|Lisa Brackmann’s debut novel travels from China to Iraq to a video game universe.|
Abu Ghraib to avatar world
Lisa Brackmann’s timely and hip debut novel is a thriller with a plucky heroine, locales actual and virtual, and grounding in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Ambitious but flawed, it spans three worlds: China, Iraq, and video gaming. It’s best at China, though the Iraq sections can be powerful and angry. The gaming universe is the weakest; it isn’t easy to care about an avatar.
Reading “Rock Paper Tiger’’ is a largely enjoyable breeze, but the book is ultimately unfulfilling, like the cliched restaurant meal that goes down easy but leaves one hungry an hour later.
The story is told by Ellie Cooper, a former medic in the Iraq war who has moved to Beijing to get over a failed marriage and rediscovers herself in the milieus of modern art and video gaming. One day, while Cooper is hanging out in the studio of her sometime lover, the controversial artist Lao Zhang, she encounters a renegade Uighur. When the Uighur and Zhang disappear, she becomes the target of an inquiry by Chinese and US intelligence operatives whose intertwined purpose remains opaque until the end.
Fundamentally, “Rock Paper Tiger’’ is a chase novel. While Cooper, fueled by painkillers and beer, seeks to rebuild her identity, intel forces presented as menacing and threatening, like those Ray-Ban-wearing suits in “The Matrix’’ films, pursue her in search of the Uighur, who, like too many of the characters, serves largely as a plot device, never to be fleshed out.
Brackmann has an eye for detail; her characterization of art dealer Harrison Wang, her description of various Chinese communities, and the torture scenes inside the Iraqi jail are vivid and expressive but she can fall short on substance. The scenes in China often read like travelogues; most of the scenes in Iraq feel canned. Still, Brackmann can write.
Here, we meet Harrison Wang:
“He’s handsome, elegant, in a snowy white shirt that seems to glow, it’s so clean. Mid to late thirties, though he could be older; he’s one of these guys who’s very well kept, probably works out every day and does yoga or Pilates or whatever. He’s perfectly groomed. If I stroked his cheek, I know it would be smooth, with just a hint of beard beneath the skin.
“I bet he exfoliates.’’
The plot moves smartly, too, and the way Brackmann intercuts scenes of Chinese cities with ones of the Iraqi prison where Cooper and her husband, the evangelical, menacing Trey, treated wounded prisoners builds tension. At the same time, a subplot involving avatars dependent on other avatars that may be linked to people who may or may not help Cooper is strained. So is the book’s resolution, in which the energy security concerns of the United States make a belated, contrived appearance.
Certain places stick in the mind, like Taiyuan, an industrial city in the north of China where Cooper’s video game soulmate, Chuckie, has moved. “A few years ago, Taiyuan was the world’s most polluted city,’’ Brackmann writes. “Now they don’t even have that distinction going for them; it’s maybe the fourth worst. What’s the point of that? No one cares about Number Four.’’ Brackmann communicates Cooper’s weary, cynical attitude effectively in such passages.
It’s also striking how chaste “Rock Paper Tiger’’ is. Even though Brackmann portrays Cooper as sexy, Cooper also seems ambivalent about sex, not to mention love. The men she interacts with are manipulative, distant, cruel, or, at best, idealized, like the novel’s ending, a vision of a community that just might make Cooper feel like she belongs. God knows she’s negotiated challenging worlds to get there.
Credit Brackmann for inventiveness, originality, and verve in inventing Cooper. Credit her, too, for familiarizing the reader with exotic worlds. May Brackmann visit even more compelling ones in novels that go deeper.
Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer from Cleveland, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.