Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street.
Much of the story is playfully told, although there are also a number of landmines of self-conscious portentousnes planted here and there, making it seem as if the author is torn between wanting you to step on them and hoping to steer you safely through. Anyone who made it past the first hundred pages of The Name of the Rose (which even Umberto Eco Referred to as the reader's "penance") should do nicely. But it you are the sort of conscientious reader who reads prefaces, Payne gets you off on a wrong foot:
I have called this tale a Romance in the sense which Hawthorne delineates in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables, where he is at pains to distinguish that form from the Novel. . . . In the final analysis, [the novelist] and the writer of Romance are equally guilty in the Great Deceit which art is.
Mercifully, the pontificating professor vanishes as soon as the Great Deceit begins, at that Taoist monastery where Sun I, the protagonist and narrator, has been left as an infant to be raised in the otherworldly ways of contemplative monks. On his twenty-first birthday, as his is preparing to join the order, he meets an old man who introduces himself as Sun I's uncle and tells the young man the story of his parents.
His mother was a young, overprotected Chinese woman who could not resist the attentions of the charismatic Eddie Love, and American fighter pilot stationed in China. Brilliant and unstable, Love was heir to one of the greatest fortunes on Wall street, and when his father died, he decided that his destiny lay there instead of with the woman who was carrying his child. But before he left, he made arrangements to leave the child with the monks, much taken with a horrible pun of his own devising: whereas his heritage had been the Dow, his child's would be the Tao.
Thus, in the rarefied air of this timeless retreat, Sun I is introduced to the Dow Jones industrial average, which is described to him as being to the marketplace of the defiled world as the Tao is to the monks:
The world's own pulse, in which the beating heart of life reveals itself to the listener--he who takes the time to master its secret language, to learn, as it were, by heart, the ceaseless, steady music of its systole and diastole, and within that, the false note which signals disorder, its murmurs and fibrillations.
That tantalizing analogy forms the basis of Sun I's quest, for if the Tao is indeed real, it must somehow encompass the seemingly antithetical Dow. Sun I resolves to go to New York City to resolve this paradox, and to find out what has become of his father.
There is a great deal of charm in Sun I's nerdy assumption that Lao Tsu and the I chung will help him steer a course through the defiled world. Like the pimply math whiz who stumbles into a crowd of greasers in the high-school parking lot, Sun I heads directly into a violent den of opium smugglers, where he inadvertently causes a minor bloodbath and witnesses for the first time the bloodlust that characterizes the competition of men in the material world, "the ecstasy of combat."
In New York, Sun I's attempts to learn--in the academic sense--what principles underlie the Dow's fluctuations end in comic disaster. Wall Street's leading fundamental, technical and Random Walk analysts leave him (as they have left many a private investor) no smarter than before. He comes to the ironic realization that to learn about the Dow--in the Taoist sense of intuitive knowing--he will have to become an investor himself.
What follows is Sun I's loss of inocence, as he throws himself, with the nerd's wholehearted zeal, into the "ecstasy of combat": the founding of a company so wildly successful (with the help of the I Ching's investment advice) that it begins, Pac-Man-like, to gobble up every company in sight.
If the fallen Sun I is a somewhat less sympathetic character than the well-intentioned young monk, it doesn't much matter, since Payne's characters have their allegorical charms. Sun I, for example, explains early on that his name can be translated from the Chinese as "profit and loss." The two sisters with whom Sun I becomes involved, Yin-mi and Li, are yin and yang, moral rectitude and moral "twilight," respectively. Some of his characterizations are broadly stereotypical: the mystically omniscient Taoist master; the humble Chinese restaurant chef whose best dish is "Leaping Dragons' Blissful Copulation", and the cynical Jewish floor trader who keeps exhorting Sun i to show come chutzpah. Yet Payne avoids disaster by making the characters seem to stereotype themselves, like eccentrics whose cant becomes self-parodying.
The wealth of imaginative detail in the novel is extraordinary, and is at once its greatest strength and biggest flaw. Payne's descriptions are naturally lush, his overhead language occasionally proliferates with the density of a steamy rainforst: "I seemed to breathe a viscous atmosphere of dreams, a twilight world beneath the sea, filled with the startdust glitter of refracted sunlight sparkling through the infinitesimal prisms of suspended salts."
While some of the details are merely extraneous overgrowth, there are also stunning passages in which Sun I's observations--bits of Taoist writings, biblical quotations, remembered phrases from conversations--surface again and again and, buoyed by new observations, take on a resonance that gives the novel its own vocabulary.
The end of Sun I's quest is, in its peculiarly Taoist way, satisfyingly ambiguous. He finds his father, and yet does not; he unlocks the mystery of the Dow, but only after losing the key; like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (which is Sun I's favorite American book), he finds his end in his beginning.
If Payne sometimes gives the impression of a cooky young prodigy running his fingers at breathtaking speed up and down his literary keyboard, he has also composed a witty, engaging and original melody for his young Taoist.