Book reviews: Planet China and Temple of Heaven

Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman, reads almost like a mystery novel, except the mystery is why two naive teenagers who’d never been away from home before would decide to go to China in 1986.  You kind of know the mystery right up front.

But the rest of the story is gripping, the kind of book you finish with a moan of acquiescence and then guiltily flip back to the beginning to start all over again.  In 1986, China had only barely opened to tourism — hard to fathom in a world where transpacific flights and increasing border safety mean we can stride across the world with our backpacks, and yet still never set foot in a place where tourists and their ubiquitous Lonely Planet guides have not trod.

China in 1986 was isolated and extreme, and Ms Gilman’s story reads like an extreme of that isolation; traveling with a school friend who inexplicably (well, it does get explained, as the book cascades towards its conclusion, but whatever) disappears for days at a time, the day to day boring minutiae of functioning blind in a society that makes you feel illiterate are mixed with poignant emotional statements and  stand-out anecdotes, all of which are tied together with a deeper thread of overarching plot and drive.

Ms. Gilman and the beautiful blonde Claire decide on a whim to circumnavigate the globe, and find themselves starting their trip in China: still Communist, not sure what to do with tourists, and full of both spoken and unspoken rules (example of the former: record all your belongings on a customs form, because you’ll need to produce them to leave the country. Example of the latter: don’t act crazy). As their trip progresses, Gilman and Claire find themselves weaving in and out of people’s lives, getting sick, getting better, visiting a town that isn’t even on a Chinese tourist map, and getting on each other’s nerves.

Aside from Gilman’s New York Jewish neuroses and Claire’s Hilton Head obliviousness, the real protagonist is China itself; it’s a China that no longer exists (as Gilman points out in her last chapter, when she returns in 2007 to the same places she visited in 1986) and one we might feel safer observing from a distance anyway.

Lost on Planet China is Maarten Troost’s 3rd book and only one set outside of the South Pacific islands that he called home for numerous years. The book, published in 2008, basically comes to the conclusion that China is a nation suffering from overly-rapid growth and environmental collapse, where the ambitious drive to succeed outstrips everything else.  There is an almost claustrophobic sense of conformity and disparity: between rich Chinese and poor Chinese, between Chinese and everyone else (especially the despised Japanese, he learns in Nanjing), and between Chinese and Troost.

He acts a bit like a pinball, ricocheting from one uncomfortable, filthy situation to another, straining against social mores that involve shoving in lines and revering Mao Zedong despite gross human rights violations. The Chinese are not like us, he seems to conclude.  China is like nowhere else. He avoids even a hint of American elitism or fussing over language barriers; instead, he lets his own bewildered experiences and the facts speak for themselves.

This eye-opening portrait of China is painted with humor, but definitely no affection; it reads a bit like an expose of a childhood sweetheart who turned out to be Pol Pot: you remember loving them once, but for the life of you, can’t remember why.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | November 17, 2009
Category: Travel Writing

One Response to “Book reviews: Planet China and Temple of Heaven”

  1. Ted Beatie Says:

    I found Planet China a disappointment after reading both of Troost’s other books, Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned with Savages, both of which conveyed a rough, not-what-the-author-anticipated experience in a humorous and thought-provoking way. They were a joy to read, and I was excited when Planet China came out, hoping to see his take on a new destination.

    Unfortunately, all I came away with was an understanding that he seemed to hate China, regretted going there, and found nothing good about the experience. It made me wonder how the book came to be – did he choose to go there, or did his agent/editor decide to send him on a trip to see what would happen? The humor that filled his first two books was drowned in a sea of bitterness that made it a very unsatisfying read for me.

    I’m currently reading an older book on China, The River at the Center of the World, which follows Simon Winchester as he makes his way up the Yangtze river. In it he discusses the China of the past and the present, highlighting both it’s beauty and it’s dark underbelly, with wit and respect.