite Tokyo bar and shouted out yet again the verses from St. Luke that obsessed him. He hiccupped. Someone was poking him in the ribs.
As Whittemore introduces the reader to memorable character after memorable character, all fates intertwined, the novel takes on an uncanny scope and depth. What is the secret of priest Lamereaux's clandestine meetings? Why does Geraty seek forgiveness from prostitutes in the early morning hours? Where does Gobi's name come from? Why did a picnic between four people wearing gas masks change the course of World War II?

In the process of discovering the answers to these questions, Quin also discovers the best and worst of human nature. Whittemore did not just take his CIA experience and create a novel out of it. Instead, he used that experience to create a surreal mélange of images and characters in which each element is lucid in its madness. Quin's displays recurring themes of tenderness and love, as in scenes between a former prostitute and a Japanese general. But Whittemore also never flinches from describing the worst horrors of war and of human savagery. The scenes from the rape of Nanking during World War II are among the most harrowing I've ever read in fiction.

Throughout the novel, Whittemore effortlessly shows the reader the connections between history and the profoundly personal. The ending of Quin's, the sheer humanity of it, still has the capacity to stun me. In all ways, the book earns its comparisons to the work of William Burroughs, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Barth.

Copyright © 2002 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others. Prime will release his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in April 2003.

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