The title and cover of Sara Gilman’s China memoir promise a sexy romp through the Orient.
The dust jacket of “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” is adorned with a picture of a foxy model gazing at the observer with cool calculation, seemingly naked, legs akimbo, her private bits covered up by a strategically-placed backpack.
This is a double bait and switch.
Not only is there virtually no sex in UMTH, the sex that occurs is miserable and embarrassing, and the only truly happy moment in the book is when Ms. Gilman decides not to soil a moment of transcendent joy by screwing a sleazy Australian sailor on the Great Wall.
The false promise of China sexy-time is rather ironic, given Ms. Gilman’s impeccable credentials as an avatar of chick-lit.
Ms. Gilman’s talents as a writer—and her wrenching honesty–are on full display in this noteworthy addition to the catalogue of “travel tales from hell”.
Ms. Gilman and a schoolmate at Brown University impulsively—i.e. with a minimum of forethought, planning, caution, or self-reflection and a superfluity of heedless optimism—decided to backpack through China in 1986.
Their visions of encountering wonderful people and wonderful experiences in wonderful places did not materialize.
Quite the contrary.
The misery and claustrophobia of her account is actually enhanced by her utter ignorance of the Chinese language, China itself, and the ways and means of navigating through the maddening Chinese travel and security bureaucracy of the 1980s.
UMTH does not trip down the well-worn path of snarky travelogue by the ignorant and condescending tourist because…
Beware mateys, here be spoilers
…because Ms. Gilman’s traveling companion, Claire, is nuts. Nuttier than the whole Blue Diamond almond operation. And not nuts in a giddy, Auntie Mame kind of way. Or nuts in a noble, pathetic manic/depressive kind of way.
Claire is apparently nuts in a nasty paranoid schizophrenic “everybody’s out to get me” kind of way.
That was definitely not the best mindset for a privileged Ivy League poppet to bring to the daunting task of improvising a way through the dirty, confusing, and profoundly alien world of the 1980s Chinese surveillance-state on a financial and emotional shoestring.
The Susan Jane Gilman of 1986, immature, emotionally brittle, and leaning heavily on Linda Goodman’s Love Signs for spiritual and practical guidance, was ill-equipped to diagnose, console, or care for the increasingly freaked-out Claire.
One of the ironies of the book, intended or unintended, is that Discerning Reader realizes long before UMTH’s narrator (Ms. Gilman in her clueless twenty-something persona) that Claire is going crazy.
Things do not end well. Claire flips out and Ms. Gilman (and the reader) are subjected to the emotionally grueling task of extracting Claire from China and delivering her to her family back in New York.
We don’t find out what happened to Claire (or who she is; her true name and identity are disguised in the book) but I think it’s safe to say that this train wreck of a vacation left some psychic scars on Susan Jane Gilman.
The book ends with Ms. Gilman’s trek to China twenty years later to get a hug and some closure from the proprietress of a Yangshuo flapjack house, who had extended a helping hand during some of the toughest moments.
I think it did Ms. Gilman good to write the book, and it will do fans of emotionally-harrowing rite-of-passage fiction good to read it.