AS she stood in the Chinese galleries of the Metropolitan Museum on a humid afternoon in July, Nell Freudenberger was confused but composed. Her plan had been to locate a scroll painting that was the inspiration for her debut novel, but it was nowhere to be seen.
The elusive artwork, by the 13th century artist Zhao Cangyun, is titled “Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao in the Tiantai Mountains.” It tells of a pair of gentlemen who encounter a passage that transports them through time, returning them to their friends and family years in the future. For the 31-year-old Freudenberger, this narrative of travel and transformation was what ultimately pulled together her ambitious novel “The Dissident,” a 448-page tale of a Chinese artist and political activist who spends a year living with a Beverly Hills family, at one point copying Zhao Cangyun’s scroll.
She admitted that the novel’s sheer heft implies a certain level of daring but insisted that she didn’t have a choice. “The book’s ambition is expressed in the characters. There were four narrators, so the book had to be as long as it is.”
One narrator is the dissident of the title, who leaves Beijing for the hospitality of the Traverses, a wealthy Angeleno clan. “I was surprised when I found myself writing the story from the perspective of a Chinese man,” Freudenberger said. She had a model, however. When she was a student at the exclusive all-girls Marlborough School in the early 1990s, a visiting Chinese artist taught her and her fellow students to create disciplined drawings that varied substantially from the free and expressive works they had been producing. It’s not difficult to see how these lessons -- the correct way to render bamboo, or a lobster -- appealed to a writer whose style is extremely self-possessed and has been since she first exploded onto the literary scene.
“The Dissident,” published this month, is Freudenberger’s follow-up to her 2003 short-story collection “Lucky Girls,” a book that created a sensation well before it ever appeared in bookstores. After graduating from Harvard, then traveling and teaching English in Asia and India, Freudenberger landed a job as an editorial assistant at the New Yorker. There, at 26, she was (as they say) plucked from obscurity when the magazine published her very first story, also called “Lucky Girls,” in its 2001 “debut fiction” issue. A full-page author photo ran next to the story, which showed a dewy young literatteuse seated on a blanket, looking, as was often noted by observers of the bookish scene, quite sexy.
Then came the offer of a $500,000 advance from Disney-owned Hyperion for an as-yet-unwritten book, plus another. But Freudenberger turned it down, taking a mere $140,000 instead so she could work with Dan Halpern, a highly regarded editor whose scruffy, poet-friendly Ecco Press had been purchased by giant HarperCollins. “I felt relieved that I didn’t sign a contract for two books,” she said. But some jaded onlookers saw in this decision a calculated effort to appear too virtuous to sell out. Freudenberger, the observers concluded, was being marketed as much as published.
Now, with the arrival of “The Dissident,” she’s about to go through it all again.
“Some of the criticism of the packaging was valid,” she admitted as she toyed with a sandwich and a Snapple after giving up on finding the painting (it was in storage). “But I was so excited at the time. I would have done almost anything.”
Freudenberger, who was born in New York but moved to Los Angeles at age 7, is awfully cute: lively brown eyes, tawny skin and a gentle but inescapable braininess. Picture Phoebe Cates, minus any possibility of the “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” strip-tease. She’s just the kind of girl who stokes the ardor of male MFA students at places such as the famously competitive University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This was documented in an essay on Salon by Curtis Sittenfeld, who wrote the bestselling novel “Prep” but who was, back when “Lucky Girls” first appeared, just one of the army of eager but unknown Iowa workshop grads.
Sittenfeld credited Freudenberger with talent but also implied that her success was at least partly because of the publishing world’s need to bankroll writers who might seem appetizing in lingerie. Then gossipy websites like Gawker caught wind of the apparent catfight, and the phenomenon of sneering at Nell was swiftly labeled “Schadenfreudenberger.”
For the writer, the wound still hasn’t completely healed. “Now that Curtis Sittenfeld is a bestselling writer,” she said, “I hope she has better things to do than write about my author photo.”
Reached by e-mail, Sittenfeld expressed surprise that Freudenberger harbors a grudge. “I actually met her once, and I didn’t realize she felt animosity toward me. I see that article as very tongue-in-cheek, making fun not of Nell Freudenberger, but of myself as I was then and of people like me: aspiring writers who begrudge successful writers their success.”
But Freudenberger doesn’t seem like one to forget that kind of thing. She didn’t enjoy growing up in Los Angeles, she said (“I spent an astonishing amount of my childhood in cars”), but she clearly has a bit of the scarred starlet about her, even if her exposure to Hollywood came largely through her father, Daniel, a television writer and playwright who divorced her mother when Freudenberger was in college.
AFTER the ordeal around “Lucky Girls,” she has emerged three years later with a dense novel that joins the splintering of an upscale L.A. family with a convoluted tale of Chinese performance art, set in a private all-girls academy similar to L.A.'s Marlborough School. The story plays out against a background of palm trees, the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and teenage schoolgirls in saddle oxfords who seduce their teachers and occasionally go topless.
“The reaction to the New Yorker issue and ‘Lucky Girls’ will only stick to her for so long,” said her agent, Amanda “Binky” Urban. “She will overcome it.”
Of course, the stakes are higher this time around. But those who’ve worked closely with her have plenty of confidence. “She’s as good as any writer I’ve ever taken on,” Ecco’s Halpern said. Still, the scale of “The Dissident” caught him off guard. “It isn’t the novel I thought she’d write, but what’s unusual about Nell is that she’s a masterful reviser. She only wanted one thing, and that was to make the novel as good as it could be.”
It probably helps that Freudenberger shared her work-in-progress with high-caliber literary talent. She has been close friends with Benjamin Kunkel, author of the bestselling novel “Indecision,” since Harvard, where the two labored together on the campus literary magazine, the Advocate. Nevertheless, “The Dissident” is far from perfect. With its complex structure and multiple narrators, it reads at times like a cluster of novellas yoked into an awkward union.
It’s almost as if Freudenberger recognized that her cred as an author had been compromised by her splashy unveiling, so she set out to create a novel that would have to wow the critics. According to her, it began as a “family story set in New York,” but it moved west when she realized her characters “seemed to belong in L.A. more than anyplace else.”
Paging Mr. Lee
THE city itself actually doesn’t figure prominently in the book; the sections set in Beijing’s seedy, now-vanished “East Village” artists’ community are more detailed and evocative. For the most part, Freudenberg sticks to a Beverly Hills mansion and the Marlborough stand-in, the St. Anselm’s School for Girls (where the dissident teaches). This lends a dreamy, disconnected quality to the L.A. sections -- something drawn from her real-life experiences of the city. “I feel like I’m asleep the whole time whenever I visit,” she said.
It’s exactly the sort of mood that suggests a movie. Freudenberger said she never imagined “The Dissident” as a film, but the novel -- with its exploration of Chinese contemporary art, the puzzle of identity at its core and patina of heartbreak and human anguish -- has Ang Lee written all over it (the Ang Lee of “The Ice Storm,” not “The Hulk”). “If you know him, please pass it along,” she said.
At the moment, Freudenberger has real life on her mind: She’s getting married in September, to Paul Logan, an architect she met at a party in East Hampton (the couple spend bohemian weekends at a farm in this upscale community, sleeping in a crude Mongolian dwelling known as a yurt). She has been busy planning the wedding, with the help of her mother and her younger sister, a law student at Columbia University. A modest engagement ring flickered on her left hand.
Freudenberger isn’t just lucky. She’s happy -- and why not? But according to her agent, she’s also brave. “Nell is very serious about her work,” Urban said. “She’s not afraid to enter territory no one else has written about.”