By Daniel Wilner
Editor's note: Given the rich tradition of writers in Bronxville (Brendan Gill, Walter Isaacson, and John Huey, among others), MyhometownBronxville will from time to time highlight a book we think our readers will enjoy.
Apr. 27, 2016: J.R. Thornton's debut novel, Beautiful Country, is distinctive even in its entry into the global marketplace. Despite having been written originally in English, it appeared first in a Chinese edition in China, where it shot to the top of the best-seller list and became a cultural phenomenon. Only last week was an English-language edition published in the West, where one can only hope it will receive the same attention.
That story not only captures the novel's cultural relevance within the most important international relationship of our times; it also rhymes beautifully with the preoccupations of the novel itself, in which an American named Chase recounts a consequential year playing competitive tennis in Beijing when he was fourteen years old. Sent to China by his father, a powerful businessman with important financial interests in the country, Chase trains with a group of Chinese boys whose life chances depend entirely on their athletic success. Nearly all of the boys come from very poor families, and their parents chose to take them out of school when they were seven or eight and bet their futures on tennis. While Chase is not quite fighting for his life, he is struggling for his father's recognition and approval, which to him amount to nearly the same thing. Burdened by the death of his mother early in his life and the more recent loss of his beloved older brother, Tom, Chase is a desperately lonely child in a painfully foreign place. Things brighten only when he befriends Bowen, a fellow player with rare talent and a big heart.
At once fueling and complicating their relationship is the conflict between ambition and compassion. At first, compassion poignantly trumps ambition. Bowen befriends Chase by allowing him to win enough so he can make it on the team, and Chase later tries to pay him back: when Bowen loses favor with their despotic coach, Chase enlists his father to help keep Bowen on the team. Yet good deeds soon go punished, and as Chase's desire to help his friend comes to threaten his relationship with his father, he makes a fateful decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
The friendship between Chase and Bowen, and its pivotal betrayal that will burden the protagonist with bottomless guilt, echoes the relationship between Gene and Finny in John Knowles's A Separate Peace. Yet the central difference is also what makes Beautiful Country at once so provocative and so relevant: Chase and Bowen, for all they share, come from radically different cultures and circumstances. Is that what costs them their friendship—raising the troubling suggestion that perhaps the two cultures are doomed to remain as two solitudes? Or is it that Chase, as he comes to believe, lacks the courage to go beyond himself and his narrow interests when it really counts?
Thornton seems to suggest that as China rises on the world stage and challenges the status quo in international and cultural affairs, such other-mindedness—the courage to go beyond ourselves—is needed more urgently than ever. As the protagonist concludes toward the end of his journey, "I had seen enough of Beijing to know that I understood absolutely nothing of the real China. It was too complex. To understand it would take a lifetime."
Just as the meaning of Chinese linguistic characters can vary depending on tonality, so an understanding of Chinese culture requires a deeply textured grasp of background and context. At the heart of the protagonist's coming of age is a growing appreciation that, in China as perhaps in life, things are not what they first appear: one must be careful enough to understand people's true motives and compassionate enough to see their hidden pain. It takes effort and discernment to see through to the truth about the other, concealed like the Beijing skyline in the ever-present smog. The author has spoken provocatively of his belief that literature can serve a kind of diplomatic function, helping to foster understanding between cultures, and Beautiful Country is a laudable contribution to such a project. The novel reminds us of the critic Denis Donoghue's assertion that the merit of a work of fiction is that of "gaining access to deeply imagined lives other than [our] own."
These themes gain poignant purchase in Chase's friendship with Bowen and his encounter with Chinese culture. Bowen gives him a Chinese name—Wu—which Chase learns refers to a figure in ancient China tasked by the emperor to tame the raging waters of the Great Flood. Wu succeeded "where his father had failed. Instead of building more dikes, Yu began to dredge new river channels, to serve both as outlets for the torrential waters, and as irrigation conduits to distant farmlands." Chase observes: "I wondered why he picked that name for me. It seemed a better fit for him." The remark echoes one of the most affecting lines in the story: when Chase finally opens up about his brother's death, Bowen puts a hand on his shoulder and reassures him, "You still have a brother."
These family resemblances between the characters parallel those between China and America. Bowen explains that the Chinese name for the United States is Mei Guo—beautiful country. The moment is a striking reversal: from the first page, the reader has naturally assumed the title of Thornton's novel refers to the country the protagonist is visiting. The same language can refer to different things depending on the context. This sameness-within-difference is surely one of the most important things Thornton wants us to take away from his book—not just a work of abstract fiction, but a project of literary diplomacy, teaching both Chinese and American readers how to better understand each other's differences as well as how to see each other as fundamentally the same.
After all, Chase discovers, both countries continue to grapple with painful historical traumas suffered on the road to economic advancement. The Chinese legacy of the Cultural Revolution serves as a kind of shadow history to America's experience with slavery: while clearly very different, both projects treated certain lives as dispensable in the name of "progress." And in the present day, a similar kind of trade-off persists at the local and individual level. Chase observes that Chinese government officials can advance themselves the more the players from their districts win tournaments: "they cared about medals, not about athletes." Hence, he and his teammates practice in dilapidated facilities, endure grueling practices that are physically unsafe, and face barbaric psychological treatment. It is as if each of the boys is engaged in his own Great Leap Forward, in which the long-term health of his body and mind is treated as expendable in the name of getting ahead. Yet Chase was no stranger to this win-at-all-cost mentality back in America, where his coach believed that "if you finished practice without throwing up, then you hadn't worked hard enough." The tendency to make lousy bargains with oneself is not just American or Chinese—it's human.
All the more need, then, for compassion to trump ambition. Like the Chinese figure for whom he is named, Chase succeeds where his father had failed. "I wasn't like him," he observes. "I couldn't ignore the pain of others." Rather than damming up the raging waters of emotion—avoiding them or numbing them—Chase finally learns to dredge them, channeling them into the irrigation of deeper emotional and cultural intimacy. It is only when he speaks his true feelings—only when he treats himself as valuable in and of himself, worthy of recognition and care—that he connects more deeply with Bowen and his father. And ultimately it is with us, the reader, that he connects the most deeply, sharing with us the guilt and shame he cannot bear to confess to anyone else. Yet—remarkably—this "us" is both Chinese and American: Chinese readers devoured it before it was even available in English. Literary diplomacy, indeed.
If Beautiful Country is about the loss of innocence that comes when a child evolves into a more fulsome—and therefore painful—engagement with the world outside himself, it is equally about the potential riches of such an engagement. We lose some of ourselves, but we gain the other. Not quite the same as ourselves, but: a brother. That is this aching novel's promise; its warning is that without ongoing sacrifice, such fruitful attainments will slip away.
The choice, every day, is ours.
Editor's note: Dan Wilner, the author of this review, is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. You can find Beautiful Country on www.amazon.com.
Pictured here (rotating): Beautiful Country book cover and author John Randolph Thornton.