Review: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Susan Jane Gilman

The word “grandiose”, in my family, is a loaded word.  When one of us uses the word “grandiose” to describe someone, we understand that we actually mean “might possibly benefit from medication; updates as warranted”.  I bring that up because if I had been traveling in Communist China with a girl I didn’t know very well, and she had started talking about the project she was working on that was going to be important to national security, I’d have called home and said, “Claire is waxing grandiose,” and my parents would have said, “You get her on a plane and both of you come home this instant.”

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a chronicle of Susan Gilman and her friend “Claire Van Houten”, who decide to go on a round-the-world backpacking trip after they graduated from Brown.  They plan to see the world raw and real, stay off the beaten path, and come home with stories of places and things unseen by Western eyes.  This already sounds very unawesome to me.  I have high anxiety levels and no sense of direction, and I do not like to go to new places (especially new places where I don’t speak the language) without a minder to mind me.  But wait!  Susan Gilman’s already unawesome plans become so much worse.  As they are traveling off the beaten path in Communist China, Claire goes crazy.  Crazy.


Here is the point at which I, child of therapists, talker-out of feelings, and frequent consulter of the DSM-IV, would have decided to pack it in:

“I’m working on a world curriculum,” she said distantly, twisting her watch around on her wrist.  “A compendium of insights on all the nations we’re visiting.  I have to profile their cultures, their histories, their outlooks.  Eventually it will be adapted for grade schools, high schools, universities, and think tanks in Washington.  It’ll be a prototype – you know, a sort of Proustian examination of the world today?  But it’ll be practical, too.  Kids like Cynthia’s boys, whose parents can’t take them to China and India, they’ll be able to access it like a database…It’s something I’ve just got to do.  It’s crucial.  One day it might become a component of our national security.”

Here is the point at which Susan Jane Gilman decided to go home:

“Claire jumped in a river?” I say after a moment.

“Yes.  But do not worry,” Jonnie adds hurriedly.  “The peasants fished her out.”


“Yes.  And they gave her clothes.”

“Clothes?” I say faintly.  “What happened to her clothes?”

“It seems she took them off,” he replies, “when she jumped in the river.”

Horrific, right?  Remember, they were in Communist China in 1986, before the internet, or like, international phone cards.  They got questioned by the military police more times than one time.  Gilman does a good job conveying her own ignorance and helplessness, her (understandable, I think) failure to recognize the signs that Claire was having a breakdown, her occasional seriously awful behavior to the people she meets.  She also writes movingly of the splendor of the good moments: walking on the Great Wall of China, listening to a Chinese opera singer on a boat late at night, the kindness of the people they meet.

However, I couldn’t enjoy this book.  It resembled too closely my worst nightmares of traveling.  It was one of those reading experiences where you can’t abandon the book in the middle, because your imagination has to be worse than the truth, and at the same time, you can’t go to bed with the book unfinished, because it will crawl into your subconscious and affix itself to your dreams like a leech.  After the Oscars (which I watched using the channels on my television, and turning the volume up and down with my remote control just because I could) I stayed up until 12:30 to finish the book.  I cannot take this kind of stress.  I must never read this book again.

I felt this same way, but more so, about Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, which I read once on a road trip.  I had to keep reading and I didn’t want to keep reading, and finally I abandoned it at a rest stop in Alabama.  What’s been an upsetting read for you in the past?  A book that you wished you had never started but you couldn’t not finish?

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reading is my superpower
Bermudaonion’s Weblog
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S. Krishna’s Books
Wrighty’s Reads
One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books
A Bookworm’s World
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Drey’s Library
A Novel Menagerie
My Book Views