When Wei Hui's semi-autobiographical first novel, Shanghai Baby, came out in China six years ago, it was banned by the Beijing government for its "western decadence and debauchery". Predictably, what dismayed China entranced the west. The book became an international bestseller, and Wei Hui was proclaimed the daring young voice of the new China.
Shanghai Baby's appeal - and offence - was to describe in frank terms the sexual odyssey of a young writer in turn-of-the-millennium Shanghai. The author claimed Henry Miller as her inspiration, and followed his example by leaving her homeland. New York is her Paris: she has lived there for the past four years, and her new book, Marrying Buddha, is the result.
Wei Hui is defiant about her right to describe her erotic experiences in graphic detail, but the problem with her work is not its honesty but its superficiality. To anyone familiar with China, Shanghai Baby comes across as clumsy, shallow and tame. Marrying Buddha is, unfortunately, not much better. In New York, Coco meets Muju, a Japanese-Italian TV producer and former punk who, in his youth, cut off part of his little finger to impress a Japanese Zen master. Their ensuing affair features plenty of experimental sex. But when a slick, wealthy New Yorker called Nick strolls into Coco's life, her relationship with Muju comes under threat. Fleeing to Shanghai, she finds only further confusion. Searching for inner peace, she returns to her birthplace, Putuo Island, where an encounter with an old monk restores her spirit. Yet her search has not ended: back in Shanghai, she encounters both lovers again, and is forced to resolve the conflict between her appetite for personal freedom and her hunger for spiritual enlightenment.
Wei Hui explores this dilemma through the collision of east with west, the secular with the religious, yin with yang. Each duality has its east-west axis, and the book is organised around the ironies of geography and culture: in Shanghai, Coco achieves liberation through the embrace of western cultural icons; in New York she looks homeward, seeking wisdom in Zen.
The novel is admirably ambitious, but its complex themes prove beyond the author's grasp. Coco arrives in New York the day before the attacks of 11 September (as Wei Hui did), but this event fails to in-spire any interesting reflections. Instead, we get cliches. Gifted, sensitive, cigarette-puffing, keyboard-punching Coco is an oriental version of Carrie Bradshaw, minus the three faithful girlfriends. In case there is any doubt, the author quotes liberally from Sex and the City.
The value of Wei Hui's writing lies in her gift for self-exposure, which still takes some courage in today's China. Her problem is that she exemplifies what she is criticising. Despite being uncomfortable with her country's headlong dash for riches - its corruption, ruthlessness and materialism - she herself is a devoted materialist. For westerners, her novels may offer insights into the new China, but these are too random to form a coherent picture. If you want an understanding of what is happening in my homeland, you will have to look elsewhere.