Once and Future Fu Manchu

On your toes now and no sleep walking! You don’t venture into the English village of  Land’s End  in which everyone suffers from narcolepsy with your eyes closed! Especially when that nightmare of nightmares, the stereotypically insidious and ethnically evil Dr. Fu Manchu is  tearing open someone’s bowels just beyond your laudanum-colored vision.

Yes, that Fu Manchu. If you thought the embodiment of evil in the form of yellow peril had been discarded in these oh-so-correct times, think again. Writer/critic Gary Indiana has given new life to the evil genius, just as Fu’s creator, Sax Rohmer did a time or two and not just to keep the series running. No, Mr. Manchu’s  (get it? “Man-Chew?”) return from seeming demise was a sign of his power, his cunning, his ability to out-smart even when it seemed he’d been outsmarted.  Fu outlived creator Rohmer’s 13 novels to carry on in other books, film and comics as well as living on in a manly facial-hair style that seems, once again, to be coming back. Now that’s truly evil!

But it’s doubtful that Mr. Manchu will survive as-is in the hands of Mr. Indiana. At least, not in the serious way he’s existed in the past. Indiana’s treatment of Manchu and his pursuers, Inspector Weymouth Smith and the hopelessly addicted Dr. Obregon Petrie, is sure to bring down something of the Fun Manchu mystique, leaving in its place laughs, visual horror, perverted titillation and extreme marvel at Mr. Indiana’s  ability to remake the Manchu saga fit into his own sly, deft and depraved world view. If this sounds like fun, well, it is. Indeed, The Shaghai Gesture is  the most consistently clever novel the Rabbit read all this year.

Part Saturday matinee serial, part Pynchonian nightmare, The Shanghai Gesture is neither farce or homage. While Indiana has drawn much from the Rohmer legacy, right down to the unspeakable Zaybar Kiss, he writes to different purpose. There are hints of  world-wide corporate and political cabals that, as in Pynchon, invisibly control our lives. Here, these conspiracies are represented by the ChoFatDong, an organization that “specializes in things other people can’t imagine.” Class issues and the various IQs represented therein are played, sometimes against stereotype. Science and reason pretend to rule even as the improbable triumphs. The story’s telling rotates between the inspector and the doctor, providing the author two perspectives in one.

Indiana takes the Manchu saga into a sort of backwards future whose inhabitants pursue drink, drugs and copulation with medieval abandon. Even “Those Who Know,” a “cabal” introduced in the book’s first sentence, believe that Dr. Petrie, who capitalizes on their inability to sleep to supply his own drug habits, can walk on ceilings and fly like a bat. While that may not be true, there is a giant, larval insect with the ability to take over one’s body, inside out. The story contains enough conspiracy, secret gesture and  hidden purpose to interest more open-minded Dan Brown  fan as well as those of detective fiction, CSI shows and Mad magazine.

Indiana’s ability to twist, turn and assume airs, including that associated with dirty laundry, is prodigious. “Petrie, ariborne or otherwise, enjoyed much esteem at Land’s End, for the storm-ravaged shipping town’s human debris experienced no end of bleeding piles, recurrent malaria, scurvy, dropsy, high blood pressure, and a lowering effulgence of hardy pox, to say nothing of the port’s relentless pestilence of insomnia, a veritable miasmic funk endemic to the area since the wreckage, a century earlier, of The Ardent Somdomite” (yes, you read “Somdomite” correctly). These extended litanies are an infrequent device, and Indiana seems to revel in stringing them together. This piling on of description sometimes comes at a cost that even Indiana recognizes:

” And Fu Manchu was full of wrath. He was wrath personified. Wrath on a stick. Wrath-mad. Wrathier than a rattlesnake on speed, wrathful in his sinister cunning, wrath-wrapped in his intricate schemes for world domination, the veritable grapes of wrath–skip that, the Supreme Avatar of Wrath.”

While the langauge and globe-hopping plot turns remind us of Rohmer, Indiana’s book seems to be of another school, that of the witty insiders of cultural trivial and master of word play who aren’t afraid to call a popular gathering spot “The Whistling Cuntze,” as Indiana does, then credit it to Daniel Defoe, Tobias Smollett and Samuel Boswell. The book it most reminded us of is fellow culture critic Tom Carson’s Gilligan’s Wake with its wordy wit, satire and drawing together of endless cultural references. While both are clever, The Shanghai Gesture, focused on the pursuit of Fu,  seems more than a string of clever associations, it’s plot having a sense of propulsion that’s missing from Gilligan’s Wake. Sure, there are times when Indiana is over the top in word juggling and crudity. But that only proves the hilarious, wide-awake heights he’s achieved.–Cabbage Rabbit

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