Whittemore is the best American writer you've never heard
of. Whittemore, who died in 1995, published five remarkable
novels between 1974 and 1987, all of which quickly fell
out of print and have long languished in obscurity. This
past November, however, in an effort that should be lauded
as a public service, Old Earth Books reissued all five
of Whittemore's novels in nicely packaged trade paperback
editions, complete with new introductory material.
Why should you care? Because Edward Whittemore was one
of the finest writers of his generation and one of the
most intriguing American novelists of the last quarter-century.
His novels are intricate, sprawling and eccentric, elaborately
imagined and finely crafted. They are funny, moving and
profound, by turns comical and anguished. They are prolonged
meditations on history and the demands the past makes
upon the present, but they are also marvelous entertainments
sprung from a generous and singular imagination. There
are echoes, here and there, of writers as diverse as Thomas
Pynchon or Tom Robbins, but Whittemore's voice and themes
are fiercely, exuberantly, his own.
Whittemore is best
known for the four wonderful novels that comprise the "Jerusalem Quartet-Sinai Tapestry" (1977),
"Jerusalem Poker" (1978), "Nile Shadows"
(1983) and "Jericho Mosaic" (1987) - but it
is his stunning first novel, "Quin's Shanghai Circus" (1974), that in my opinion is his most complex and powerful
The novel opens
in the Bronx in 1965 with the arrival from Japan of
a huge man named Geraty, who brings with him an addiction
to Japanese horseradish, a Nestorian cross of inestimable
value and the largest collection of Japanese pornography
ever seen in the West. Geraty, we learn, has traveled
to New York to find a young man named Quin, whose parents
vanished in Shanghai in the aftermath of World War II,
and to convince him to travel to Japan to learn their
So begins Quin's
investigation into the secrets of his past, a search
that provides the framework on which Whittemore hangs
his dense and intricate tale. As Quin begins to question
his father's former associates, Whittemore unfolds the
complex story of an odd group of conspirators - Quin's
parents, a one-eyed general of the Japanese secret police,
a Catholic priest accused of pederasty, a Russian linguist
and anarchist - who formed a clandestine spy ring in
the 1930s and changed the course of WWII.
I'll be straight
with you: This is, in many ways, an odd novel. Whittemore
pushes the boundaries of realism toward (and occasionally
into) the surreal and the absurd, but even the novel's
strangest scenes are utterly convincing. Many will imprint
themselves indelibly upon the reader's imagination:
the meeting of four conspirators (all wearing gas masks)
on the beach at Kamakura; Geraty's midnight showings
of animal husbandry films that are received by his debauched
audience as pornography; Mama's comically elaborate
scheme to use strangulation and a chronic masturbator
to conceive a child for her aging lover.
Other scenes are
more like vivid nightmares of depravity and cruelty.
Whittemore's terse description of the atrocities attending
the sack of Nanking is one of the most profoundly painful
and viscerally affecting passages I can ever recall
reading, but these dark scenes are ultimately balanced
by quietly moving moments of tenderness and grace. History,
Whittemore shows us, encompasses both tragedy and farce,
and his particular strength is showing how the sweep
of history plays out in the lives of individual men
and women. At the center of this sprawling story
of espionage and war stands the flawed but very human
figure of the impostor and clown Geraty, whose anguished
penance and awkward stumbling toward redemption constitute
one of the major movements of the plot.
The story plays
out through a carefully orchestrated narrative that
weaves several different strands together, shifting
continually between past and present. It's a technically
dazzling performance, but it's also central to Whittemore's
conviction that memory can be as potent a force as lived
experience. The past, in this novel, is never really
lost, and for these characters that fact is both a blessing
and a curse.
Circus" is a work of considerable grace and power,
and it's one of life's bitter ironies that it was largely
unrecognized as such while Whittemore was still alive.
Old Earth Books is to be commended for rescuing this
and Whittemore's other novels from an undeserved obscurity,
and these new editions of his work will hopefully breathe
new life into his reputation and introduce a new generation
of readers to his remarkable and restless talent.
The piece was first
published in a slightly different form in The Third
Alternative No. 33.