Readers who don’t have the time or, quite reasonably, the inclination to plow through a florid dime-rack novel about a fat American gunrunner in 1920s China who enjoys affecting a Scottish accent with a ”pernicious talent for mimicry,” and who gets it on with a Chinese dragon lady (she shares his taste for anal sex), are encouraged nevertheless to turn to the afterword of Fan-Tan. That’s where David Thomson, the wittily erudite film historian, critic, and novelist who completed, edited, and cauterized this oozing manuscript, explains how it came to be. The headline is that the late Marlon Brando — the towering actor who was a kind of self-styled, fat gunrunner out of 1920s China himself, if you think about it — collaborated with his longtime friend and fellow Hollywood adventurer Donald Cammell over two decades ago to create this impressively crummy, lurid, auto-diddle of a tale.
Because surely the story behind the story is the only story worth telling in Fan-Tan, which was first conceived by the two in 1979 as a treatment for an adventure movie and then turned, incompletely, into a novel in 1983. (Brando, who died in 2004, abandoned interest soon after but retained the creative rights. Cammell, who struggled with manic depression, killed himself in 1996.) That the starring fictional swashbuckler, with his huge appetites, huge girth, and huge sexual appendage, would appear to be modeled, in a loose, fantastical way, on Brando and his own well-known preference for South Seas exoticism seems intentional.
But even with that reference, it’s impossible to know what to make of the gargantuan hero (”too old to be a child, too filthy to be a saint”) who prefers to be called by the girly diminutive Annie (as in Anatole). Or of the alternating thick chunks of dutiful historical research, trite observation, and sprays of dialogue so operatic that it’s easy to imagine Brando acting out scenes for Cammell, as Thomson reports. As a mutually enjoyed sexual fantasy, a smutty boyish pantomime, or an inadvertent shrink’s-delight inkblot that extends the reach of the Brando myth to the realm of Alfred A. Knopf sobriety, the book may be a something. As a novel, even a pulp-fiction novel recycled from cherce mulch, it’s a howler.
For the most fundamental of the anal fantasies, the reader is directed to the plot’s climax (written by Thomson from Cammell’s synopsis) on page 226. All others must kill time following Annie’s progress, beginning with his time served in a Chinese prison where the locals all speak a minstrel dialect of Chinese-y English. Then there’s a piquant visit with a prossie called Yummee (”he lay… like a large, amorous fish symbolically slit up its ventral seam by the fingers of an Oriental mermaid”). Only after which does Annie meet up with the Chinese bandit queen Madame Lai Choi San, and the two get down to the book’s real dirty business. ”I am the greatest robber and thief upon this sea,” she whispers by way of introduction.
It takes more than 200 pages for Annie to find in Madame Lai his equal, ”a compote of all the world’s skills and sins, and brimming over in her great wish to be f—ed by the gwai lo, her gwai lo.” Think of the more than 20 years it took before readers could share the pleasure as a kind of a reprieve.