The good professor, Roger Moore, brings Vanderbilt to Bacon today with his engaging review of The Incarnations, by Susan Barker. (Thanks Roger! I love it when you do that!) He illuminates a darkly fascinating novel that you’ll want to know about…
My grandparents believed in reincarnation. The wall of books in their study was filled with theosophical tomes, Buddhist treatises, and yellowed biographies of those who claimed to remember past lives. I still recall the thrill of pulling these books off the shelf; I never knew what sort of interesting tale I might encounter. I was most fascinated, however, with the tales of my grandparents’ own previous lives. A clairvoyant had once assured them that they had known each other in the past and that they had even been married before, when they were both living in ancient Egypt. To think that my grandparents had been married before, over three thousand years earlier, was astonishing to my ten-year old self, and I must admit this information still captivates me today. How romantic to think that their love could endure over millennia, that their lives in twentieth-century Alabama were only a tiny part of a much larger human drama.
So, it was with great interest and expectation that I read Susan Barker’s The Incarnations, a novel that explores the past lives of Wang, a Beijing taxi-driver in the first years of this century. Wounded and aimless, a married man who indulges in occasional sexual encounters with other men, Wang begins receiving anonymous letters from someone claiming to have known him in earlier incarnations. He learns that he was a eunuch in the Tang Dynasty, a victim of the Mongol invasions in the Jin Dynasty, a concubine in the Ming era, a fisher boy in the nineteenth-century, and a fervent follower of Mao Tse-tung during the Cultural Revolution. Barker intersperses the letters into the primary narrative of Wang’s life in Beijing, where he struggles to relate to his young wife, his distant father, and his predatory stepmother. The writer of the letters regards the revelation of the past lives as a duty: “For to have lived six times, but to know only your latest incarnation, is to know only one-sixth of who you are. To be only one-sixth alive.” Wang learns a great deal about himself as a result of reading these stories, but the novel implies that this knowledge is not necessarily liberating or beneficial. Wang and his soul mate have been locked in a murderously passionate conflict for centuries, and the reappearance of this mysterious person causes his present life to unravel.
Barker’s focus on characters whose passions and misfortunes occur over and over again over sixteen hundred years of Chinese history is a brilliant narrative device. How many times have we all come to the end of a novel and wondered where the characters go from there? This is particularly the case with readers of Jane Austen, who often speculate on what life has in store for the happy couples married off at the end of each novel. But Barker is interested in what happened to the characters before the present novel, when they were different people and, often, different sexes, and she asks us to consider how this information may determine the outcome of the story. What if other authors had provided this sort of information? How would our understanding of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy change if we knew that they had lived through the Great Plague of 1665? What would we think of Gatsby and Daisy if we knew they had known each other in 1690s Salem, when Gatsby was a judge and Daisy a young woman accused of witchcraft – or vice versa? For me, the best novelists force us to rethink what we know about narrative flow and structure – Salman Rushdie or W. G. Sebald come to mind – and Barker’s expansion of Wang’s story into the past certainly fulfills this criterion. Undoubtedly, Barker builds on jataka tales, which describe the Buddha’s past lives, and other Buddhist literary genres, but her characters do not achieve the enlightenment expected in these stories.
The Incarnations is a combination of at least three novelistic genres. First, it is a historical novel that vividly evokes China’s past. Barker’s command of history is impressive, and one can learn a great deal about Chinese history from the vignettes she chooses. Second, it is a mystery novel. Who is the mysterious author of the letters, a person who stalks Wang and his family and who Wang’s daughter calls “The Watcher”? Like a detective, Wang must discover the author’s identity, and he gathers evidence and deciphers clues. Finally, it is a Gothic novel, with all of the terror, fear, and paranoia typical of this genre. Wang’s soul mate hunts him through the crowded streets of Beijing, even coming so close as to become one of his fares; the letters describe imprisonments, tortures, perversions, and crimes worthy of the greatest English Gothic novels. The power of the book derives in part from the skillful manipulation of these conventional forms.
The novel comes to the simple, but sobering, conclusion that one cannot escape the past. The Watcher addresses Wang in the third letter:
“History is coming for you. Do you hear it, coming up behind you in the dark? Dragging its iron chains and shackles, up the concrete stairs of Building 16? History taps you on the shoulder, breathes its foggy thousand-year-old breath down your neck. ‘Here I am, Driver Wang. Why don’t you turn around? Look me in the eyes?’”
With ISIL and other groups actively attempting to erase the past, this lesson has rarely been more pertinent. Reading this novel made me realize how little I know about Chinese history. Considering the increasing importance of China on the world stage, I think we should all get to know more about its past before we find it tapping us on the shoulder.
But even if we were to pay attention to history, Barker implies that we would not receive any answers or consolations. The Watcher teaches Wang that they make the same mistakes over and over in every lifetime; murder, maiming, and torture are staples of human life, no matter if one lived during the Tang Dynasty (600s A.D.) or the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The novel is not, however, without hope. The numerous references in The Incarnations to literature, reading, and storytelling imply that art provides a way out of the suffering and agony of human existence. In the Tang Dynasty, the Watcher is a “tale-spinning courtesan” who inspires quite a following in the imperial city with her fascinating stories. During the Cultural Revolution, classics of Chinese literature like The Journey to the West and the Dream of the Red Chamber are torn up and used as toilet paper, but the Watcher, who has been condemned to clean her school bathrooms for being a “rightist,” reads the tattered sheets, which become her “salvation during the bleak winter days.” Wang’s mother “often disappeared into the books stacked around her bed” to escape her unhappy marriage. Those characters who refuse to read, like the Ming emperor Jiajing, who takes his Rabelaisian meals in “The Hall of Literary Brilliance,” ignoring “the accumulated works of Chinese civilization crowding the shelves,” become tyrants. The ability to tell stories, and the sensitivity to the stories of others, is its own kind of salvation. While we may not be able to escape history, we may at least allay its rigors somewhat through the power of the imagination.
* * *
Roger has previously written several pieces at Bacon, including most recently on The Stories of Jane Gardam. He is an Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science and Principal Senior Lecturer in English at Vanderbilt University.
His gorgeous book on Jane Austen has just been published this month, Jane Austen and the Reformation: Remembering the Sacred Landscape, and you’ll see a feature at Bacon one week soon.
“Having time to do something other than work on my book!” is what he’s most excited about for the coming year. “Of course, I have a couple of scholarly projects on the burner – Thomas Gray and Horace Walpole, here I come! – but I’m looking forward to reading widely and broadly and seeing what I discover. I would also like to pick up at least one old hobby, genealogy.”
He often chooses his next read from the pages of The New York Times Book Review. “It is the first part of the paper I read on Sundays – why start with all of the depressing news on the front page? – and I always find something new. Next up is Christopher Buckley’s new novel, The Relic Master, a comic novel about the trade in holy relics in sixteenth-century Europe. Watching “The Man in the High Castle” on Netflix lately has made me want to read the Philip K. Dick novel on which it was based, as well as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I’ve been intending to read since 2005!”