Monday, June 29, 2009

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman (audio book read by the author)

Right after their Brown University graduation in 1986, author Susan Jane Gilman and her friend Claire Van Houten embark on an ambitious venture: backpacking around the world. Of course, after studying a placemat at the International House of Pancakes, they decide to begin in Communist China, only ten days after outsiders have been allowed to enter. Thus begins Gilman's memoir of the journey, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.

After deplaning in Hong Kong, Gilman gets a raging nosebleed, and only then do they realize they've packed everything but tissues — including a year's supply of tampons, a Lonely Planet guide, and the complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche (a little light reading on the trail is always good). And that's only the beginning of a truly misguided attempt at life-expansion that takes them through most of China, though they have increasing difficulty with communication as they find their Mandarin phrasebook practically useless when faced with the many different regional dialects.

The strangeness only escalates when, once they're settled, with little social contact to speak of, Claire suddenly decides to repeatedly go off by herself, doing "business," making "contacts," etc. and making less and less sense all the time. What happens later acts as the climax of this globe-trotting story and illustrates the everpresent bureaucracy of a country under Communist rule.

Gilman does her best to tell only the more entertaining parts of the story — oddly enough, the title references an event that didn't actually happen — but it's hard to stay interested in a pair of women who are so blatantly despicable. Unlikable protagonists are not the way to go with a book intended for a wide audience, though Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is still bound to be a huge hit with reading groups. The various people that Susan and Claire meet offer money, food, help, and advice, and yet are more often than not left without even a thank you.

Nevertheless, the seemingly unending procession of one obstacle after another makes it equally difficult to stop reading/listening. And while not exactly likable, both women display a certain guileless charm: a complete lack of worldliness that makes it easy to step into their shoes and wonder what you would do in the same situation (or give thanks that you aren't).

The audiobook of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (read by the author) includes an interview with Gilman on the last disc, where she brings the listener up to date with her life and contact with the characters. Perhaps the time spent confirming events and writing them down overexposed her to the text and characters, but she sounds rather bored by the whole venture.

Nitpicker's Note: One would think that having Gilman read her own book would add an extra layer to the experience, but it actually detracts somewhat and emphasizes the fact that she is trying to write above her ability. She mispronounces numerous words, including "Charybdis," "depravity," "normalcy," and the verb form of "frequent" while using questionable phrases like "gouged with graffiti," and these seeming mistakes continually took me out of the story. (The moral: one so proud of her alma mater to repeatedly brag about it in the text should choose words she has mastered.)

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