I first read Quin’s Shanghai Circus around my freshman year in college, when I was hot off devouring the whole series of Vonnegut’s novels in their Dell paperback editions. I found a used copy of the Popular Library paperback edition of Circus and was convinced to buy it from the first three sentences alone:
Some twenty years after the end of the war with Japan a freighter arrived in Brooklyn with the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue. The owner of the collection, a huge, smiling fat man named Geraty, presented a passport to customs that showed he was a native-born American about as old as the century, an exile who had left the United States nearly four decades before. The collection contained all the pornographic works written in Japan during the last three hundred and fifty years, or since the time when Japan first closed itself to the West.
I took the book straight home and proceeded to read it in the space of about two days. It was wild, complicated and constantly over the top in its details: Geraty’s penchant for stuffing gobs of wasabi up his nose; Baron Kikuchi, the Japanese aristocrat and spymaster who could sleep with his glass eye open, making others believe he had superhuman powers of concentration; Father Lamereaux, the pederast priest; the horrifying account of the Japanese army’s atrocities in its rape of Nanking. Whittemore made Vonnegut seem tame in comparison. The book remained in my memory as one of my most intense reading experiences and that paperback has traveled with me through a dozen moves since then.
So it was on my books to devote a long post to when I started working on this site. I felt certain I would be offering up a wonderful box of treasures in bringing it to light again.
I was wrong–others had already written posts about it, even before I started the site: Jeff Van Der Meer on the SF Site in 2002; the late Bob Sabella on his Visions of Paradise blog in 2005. Others followed thereafter: Dan Schmidt on his Dfan blog in 2009, Chad Hull on his Fiction is Overrated blog in 2010. And it turned out that a small press, Old Earth Books, had reissued Circus, along with the four books in Whittemore’s subsequent Jerusalem Dreaming quartet, with an introduction by novelist John Nichols, in 2002.
Still, with such a vivid memory of the book, I knew I had to give it a second reading.
Ah, there are some experiences best left in memory.
Quin’s Shanghai Circus is, without a doubt, an impressive work of story-telling. Although the novel is set mostly in Japan and China, Whittemore’s approach more resembles the intricacies of the most ornate Islamic scripts, in which one wonders how anyone could manage to unravel a text from the twists and coils and overlapping strokes. It’s not surprising that he shifted his setting to the Middle East after this book.
According to his biographies, Whittemore spent some years working in the Far East for the CIA. Doing just what is never revealed. Personally, I find the fact that he let this be mentioned revealing. From my experience, people who consider themselves espionage professionals are exceptionally tight-lipped and discreet. There’s a joke in the DC area that you can always tell that someone works for the CIA when they respond, “I work for the government,” to questions about what they do for a living.
On the other hand, I’ve run into ex-GIs who weave elaborate accounts of their “black ops” days, who describe suitcases full of cash and unbelievably precise surveillance technology, who seem to have inhabited a world where everyone was on the take and nothing was as it seemed. Personally, I have become a great skeptic of conspiracies and secrecy. If conspiracies were managed as well as they’re usually claimed to have been, then it seems to me that the easiest way to solve the world’s problem would be to make everything a conspiracy. Do we really save our most extraordinary ingenuity and very best organizational skills for conspiracies, making do with second-best for everything else in life?
Which leads me to suspect that Whittemore was only a very accomplished version of those ex-GIs whose bullshitting verged on the rococo. Reading Quin’s Shanghai Circus as a middle-aged father and mortgage-payer was a considerably different experience than it was when I was a virgin teenager. Today, the book seems to belong with what I call the Playboy Magazine school of fiction.
Back in the days when men would claim that they read Playboy for the writing, there was a certain type of brittle sophistication to the stories it would publish. Brittle like the magazine itself, for poke through the ads for Scotch and cigarettes and English sportscars, and you would find each month’s installment of Little Annie Fanny.
Probably a big reason I thought better of Quin’s Shanghai Circus in recollection was Whittemore’s graphic description of the horrors of the assault on Nanking (you can find a long excerpt in Jason Lundberg’s post on the book). It is so brutal, it has the effect of giving the rest of the novel a solid base of seriousness. But reading it for second time, I found the passage more offensive in its use than in its contents. To be honest, it seemed to have been included more for its shock value than for its function in developing the story, and I questioned Whittemore’s right to appropriate the event for what would otherwise be just an entertainment (here I’m appropriating Greene’s use of the term).
I’m sure that not everyone would have the same reaction to the novel or Whittemore’s other works. At least one thesis (“Opening the Window to Edward Whittemore: Systems that Govern Human Experience”, by Joseph Winland, Jr.) has been published, and more will probably follow. Anne Sydenham has created a website, Jerusalem Dreaming, devoted to his work. There you will find numerous expressions of praise, including this quote from Tom Robbins: “One of the best-kept secrets in American literature, the novels of the mysterious Edward Whittemore are like bowls of hashish pudding: rich, dark, tasty, amusing, intoxicating, revelatory, a little bit outlandish and a little bit unsafe.”
All I can say is: if a bowl hashish pudding sounds good to you, go right ahead and dig in. Don’t let me stop you.