(Disclaimer: As always, my usual caveat. Nothing should ever be taken seriously on this blog, but book reviews are the exception. Also, for disclosure reasons, I will say that I was sent free copies of these 3 books after reviewing Isham’s last book The Exact Unknown – which I purchased myself. Isham has also reviewed my own book Party Members.)
I was a big fan of Isham Cook’s The Exact Unknown – his collection of fictional short stories detailing life in modern China. In my review I called it “a voice outside the stereotypes” and one of the rare works on China written with “such truth, wit and honesty”. As mentioned previously, Isham is one of the rare authors out there today who doesn’t shy away from writing about sex and other controversial matters as they exist in today’s China. When I published my own book Party Members I quickly discovered that most “mainstream” publications won’t deign to review a book if there’s even a hint of a footstep outside of the orthodox view of what can and what cannot be published. Since Isham covers sexual matters and delves into them in great detail, he suffers the same fate. You won’t see too many reviews of Isham’s books out there. You also certainly won’t see any excerpts published in the turgid LA Review of Books any time soon. More fool them, as I genuinely believe Isham to be one of the best observers of China’s absurdities writing today.
It was my pleasure to recently read three more of Isham’s books: At The Teahouse Cafe, Massage and the Writer, and Lust & Philosophy.
First up: At The Teahouse Cafe. I adored this book and after reading it my brain went off on a number of wild trajectories inspired by some of the issues covered within. At The Teahouse Cafe is a collection of essays full of Isham’s observations on Chinese society. The range of interests covered is remarkably impressive and broad. Little escapes Isham’s gaze. Topics covered range from “The Chinese art of noise”, dealings with Chinese medical establishments and the challenges that good music faces in China. My absolute favourite essays were “Black Forest Cake Blues” a list of travails that Isham experienced when trying to purchase a Black Forest Gateau in Beijing, and a fascinating essay on the differences between Starbucks in Japan and China. The genius of these two essays is that the author is able to take the smallest thing and extrapolate its background to provide a succinct commentary on Chinese society in general. For example, after receiving a shoddy replica of what a Black Forest Gateau should be from the bakery chain Wedomé, Isham is able to draw comparisons between the elusive Black Forest Gateau and what passes for reality or forgery in the Chinese mind:
I began to suspect they never had any chocolate layers and every time someone ordered a Black Forest they went through the same apology. Perhaps all of the cakes they sold were identical on the inside and differed only on the outside. Not that it would make much difference if they had used chocolate. I have yet to find a chocolate cake produced in a Chinese bakery that tastes like chocolate. If you were blindfolded you would not be able to identify the flavor. It’s just cake, the idea of cake, a jokester’s cake for flinging in the customer’s face, a symbolic “cake.” If they had filled the inside with jello or rice instead of cake, or simply left it hollow, with icing covering the surface of a cardboard shell, it would have been more honest. It was a classic example of a floating signifier, detached from the thing it is meant to signify. A negative cake. It was a “Black Forest” cake not by virtue of what it was but what it was not: any one of the other cakes on display. It filled the “Black Forest” slot that is obligatory in any bakery, a Chinese one included, regardless of what the thing was.
I couldn’t help seeing a connection between my Black Forest cake and the Chinese service industry. As long as this jokester’s cake is what the Chinese regard as a Black Forest cake, Wedomé will do good business. But what happens when local customers start becoming educated about cake? When the legions of service workers suddenly see through the pasteboard prop and realize that there’s more to life than waking up, making fake cake all day, and going back to bed? When they realize that everything they’ve been brought up to believe, the whole structure of expectations that gets them through the day, is nothing but a jokester’s cake?
The sweet reward of a cake can serve as an apt metaphor for many promised but elusive things. The cake is a lie.
As mentioned in fellow author John Ross’ review of At The Teahouse Cafe, there are the occasional pieces within the book that were too dry for my taste (a bit like Wedomé’s Black Forest Gateau). An almost scholarly article on Beijing’s disappearing canal network didn’t fall within my personal scope of interest. That aside, At The Teahouse Cafe is my personal favourite of Isham’s published books.
