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Schadenfreudenberger No More           
by Kelly Roark

Nell Freudenberger is one of those hot new authors – gorgeous, brilliant, and young – that strikes fear in the heart of any writer over thirty who didn't go to Harvard and hasn't been featured in Vogue magazine. After her first book of short stories, Lucky Girls, came out in 2003 to critical acclaim, her second was highly anticipated, if only to give reviewers a chance to use the term "schadenfreudenberger” again. Freudenberger's youth and beauty sparks gossip from other writers, perhaps hoping she'll fall flat on her face, giving them a chance to use that most delicious German I-told-you-so.  Her solid writing, however, led to the coining of “schadenfreudenberger,” which, as far as I can tell, means "an author you hope will fall flat on her face but who, you must grudgingly admit, is actually pretty good."  It's interesting that reaction to Freudenberger's writing has so much to do with her physical appearance and privileged background, leaving the quality of her work as a secondary thought.  It's almost taken for granted that she writes well (after all, she's been recognized by the New Yorker, so why question it?)  What seems to thrill the reader is the schadenfreudenberger.

In an attempt to judge a book not by it's cover (or rather, the author's picture inside the cover), it seems worthwhile to take a look at Freudenberger's latest (or 2nd) book, The Dissident, based on more novel qualities, like the writing, and some of the more prevalent themes. The Dissident is largely about culture clash in Los Angeles; a wealthy family hosts a Chinese artist for a year while he creates new work and teaches art at an exclusive private school. The book bounces back and forth between past events in China involving a group of performance artists and present events in LA. The interactions and creative process of the Chinese artists must be at least loosely based on the Gutai Group, Japanese performance artists of the 1960s and 70s.  The artists in The Dissident perform pieces in which they place themselves in extreme physical discomfort, risking both physical danger, and political repercussions.  One performance, for example, titled “Something That Is Not Art” involved an artist being suspended between two ladders, besought by heaters on the left and fans on the right.  His nude body was periodically drenched in water.  The artist coyly asserts that the performance was not art, letting his audience deal with the inherent irony of watching an event whose author denies its very performance-ness.  Photographs of the event further problematize the piece.  Through conversations between the artists, Freudenberger raises (somewhat awkwardly) various questions related to performance art - such as identification of the author (photographer or performing artist?) or the actual art (the photograph or the performance?), as well as the big questions: what is art? and, furthermore, what is not art?  These questions follow the artist to Los Angeles as he challenges his hosts by creating not the shocking performance art of their expectations, but Chinese traditional landscapes and copied images. 

Freudenberger's characters never take a hard line on answers to these grand questions, and the absence of interrogation of these issues results in a feeling of distance between reader and character.  The characters, for the most part unable to relate to those outside their own racial, cultural or economic positions, remain rather one dimensional.  Zadie Smith's recent masterpiece, On Beauty(2005), is one example of a writer who capably mixes important artistic questions within the realm of literary fiction.  As a result, On Beauty is one of the more beautiful, stunning books of the past few years. Smith, yet another hot, young artist, allows her characters to emotionally commit to their ideals (with a more topical struggle between two scholars' methodologies – one a liberal theoretician and the other a conservative, conventional art historian) leading to a richer story and a deeper understanding of the artistic and racial issues.  

Something wonderful about both Smith and Freudenberger's writing is that each writer delves into these broad themes that connect us: racial, cultural and academic issues More than that, however, they examine how we respond to and create the art around us, which is ultimately so much more interesting than the pedigree of the author. 

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