“Some twenty years after the end of the war with Japan a freighter arrived in Brooklyn with the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue.” So begins Quin’s Shanghai Circus, a sprawling, intriguing novel that spans some seven centuries and three continents.
At the center of the story is Quin, a man who was born in Japan, orphaned in Shanghai, and raised in the Bronx. After an encounter with a mysterious stranger in a bar, Quin accompanies his friend Big Gobi—simple of mind but pure of heart—on a journey to Tokyo to meet Big Gobi’s guardian. In Quin’s quest to learn about his parents, he encounters a range of truly bizarre characters with equally bizarre stories to tell—prostitutes, sociopathic policemen, a disillusioned Trotskyite, a diabetic Japanese baron who renounced his wealth and moved to Israel to become a rabbi—that initially seem random and disjointed but that ultimately connect.
This was not an easy book to read. It’s a novel of intrigue, of violence and horror, of love and discovery, and at its heart a novel of friendship and connection. But it’s also disjointed, nonlinear, and confusing—which is not necessarily a criticism; not understanding exactly how the pieces will fit together is what makes a puzzle enjoyable even as it can be frustrating.
Much of the book takes place during World War II in Japan and China, and some of the characters participate in and are affected by the horrors that took place during the Japanese occupation, including those in Nanking. None of this is gratuitous, but it is disturbing.
Quin’s Shanghai Circus was originally published in 1974 to critical acclaim but disappointing sales. This reprint edition is worth reading for the extras alone: a foreword, an introduction, and an essay, “An Editorial Relationship,” all by people who knew Whittemore personally and professionally and who give tremendous insight into his life and his writing.
This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
My rating: 4 stars