Robert F. Delaney knows a lot about China and its relationship to the West. He has lived in China off and on and covered it as a journalist for almost thirty years.
Delaney also knows a lot about cultural understandings toward sexual orientation. He is an openly gay man who has experienced the challenges of conflicting attitudes toward queer folk within and between North American and Asian societies.
In his debut novel, The Wounded Muse, Delaney melds these insights and with a masterful command of the art of fiction writing crafts a novel of intrigue, suspense, drama, and poignancy.
The protagonist Jake is a business journalist who fought his way out of a homophobic upbringing in the US Deep South, cleverly played the academic game at Ivy League universities to get what he wanted, and landed himself in China to study and work. He fell in love with China and immersed himself in language training in rural parts of the country where he encountered people whose depth of humanity opened him in ways he had not expected. But then, as his career took off and he found himself running faster and faster to meet the demands of his American editors while avoiding tripping up the surveillance and security apparatus of China, he loses, perhaps unavoidably, that humanity that he had absorbed earlier.
…it occurs to Jake…how far he’s drifted from the language student (he was) who enjoyed splitting watermelon seeds between his teeth for hours with Chinese families who would adopt him, at least temporarily, as their train snaked through river valleys and dusty towns. Back when he used to listen and appreciate. Back when he didn’t need distance.
“The distance” that Jake feels he now has to maintain as a high-profile American journalist in China is a subtle strategy that Delaney uses to exemplify the fine line of simultaneously being an insider and an outsider. Delaney has us walking, as Jake is walking, that amorphous grey terrain, where Jake is immersed in China and yet is suspect as a foreigner, where he recognizes that he’s respected in the US for his journalist work but he feels contemptuous of the hypocrisy of his American bosses. Jake lives in both worlds and yet doesn’t feel at home in either. We as readers experience a dis-ease in reading The Wounded Muse and much of it stems from Delaney’s skill in leading us into the quicksand of Jake’s life in Beijing.
This is the exterior: the insider/outsider context in which Delaney places Jake.
But the core of the novel is the interior: an insider/outsider conflict lodged deep in Jake’s heart.
Jake is in love with Qiang, a documentary filmmaker. Jake dreams of being in relationship with Qiang but Qiang rebuffs Jake, at least temporarily, because of Qiang’s focus on his current documentary related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
…Jake wants to turn this into the moment he’s been trying to create since he first met Qiang a year earlier… this moment is crucial. Jake’s heart pounds so powerfully that it rattles his ribs … he moves closer to Qiang, making his intention clear … But Qiang takes a step back and shakes his head slightly with a pained expression. The reaction suffocates Jake like a wrestler who’s suddenly subdued … “Look”, Qiang says, “my life right now is nothing but this project” … Jake can’t speak. He wants to open a vein to let the humiliation and sorrow drain out and run down a gutter” …
And shortly thereafter, Chinese authorities arrest Qiang on suspicion of sedition.
Delaney leads us through Jake’s frantic efforts along with a few others who are close to Qiang to seek his release with Jake not being able to open up to the others about the depth of his feelings for Qiang, trying (not always successfully) to avoid Chinese authorities suspecting him of being gay which would further complicate the search for Qiang, and, most torturously, being passionately bound to Qiang inside his heart but not in a consummated reciprocal relationship with the object of his affection.
Inside Jake’s soul, he is one with Qiang.
Outside, with Qiang’s friends, the Chinese authorities, and Qiang himself, Jake is not one with Qiang.
The Wounded Muse is a complex, suspenseful, and poignant novel with the layering of the insider/outsider perspectives a token to Delaney’s impressive skill as a writer.
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For information on Robert F. Delaney’s writings, see: https://robertfdelaney.net
For information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, see: http://www.DavidGHallman.com