Edward 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 work.

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 fate.

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.

Quin's "Shanghai 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.

© Jeff Topham 2002

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©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016