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book review:

The Shanghai Gesture

You might want to have a dictionary on hand for The Shanghai Gesture. Or better yet, a sourcebook on 18th century British slang, because Gary Indiana’s latest novel uses more nations, the immortal criminal mastermind Fu Manchu plans to enslave the world and it’s up to Scotland Yard inspector Weymouth Smith and his drug-dependent Watson (and our principle narrator), Obregon Petrie, to track down and stop the mad genius. Mean­while, the English port of Land’s End has borne a bizarre, narcoleptic malaise for the past hundred or so years since the wreck of a ship called the Ardent Sodomite, and Sam, Petrie’s friend and apparent house sitter, is left to explain to us how this connects to the labyrinthine plots of Manchu and his cartel, the ChoFatDong. But The Shanghai Gesture isn’t really about plot. Indiana just uses this as an uncanny framework for a running commentary on humanity’s general inhu­manity and their inevitable descent into entropy, and the entwined nature of pro­tagonists, antagonists and deuterogamists. And probably a lot more, too. Oh, and it’s also funny.

Understand then when I say “funny,” I mean in that wonderful way that one will either find this book incredibly comic or incredibly offensive. Being, among other things, a pulp pastiche, Indiana uses all the xenophobia and “Yellow Peril” senti­ment of the Fu Manchu mythos to full comedic effect. Inspector Smith is gung-ho about his mission to “save the White Race” from Manchu’s “yellow clutches;” Fu Manchu is equally adamant in his mis­sion to bring down the decadent West, and anyone who gets between the two is left to merely get out of the way while this global struggle for racial supremacy hilariously plays out. The offhanded way in which horrible occurrences are routinely dis­missed is another of the book’s recurring comedic elements, and illustrative of the book’s general attitude of how people tend to treat each other. In one of the portions narrated by Sam, he tosses off the gem: “Psychos murder whores right and left ev­ery minute of the day, it’s sad, but that’s the way of the world. I’d prefer that an entirely different category of persons were the ones who got murdered that often, but if wishes were horses, et cetera.”

While it may not be the most coherent story ever put to paper, The Shanghai Gesture offers high and low comedy, insight into human nature and a look at the artifice of plot-weaving, all compellingly presented in Indiana’s flowing, idiosyncratic, semi-poetic wordsmithing. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. (Sam Linton)

by Gary Indiana, $17, 207 pgs., Two Dollar Radio, 28-81 Old Columbus Rd., Granville, OH, 43023, USA

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