Richard Seldin packs a lot into his well-written, fast paced, short novel about psychoanalysis, marital love and declining male sexuality. The book’s psychoanalytic orientation teems with unusual mental states—psychological muteness, an imagined playmate, a womanizing double and odd mind/body disturbances--and, at times, consistent with its Freudian approach, is quite sexual. In fact, this is one of the best novels about psychoanalysis I’ve ever read and offers readers the pleasure of following a protagonist who thinks in a psychoanalytic way.
BELOW THE LINE IN BEIJING by Richard Seldin
256 pp. International Psychoanalytic Books. $19.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle Edition.
The plot line in Below the Line in Beijing is fairly simple, though its structure is complicated and atypical. The novel has four main characters: an unnamed narrator who is a 61-year-old U.S. Customs Department lawyer, writer of China travel articles and former track star; his wife, Sheryl, a very attractive, professor of Asian Art; his psychoanalyst, Isaac Lutansky, a short version of Sigmund Freud; and his friend Jim, a former clothes model and current fashionista.
When the book begins, the narrator awakens next to Sheryl in their Baltimore home with an erection pressed against her thigh. Though initially gladdened by his desire for his wife—he’s had little sexual interest in her for quite awhile—he soon discovers it comes packaged with an inability to speak. This peculiarity becomes more confounding when he finds that, while mute in English, he can communicate in the foreign languages he knows. Although he can only guess at the reasons for his muteness, he does connect it to three apparently unrelated intrusions into his life: a quirky stuttering problem; powerful fantasies about hooking-up with young women; and fortuitously running into Jim, in Baltimore, after not having seen him for over forty years.
Of course, Freud’s talking cure requires talking and as Lutansky only speaks English, several weeks after the narrator becomes mute, they agree to suspend their work. Soon thereafter, as planned, the narrator and Jim travel to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the narrator first and Jim several days later. While the narrator, a proficient Mandarin speaker and expert on things Chinese, expects to dominate their relationship in Beijing, Jim takes over as soon as he arrives and leads them on a quest for young women. Jim’s primacy in Beijing matches the position he assumed when he and the narrator first encountered each other in puberty and later when they attended the same university.
I won’t give the ending away, but I will divulge that it takes place at an elegant Chinese brothel and is one of the most satisfying parts of the novel. Seldin’s plotting, most often, is adept as well. He allows the reader respites from the narrator’s sexual pursuits and intense psychological ruminations—both past and present--by alternating them with prosaic and, at times, amusing descriptions of Beijing, Chinese-American culture clashes and the Olympics themselves.
Until now, I have mainly described Jim as a friend, but, aided by Lutansky’s suspicions about Jim’s origins, I prefer to think of him as a double who embodies and acts out the narrator’s erotic wishes. Indeed, Jim is an unrepentant philanderer—some might say a sociopath, a pervert or both—whose sexual interests over the years, like the narrator’s, have turned to ever younger women. In my interview with him, Seldin acknowledged he’d been influenced by the theme of the literary double as developed in Poe’s, William Wilson, Stevenson’s, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dostoyevsky’s, The Double, and in films such as the Oscar-nominated Black Swan. Furthermore, in line with the narrator’s erotic problem and the United States’ obsession with the carnal behavior of public figures, he wanted to create a character—friend or double--who acts out the narrator’s sexual fantasies. When I pushed him for a simple answer--which one, friend or double?--he still hedged and insisted it is up to the reader to determine. He emphasized that the important point is that, whatever he is, unlike the narrator, Jim acts on, rather than mind-works, his sexual desires.
While the novel’s most poignant erotic scenes might bring to mind Nabokov’s Lolita, its larger literary influence clearly was Freud. And right out of the Freudian book, the narrator’s story is one of a not-too abnormal mind gone awry and attempting to heal itself, both with and without Lutansky’s help.
Now for that point I raised earlier about the novel’s complicated structure, which I consider masterful. The first six parts of the seven-part book end with a dream and a long footnote that seems to accompany each dream. While I do occasionally encounter descriptions and allusions to dreams in contemporary fiction, I don’t often find dreams fully set forth, though they are relatively short. Also, I have never read a novel with such extensive footnotes—in fact, I rarely read novels that contain any footnotes--and, after struggling with this innovation for several parts of the book, I found them to make an important contribution to the book and possibly even to literature in general. In line with the insightful poetry critic, Helen Vendler’s, view that “Form, after all, is nothing but content-as-arranged,” initially I concluded that the footnotes were only being used to supplement the text as plot drivers and enhancements of character. But, as I read them more carefully, I wondered if they didn’t serve a larger, less clear purpose for which I couldn’t provide a reason.
Seldin confirmed my impression, explaining that the connections in the book between text, dream and footnote were intended to roughly follow the basic components of Freudian dream interpretation: the text preceding each of the six dreams provides the stimuli for the dream (more technically known as dream residue); and the accompanying footnotes serve as free associations to the dreams and are the key to interpreting them. He acknowledged that while many readers might not articulate the structure that way, he hoped they would be able to intuit the connections. Seldin agrees with many commentators that Freud’s classic, The Interpretation of Dreams, which also includes much of Freud’s theory of the unconscious, is one of his most original, profound and still highly relevant books.
But not everything in this unusual novel works. Some of the central sections lag a bit, and, at times, are repetitious. For example, the narrator’s frequent criticisms of Jim for his self-absorption and lack of consideration for others were fine when mentioned even a second time, but beyond that seemed tedious. I also wondered whether Seldin’s focus on male heterosexuality avoided, Freud’s, for his time, more enlightened ideas about bisexuality and homosexuality. Though perhaps not the first, it was Freud who suggested that, to different degrees, we all are bisexual in a psychological sense and Seldin never really developed that important idea. Finally, and somewhat of a nit, while effective in conveying the major themes of the novel, its cover seemed a bit comic-bookish, thus detracting from the serious literary work that it is. Seldin seemed to agree with me here, explaining that cost was the principal factor for lack of further revision of it.
Notwithstanding these minor criticisms, with Below the Line in Beijing, Seldin has earned a place in the company of writers we ought to be reading and thinking about. Psychoanalysis and its sexual focus are not dead or dying as many in the United States assume or wish to think, and I am grateful to him for reminding us of this. Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize winning (2000) neuroscientist, still regards psychoanalysis as crucial to understanding human nature and providing the “most elaborate and nuanced view of the mind that we have.” I look forward to Seldin’s next work, which, I hope won’t be too far off and will read with great interest.
Below the Line in Beijing can be purchased from the publisher at www.IPBooks.net, www.amazon.com, retail bookstores and from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org