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Review of Michelle Richmond's

by John Hafner

In "The Man with the Blue Guitar," Wallace Stevens' Man states that "Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar." I thought of that line and that poem about the necessary merger of imagination and reality while I read Michelle Richmond's Dream of the Blue Room, a wonderful novel that also explores the necessary merger of facts and interpretation. The merger is "necessary" in both instances because the bare facts must be interpreted to produce meaning, because imagination must be applied to reality for reality to be other than chaos. As the man with the blue guitar puts it:

I know my lazy, leaden twang

Is like the reason in a storm;

And yet it brings the storm to bear.

I twang it out and leave it there.

So Jenny, the thirty-two year old narrator of Dream of the Blue Room, must search for the truth behind the facts of her failed marriage to Dave, of the murder of her closest friend Amanda Ruth, of the shipboard friendship with Graham, the Australian dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

The novel's plot is essentially a simple one: Jenny and Dave are cruising up the Yangtze River from Shanghai to Chongching. They have come so Jenny can dispose of Amanda Ruth's ashes in the river, so they can experience the great river before the Three Gorges Dam turns much of it into a lake, and so--maybe--they can rediscover the love in their marriage. Along the way, however, that simple trip becomes a complex inquiry into the meaning behind the facts. Why is their marriage failing? Why was Amanda Ruth murdered? Why are the Chinese destroying the heart of their country? Jenny's memories, dreams, stories attempt to answer these questions.

Jenny's memories focus on her relationships with Amanda Ruth and Dave. Amanda Ruth was her best friend in high school, a relationship that was sexual though only temporarily so for Jenny. Unfortunately, Jenny thinks that Amanda Ruth would not have been murdered had Jenny maintained their lesbian relationship. After Amanda Ruth's brutal murder, Dave rescued Jenny from grief by supplying the comfort and care she needed; then they married. Dave is an Emergency Medical Technician whose job becomes his life: he needs to rescue people. Jenny thinks that Dave has lost interest in her because she is "not burned or broken . . . not clinging to life" (p. 28).

Jenny's dreams sometimes illustrate her memories: she dreams that Amanda Ruth leads her to "the mouth of a cave. The entrance to the cave is thick with growing things" (p.4). At other times, her Chinese experiences echo her dreams: wandering the nighttime streets of Yeuyang reminds her of sleepwalking in her neighborhood back home.

Jenny's stories fill in gaps. Late in the novel, Jenny has tea with an old woman who talks incessantly. Jenny understands nothing of what the woman is saying so she imagines that the woman is telling her life story. Jenny then tells the story that she thinks the woman must be telling, about her youth, her marriage, and so on. Earlier she had made up a vivid but factually incorrect story of murdering Amanda Ruth.

Jenny's storytelling is not unlike what the Chinese are doing to their country. "I've come not to China, but to an amusement park version of the country" (p. 232) she decides when she realizes that the funeral procession witnessed by the tour group had been staged for them: there was no corpse. The past was beautiful, she thinks; the present is Disney. The guides on the tour have names like Elvis Paris, Matt Dillon, Whitney Houston, Bill Clinton. Eventually Jenny does find what she believes is the secret heart of China and it is with the old woman tea seller whose stories Jenny makes up.

Now about that Blue Room. "There was nothing so blue as that room, nothing so real as Amanda Ruth" (p. 156). The blue room is the lower level of the wharf house, the place where Amanda Ruth and Jenny spent many hours. Jenny's memories and dreams frequently take her back to that room where "the water took on the blue brilliance of lapis stone" (p. 156). That shade of blue is also the blue of Amanda Ruth's bathing suit in Jenny's favorite picture of her, the falsely colored blue of Jenny's mother's eyes in a portrait, the blue of the veins in Graham's arms, the blue in the windows of the seventh floor of an apartment building in New York that is reflected from a swimming pool in an athletic club for teenagers. Jenny herself makes these connections, possibly revealing an awareness that the color is an idealized one associated with a past that is no longer available to her. Except for Graham's arms.

Dream of the Blue Room is a fine novel. The characters are intricately drawn and even the minor ones (like Elvis Paris) have a complexity beyond their function. The picture of modern China is both compelling and disturbing. Graham has been to China before so he can contrast the crowded and modernized present to the simple and beautiful and serene past. Jenny makes comparisons between China and her memories of her Alabama upbringing: on the river "hundreds of boats whose collective rumble reminds me of Saturday mornings in Alabama, dozens of lawnmowers kicking to life" (p. 44); "The rain here is like Alabama in the summer: it starts with drops as big as my fingertips. It ends in exactly the same manner" (p. 46).

The novel's last sentence sums up the story, in a way, but not in a way that reveals anything unless you've read the preceding pages: "The afternoon passes in this manner, two strangers attempting with inadequate voices to raise something from the depths" (p. 294).