Whether you’ll enjoy Isham’s second book Massage and the Writer depends on how open-minded you are. If you’re conservative – either of the traditional “thou shall not fuck prostitutes” type, or the more malignant PC liberal type that views any sexual encounters between white men and foreigners as some kind of residual colonialist blight – then you’ll hate this book. Luckily for Isham, I have no problem with frank observations about sex. The sexual market, after all, overrides all other markets and is the silent background charger to so many other social interactions. Handled well, commentary about sex can be some of the most all-encompassing social commentary possible.
Massage and the Writer is another collection of non-fictional essays but this time focused on the author’s experiences with massage in a variety of countries and situations. The essays take us on a journey through China, America, Japan, Southeast Asia and beyond. Isham is very “open borders” on where he’ll stick his dick, and it’s not confined to women either – there’s a memorable paragraph about sucking off a young man in a Turkish sauna and a whole chapter on men massaging men.
Like the metaphor of the fake Black Forest cake as a window onto Chinese society, here Isham takes one theme – massage – and uses it as a lens to view a number of different cultures. The author believes that massage is one of the truest windows onto a nation’s soul. We learn about the constant threat of litigation and false rape threats when attending a massage school in the US, the open-planned massage rooms of Myanmar where nobody is ever alone; and how Islam in Malaysia results in massage services being “outsourced” to non-Malays.
Personally, I found the whole book fascinating, enlightening and insightful. With this particular topic though, it really depends on the reader’s own leanings whether they will enjoy it or not. One man’s five star review will be an expat magazine’s one star review – and for the exact same reasons. Isham may have called his other book The Exact Unknown, but the reason why you won’t see Massage and the Writer reviewed in, say, TimeOut Beijing is a very “exact known”: fear.
Finally, we come to Lust & Philosophy – Isham’s first novel and radically different from his other books.
This is a bizarre novel, and once again your mileage will vary depending on your own personality. The plot is a meandering stream of consciousness that begins with Isham’s attempts to track down an attractive but elusive woman he spots intermittently around the Haidian district of Beijing, but spirals into a history of Isham’s childhood and relationships whilst simultaneously detouring into lengthy observations on philosophy and literature.
It’s not an easy book to read. It’s a stream of consciousness rather than a real plot. How well-read you are will also determine your enjoyment of the novel. There are more than a few parallels between Lust & Philosophy and Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Isham even gives us a little literary clue – his company name that he uses to self-publish his works is called “Magic Theatre Books”: a sly wink to Hesse. According to the biography presented within Lust & Philosophy (I have no idea whether the childhood tales Isham narrates about himself are real or not), Isham goes through a period of wandering and homelessness just like the protagonist in Steppenwolf, and like Steppenwolf this novel transforms into an almost-mystical overview of one man’s life that travels back and forth between time and space. Once you understand what Isham is trying to achieve here the plot makes a lot more sense, but the average reader will most likely be at a lost as to what the hell Isham is writing about. His audience, accordingly, will be extremely niche.
Thus, Lust & Philosophy presents a natural final step in the order I have reviewed these three books: Isham will have a moderately wide audience with his essays in At The Teahouse Cafe, lose some readers due to the explicit content of Massage and the Writer, then most likely lose more with the challenging Lust & Philosophy. However, if you persevere with Isham, the rewards are there. The prose of Lust & Philosophy is some of his most beautiful work and there are a number of deep thoughts and threads to be found within. If the reader is willing to invest some time into reading the book carefully, and doing some individual research on the philosophical detours that Isham takes, then they will take away something of value from Lust & Philosophy.
Isham is a university professor by trade, and these three books reveal the very best of what a good university professor should be. Before the mind-narrowing curse of political correctness took complete control of Western campuses, it was the responsibility of a good professor to broaden his students’ minds with challenging, if sometimes uncomfortable, reading material. These three books, and his other book The Exact Unknown, are great examples of such material. Certain writers on expat and literary magazines and blogs would do well to step out of their self-imposed “safe space” and see what Isham has to say.