Saturday, December 4, 2010

American Conspiracy in China – A Review for Rock Paper Tiger

Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackmann, Soho Press, $25, hardcover

Reviewed by Bob Eberlein

Lisa Brackmann has put out a terrific thriller that runs us around China on an adventure including sightseeing, espionage, terrorism, torture and, of course, art. Rock Paper Tiger is the never-boring, fast moving story of a woman wounded in Iraq finding unexpected refuge in China, only to have the nightmares of the Iraq war revisit her.

It starts with the innocuous meeting of Ellie, the protagonist, with her occasional boyfriend Lao Zhang, and a Uygur man from Xinjiang who some believe is a terrorist. The meeting itself would never have happened but that Ellie’s cell phone ran out of money. That small failure in life management is pretty typical for Ellie. An encounter with an IED in Iraq has also left her with a leg that causes constant pain and a disposition that is often downright skittish. Those bits of her characters, along with the general impulsiveness that seems to be her trademark, lead Ellie into lots of trouble very quickly.

From Beijing, to Taiyuan, to Xian, to Chengdu, and finally to Treasure Chicken Village is a quick little tour of China. Each segment has a different motivation: fleeing, seeking, hiding, compulsion; all drive Ellie around the country. There are Americans in suits and Chinese in and out of uniform after her. With only a vague understanding of what they want, Ellie must do her best to avoid them, while also trying to get hold of Lao Zhang, who is nowhere to be found.

Running in parallel with the physical travel around China is the back story of Ellie’s time in Iraq, and the failed marriage that brought her to China. We also get to delve into an online game that is used for pleasure and conspiratorial communication.

In addition to be a good page turner with pointed reflections on social and individual responsibilities, Rock Paper Tiger sets itself apart by the stimulating comparison of abuse of power between the agents of the American and Chinese hegemons.  I will not mince words, both are portrayed in a pretty grim manner, and neither is a stranger to violence. The priorities and rationales for that brutality are distinct, except that both involve protection against a perceived existential threat. It does not, of course, occur to those involved in snuffing out these threats that their own actions are probably as destructive as anything they are trying to stop. On the contrary, every person upholding some national goal is righteously convinced that he (yes they are all men) is doing the right thing.

There are vivid descriptions of places in China and a few ins and outs of the culture, thinking and language of people in modern China, which give the novel a nice flavor. Those excellent descriptions tend to overshadow the parts of the stories set in Iraq. Apart from the weather and the profusion of explosions and torture, those parts could have been set most anywhere in America.  That, however, is consistent with Ellie’s personality and experience. I have no trouble believing that some people enter a country never to really see it. The interesting question is whether one of those people can enter another country and become engaged with it. That is certainly what happens to Ellie.

There is also a curious religious theme in the book, though it does not seem to be completely tied together. A friend of mine once made the interesting observation that in times of dyer need people can find, or lose, religion. For Ellie it was definitely the latter, while for her estranged husband it was the former.

Perhaps the terrific pacing through the entire book spoiled me, but when I got to the end, I was a little disappointed. While tying everything up in a bow is nice for a whodunit novel, it is not as necessary for a what-the-hell book. There are lots of things that could have been left unsaid to better effect. And though I do like it when the protagonist recognizes her own responsibility for creating the problems she is struggling with, in this case I think that acceptance of responsibility is a bit over the top.

Rock Paper Tiger is a fun read with a dark side. Definitely worth considering.

1 comment:

Other Lisa said...

Hey, thanks for the perceptive review!

At the risk of posting something spoilerish (and I'll skip down a few lines if you want to avoid anything even potentially spoilerish)...

Among all the American and Chinese authoritarians abusing their power, there's a woman who is one of the worst of the bunch.

Lisa (Brackmann)