In Other Words
All Things Tending Towards the Eternal by Kathleen Lee; Muse by Jonathan Galassi
by Kathleen Lee, Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 312 pages
All Things Tending Towards the Eternal, a novel by Santa Fe-based author Kathleen Lee, is the kind of book that is “about” something (travels through China in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square protests) but is really about everything. This is a book that grapples with suffering, joy, death, solitude, communion, culture, fate, and random acts with either no repercussions or with long, rippling effects. Above all, it is about the perpetual human struggle to understand what we cannot, and our insistence on trying anyway.
Fanny Molinari has come to China from Albuquerque in search of specific answers. Her brother, Bruno, died in a motorcycle accident amid ambiguous circumstances (at age forty-four, a year older than Fanny is), and Fanny is using his travel journal as a guide to his life, moving toward the places he visited and the people he met. Bruno had not told Fanny about some of the encounters he wrote about, and she fears that she knew less about her brother than she had always assumed.
From the start, her journey is weighted down by the random nature of death. While Fanny sits on the deck of the ship that will take her from Japan to China, she watches as a young man lifts up an older woman and tosses her into the sea. The man, it turns out, did not know the woman. He had not taken his medication. The murder is an isolated event, a strange “encounter with chaos.” Fanny continues into China, perhaps a bit shaken but otherwise unaffected.
In Guangzhou, as she hauls around her “clumsy load of grief,” Fanny meets the first of four men who will affect her odyssey. Daniel, a confident-bordering-on-arrogant Englishman, charms her. They share a meal, during which she drops a Ziploc bag with her brother’s ashes on the table, and after which Daniel vanishes long enough for the bill to get paid.
Daniel is a schemer. He enlists two Chinese men — Zhou, a taxi driver whose love of Dickens has made his English delightfully antiquated, and Zhou’s friend Lui, who dreams of opening a nightclub — in a plot to get money from foreigners. Lui pretends to be an escaped demonstrator from Tiananmen Square, with Zhou acting as his translator. The men collect money from their audiences, claiming they are doing so for the cause of democracy in China.
When Daniel invites Fanny to one of Zhou and Lui’s gatherings, she doesn’t buy the performance. Neither does the fifth main character, Yevgo Velasquez, a sixty-three-year-old cab driver visiting from San Francisco. Yevgo nonetheless trusts Zhou and asks him to take Yevgo on his own journey: across thousands of miles of Chinese landscape, to Tashkent (in present-day Uzbekistan), the hometown Yevgo left decades ago. Liu and Daniel join the trip, and the four men head out in a rickety taxi whose floors are strewn with peanut shells. Their trip and Fanny’s will overlap intermittently.
Lee is a masterful travel writer, depicting with immediacy the bustling of cities and the desolate endlessness of long stretches of country. There are images of wonderful vividness: lamps made of yak butter, a walk through a medley of scents of “vinegar, vegetable peelings, garlic, drains.” Observations are both precise and wide-reaching, pensive reflections on communist China. “What would happen to China,” Fanny wonders, “when its old people were gone — the people who had lived through its troubles? The men and their birds, the women and their Buddhism? … What would be lost when their perseverance and suffering were forgotten, the knowledge and experience in their cell structure buried with them?” Elsewhere she considers, “Perhaps irony was a concept so embedded in everyday life it didn’t require comment: the way the Chinese government seemed bent on profiting (that capitalist activity) from even the smallest opportunity, the way that materialism flourished in a communist country.”
Fanny was orphaned in high school and is unmarried and without children. Yevgo is divorced and traveling toward a homeland where he expects to learn that everyone he once knew is dead. Both are enveloped in solitude, and both have suffered deeply. Yet they are in a country where people suffer “on a grand scale,” where the “Cultural Revolution had elevated struggle to a kind of torture.” Lee’s novel is most effective in its reflections on suffering, whatever form it may take — from internal heartache to national repression.
The novel’s prose does not build up suspense or tension, even in moments leading to fights or physical danger. The aftermath of action scenes hardly even occurs; the travelers merely continue apace along their road. Lee defies plot convention in a way that perfectly fits the unconventionality of what her novel’s characters undergo. There is nothing predictable about life, except death — and that we will inevitably experience moments of beauty and adversity as we move toward its end. — Grace Labatt