Carroll’s debut novel, a character study of two Americans teaching English in rural China, gracefully contrasts idealism and cynicism.
Epigraphs from W. Somerset Maugham and Paul Bowles evoke two precedents for this contemplative work on being a purposeless outsider. But the greatest debt is to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Carroll’s plot follows the uneasy relationship between two men, one older and jaded, the other young and idealistic. Thomas Guillard, a Minnesotan in his 60s, arrives in Ningyuan to work at an English language school. He has neither the passion nor affinity for teaching but persists halfheartedly—between bouts of drunkenness. Twenty-something Daniel, conversely, speaks Mandarin fluently and is popular with his students, especially enthusiastic Bella. “Daniel’s motive for moving abroad had been to reach out and learn something from the world,” which accounts for his embrace of new experiences, whether patronizing a brothel or sampling dog paw as the guest of honor at a holiday feast. There are no quotation marks, and the close third-person narration moves easily between Daniel’s and Guillard’s perspectives. The latter’s bad-tempered xenophobia emerges as he notices “the Chinese squatting…and eyeing him like children” in a bus station like “some cattle fair” and observes “the moon had risen—what a fat and ugly bitch.” Yet sympathy goes solely to Daniel, perhaps partially for autobiographical reasons—Carroll, too, taught English in China. No inner doubt or vulnerability humanizes Guillard, and the narrative unsubtly cements Daniel’s judgment: Guillard “had proven to be arrogant, lewd, and racist.” Guillard’s Scrooge-like persona doesn’t even lift for Christmas Day, when—in the novel’s standout sequence—Bella cooks him a duck. Never a romantic prospect for either man, Bella is enough of a desirable object to allow trumped-up sexual harassment charges to drive one of them away in a slightly forced plot twist. Set over one academic year, the novel has a clear mission it fulfills admirably while recalling W.G. Sebald and Ben Lerner with its picture of befuddled foreignness. A pleasingly inconclusive ending paints home and new destinations as equally appealing.
A short, insightful reflection on the expatriate experience.