Quin’s Shanghai Circus

Quin's Shanghai Circus

My notes tell me I got a review copy, via NetGalley, of this book on July 17, 2013.

I’m sure the folks at Open Road Media will be happy to know that, while the reviewing mill at MarzAat grinds exceedingly slow, it grinds exceedingly …

Well, perhaps not fine. There’s a lot going on in this novel. I’m not sure, after about a month, I totally understand the relationships between all the characters. That’s appropriate because one of Whittemore’s themes is “relationships can be quite complex. Quite complex when we look into it.”

One of the advantages of the Web of a Million Lies is that you can steal the work of others — or, if you prefer, draw upon the wisdom and insight of others.

So, in that spirit, I’ll refer you to others if you want a more detailed description of plot than what I’ll give in my review:

  • Jeff Topham’s review from 2003
  • Jerome Charyn’s review from New York Times Book Review, 1974.
  • A Time magazine article, circa 1974 from one J. S.

Quin’s Shanghai Circus was the first of Whittemore’s five novels, published from 1974 to 1987. None sold well though there were some favorable reviews. Old Earth Books mounted a resurrection operation on Whittemore’s reputation in 2003. (Whittemore died in 1995.)

It worked — at least in gaining critical favor. Gary K. Wolfe favorably reviewed all of Whittemore’s work in the March 2003 issue of Locus. Jeff VanderMeer wrote about Whittemore’s influence on him in 2002.

I don’t know how successful Old Earth Books was in terms of sales on Whittemore’s books, but, in 2013, Open Road Media attached the marketing electrodes up to Whittemore’s corpus and tried to revive his reputation again via e-book editions.

I remain agnostic on Whittemore’s worth.

I read his Sinai Tapestry in 2004. In my notes, I said it was “a picturesque novel with nothing much at the core”. That was my reaction to this one too, so I still don’t know if I’ll tackle the rest of the Jerusalem Quartet, as the series of Whittemore’s last four books are known.

Review: Quin’s Shanghai Circus, Edward Whittemore, 1974.

Tuneless, masterless

Come the acts of memory,

A Shanghai circus.

So, one character in this novel ponders before the apocalyptic end of Quin’s Shanghai Circus, a fake event in the middle of this novel.

There are two things you need to know about this novel.

It has no quotation marks.

It’s a spy’s novel, specifically a spy with a sense of drama.

And that’s what Whittemore was: an ex-CIA case officer who took up being a novelist.

The lack of quotation marks are a sign of the spy. Dialogue and personal statements aren’t any more privileged and accurate source of information than documents and personal observations. Sources lie, they misremember, they self-aggrandize, conveniently forget, or are double agents.

The drama comes in with Whittemore’s heavy use of foreshadowing, telling us what his characters don’t know, zooming back into history at the switch of a paragraph – to the Mongols, the late 19th century, and World War Two.

The plot starts with a mystery of motive and relationship. A clownish, fat man, given to constantly daubing horseradish under his nose, tries to get a massive collection of Japanese porn past the somewhat censorious U.S. customs officers of 1965. Failing that, he shows up at a bar, which just happens to share his last name, and tells a story to bartender Quin.

And, thus, we set off on a quest which is mostly about the revelation of hidden family relations, in turn tangled up with a Soviet intelligence operation in wartime Japan seemingly inspired, loosely, by Richard Sorge’s and Hozumi Ozaki’s activities.

Through it all we get misinterpretations, misunderstandings, deceptions and conceptions and a deceptive conception perpetrated by a priest of eidetic memory, a sadistic policeman, a whore of 10,000 customers, that fat man peddling fake pornographic movies, a Russian anarchist, a Kempeitai officer, an international mobster, a Japanese rabbi, and a not so innocent retarded man. And then there’s Quin’s father, proprietor of a circus of debauchery in Shanghai.

Grotesqueries and dark farces abound: the anus as dead drop; the image of Japanese prostitutes nullifying the influence of the foreign sailors swarming ashore at Japanese ports; a picnic of four gas-masked figures on a Japanese beach; the fat man magically echoing, at novel’s end, and the journey of the legendary monk Nichiren (predictor of the kamikaze that saved Japan from the Mongols).

Here’s some of the flavor.

Speaking of one Father Lamereaux’s espionage: “It recognized for the first time the very simple concept that espionage, the collection and storage of information, was based on the principle of man’s anus.”

On those patriotic Japanese prostitutes:

Here and there a whore lay temporarily unconscious, but most were walking home on their own sturdy legs, limping perhaps, certainly exhausted, but with their sea chests bulging with money from around the world. Behind them they left carnage and ruin, snoring carcasses from a hundred distant ports, the broken lust of foreigners. Once again a handful of heroines had won total victory in the nightly Yokohama battle, and all over Japan innocent women and children were able to sleep safely because of it.

One of what Wolfe called Whittemore’s tall tales of history:

Before the war more generals in Japan died from the rupture of a vital organ due to excessive gas than from any other cause. And although the public was unaware of it, having always been given more heroic versions, it was not until the very last stages of the war that the American B-29 bomber replaced indigestion as the leading cause of death among generals on the active duty list.

And the real grotesquerie at the center is a three page, detailed listing of atrocities committed during the Japanese rape of Nanking during World War Two.

It’s a readable book, bizarre in its incidents. Those who like puzzles might enjoy figuring out the sexual and genetic relationships of the characters. It is part of one of the novel’s themes, the complexity of relationships. Other of Whittemore’s concerns, both very spyish, is understanding the order behind history’s chaos and how we can never be totally sure of each other’s past.

A bit of magic or, as John Clute said, “fabulistic elements“, enter the story in the final chapter.

But it’s a book that, for me, fades from memory. Despite Wolfe’s claim that it is a secret history, it pales in presentation – if not colorful detail and setting – to others like Jake Arnott’s A House of Rumour or the fantastical secret histories of Tim Powers. It may, indeed, be a story of redemption for the fat man or a statement that history is fantasy, but, for me, it was a travelogue of curiosities and not empathetic engagement. Powers binds himself tightly in a matrix of documented facts when spinning his magical, secret history tales. Arnott produces some emotion by tightly controlling his approach to his themes. Whittemore is less disciplined and less effective though he uses far fewer documented historical incidents and figures.

Even the rape of Nanking and the apocalyptic finale of Quin’s circus left me noting incidents and feeling little. I suppose, in the end, I approached a spy’s novel like a certain kind of spy – just passing through, noting the details, and not feeling much for the locals.


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