Monday, December 22, 2014

"Last Days in Shanghai"

Casey Walker has a PhD in English Literature from Princeton University. His essays and short fiction have appeared in The Believer, Esquire, Narrative, Boston Review and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Iowa with his wife, novelist Karen Thompson Walker. Several trips he’s made to China, including one accompanying a delegation of officials from a small California city, laid some of the groundwork for his new novel, Last Days in Shanghai.

Walker applied the Page 69 Test to Last Days in Shanghai and reported the following:
Page 69:
“There’s a newer one,” I said. I was sure that was true. Bund had emailed a new itinerary twice daily in the final run-up to the trip. It was my job to manage the circus of changes, and I had failed at it.

“You didn’t let Mr. Polk know?”

“How come I’m talking to you? Polk can call when he’s in.”

“Mr. Polk is out sick.”

“He’s out sick?” I said. “He worked through chemo.”

Glenn had a suit he’d bought new for the internship, but he didn’t know to cut the jacket vents or the pockets, so he walked in it stiffly, with no place to put things. I never clued him in. He was eager enough, sometimes even helpful, but I could also see he was prone to red power ties and a creeping fascism.

“How’s the boss?” he asked.

“I can’t really tell,” I said.


“Go home,” I said. “Go back to bed.” I’d fallen asleep in my suit. I sat up and fumbled at the knot of my tie, yanking it hard and only tightening the knot. I steadied my fingers and went back like a surgeon and got the tie undone and popped the top buttons of my shirt.

“While I’ve got you,” Glenn rattled out, sensing I was about to hang up on him, “I’m trying to square up some of Congressman Fillmore’s committee coverage. They dropped reams of stuff on us at like five o’clock yesterday.”

“So read it,” I said. “Summarize. Use big fonts.” Sightings of Leo actually reading a briefing book were apocryphal, like encounters with Bigfoot—no matter, he still demanded them.

“I promise I’m not being difficult,” Glenn said. “Just one more thing.”

I checked my impulse to throw the phone across the room. I turned on the television to newscasters on BBC World, all of whom had the same indeterminate international look—khaki-brown skin, but never too dark, English with a global lilt. The woman who reported the time in Singapore, London, and Dubai could be from Lahore, Athens, or Buenos Aires.
From this page, a reader might imagine that Last Days in Shanghai is an industry novel about Washington D.C. political life, full of press secretaries and fundraisers and committee meetings. Perhaps it looks like something in the House of Cards vein, a D.C. update of those Shakespearean history plays where factions vie for the crown with devilish scheming and ruthless men (mostly men) murder their way to the top.

The novel does, I’ll admit, bear a certain resemblance to that kind of story of ambition and acquisition. But I think Last Days would be better described not as a story of climbing ambition, but as a narrative of bottomless dread and unraveling. The narrator, Luke Slade, an aide to a Congressman, has accompanied his boss on a political junket to China that turns disastrous. Luke is young and thinks he’s world-weary and wised-up. But what’s still to come for him is a reckoning with the dubious underpinnings of the political system he’s supported and the nature of the lies he’s told (to himself as much as to others).

The scene on this page takes place in a business hotel in Beijing. I was very deliberate about the narrow aperture through which Luke sees China—business hotels and banquet rooms and airports abound. He doesn’t speak the language and he’s being escorted around and sloughed from meeting to meeting. But I also tried to imagine these scenes in hotel suites as always in conversation with the cities outside of them. There’s a China that Luke is always trying (and mostly failing) to experience, and for every confined conference room in the book, there’s a dizzy wander through Beijing’s hutong or along Shanghai’s waterfront.

As to the actual conversation Luke has here, it occurs to me now that this is possibly the last gasp of the “old” Luke Slade, the slightly cynical Washington flack who thinks he’s got a few things figured out, before the whole China junket goes completely haywire.
Follow Casey Walker on Twitter.

Learn more about Last Days in Shanghai at the Counterpoint Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue