The star of Nell Freudenberger’s debut novel, The Dissident, is Yuan Zhao, a tight-lipped Chinese artist and activist who, having won a kind of human rights sweepstakes, finds himself living with a generically dysfunctional, primly liberal Los Angeles family. Over there, Freudenberger explains, Yuan was a central node of Beijing’s underground art scene, dogged by authorities for his circuitously political, sometimes naked, performances. Over here Yuan is merely a quiet enigma. Students at the local all-girl prep school, where he’s installed as artist in residence, find him odd— inscrutable, even.
Yuan’s designated outsider underlines the ridiculousness of the local situation. The affluent host family slowly unspools: The son’s Mexican girlfriend challenges their colorblindness, duty and desire clash, and nobody truly gets anyone else, least of all the reticent artist—”the Chinaman,” as the endearingly pathetic Uncle Phil terms him—who never works. Scandals ensue, hastened by things unsaid and poor fact checking. Nobody bothers to ask Yuan much about his past, for example. “You’ll want to bring some Chinese clothes,” his mysterious, free-spirited cousin suggests during a flashback. “They love that in Los Angeles.”
Freudenberger’s 2003 short story collection, Lucky Girls, disturbed the neat cosmopolitanism of backpackers and study-abroad types. And as a sketch of human folly set amid a similar kind of collision, The Dissident is a charming, breezy read: Yuan’s idiom-heavy speech and the clipped, almost-racist things people say in reply testify to Freudenberger’s skill at shading in these eclectic situations. But her characters, while inviting, rarely feel complicated enough to respond to her story’s delicately layered conceit—or guard its not-so-jarring secret. By the end, the petty injuries of Yuan’s climactic life-as-art performance pale against the miseries that first delivered him on this bizarre vacation among the spiritually polluted.