(Standard disclaimer: Book reviews don’t follow the usual blog rules of taking nothing seriously)
What is nice and what is nasty? When we wander through life we tend to consciously divide the people we meet into two camps: nice guys and assholes. Probably no other social classification is as clear-cut once we move away from fixed biological terms like race, gender and age (though in this day and age even those are debatable). We all know who the nice guys and the assholes are: just look around the office you perhaps work in. Nice guys will be those stand-up chaps who share resources, participate in the social events, and always have a good word to say about anyone. Assholes, on the other hand, tend to be rude and often vindictive. We all want to be seen as nice guys, right?
This classification seems to be a general rule within Western culture, though I have strong doubts that it exists so clearly within others. Western cultures tend to praise nice behaviour – after all, our whole current liberal political climate is just one long spiral of virtue signalling. Being nice and “doing the right thing” is seen as a virtue. In other cultures, perhaps less so. There is undoubtedly a strain within Chinese culture that respects nastiness and cunning, though it gets painted over by nice words like “harmony” and “entrepeuniaral”. The Middle East certainly doesn’t respect nice guys like the West does. Anybody who has ever had any dealings with Iranians will know of their deep respect for anybody who displays the characteristic of zerangi – which roughly translates as “cleverness” or “cunning”. Zerangi can be either ethical or unethical, but it really doesn’t matter. In Iranian culture the nice guy who loses is viewed with less respect than the zerangi man who cheated him. Turkey has a similar cultural respect for craftiness too – it’s called Byzantine politics for a reason, kids.
In a very roundabout way, this brings me to Ray Hecht’s book South China Morning Blues published by Blacksmith Books. This was a book that I struggled immensely with. It’s not a bad book, it is cleanly written and will appeal to many people for sure, but I just couldn’t get into it. The book follows twelve characters – male and female, Chinese and foreign – and their lives within the Pearl River Delta cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The book features sex, drugs and rock n’ roll (well, dance music at a rave to be exact), yet it left me cold. Ray Hecht comes across as a decent guy on his blog, in his writing and in the interviews he has held… and I think that is the problem. He is a nice guy writing about nasty things, and it shows.
For what it is worth, I don’t consider myself a nice guy. I’m cynical, selfish and anyone who has read one of my blog posts will know that I don’t mind being offensive. I have been in the world that Hecht describes in South China Morning Blues and left it feeling sickened at its shallowness and inanity. The events within the book seemed to me to be a nice guy’s observation of decadence but the observations of a guy who never truly experienced it deeply – like Edward Gibbon writing about the last days of Rome. Hecht tells us stories of drug overdoses and empty sex, though I never felt any real emotion within those stories. There was a lack of the horror that should be there once you have reached rock bottom.
Part of this might be a style issue. Again, there are two types of people: those who love purple prose and convoluted description, and those who prefer a spartan style. I am the former while Hecht is obviously the latter. It’s HP Lovecraft versus Ernest Hemingway. Hecht favours a minimalist writing style with straightforward descriptions of the world he creates. To his credit, he “shows” rather than “tells”, thus avoiding the traps that a lot of writers fall into. Nobody can accuse South China Morning Blues of drowning in adverbs. However, this Hemingway school of writing has always rung flat with me and I found many of the scenes in the book lacking in local detail or colourful description.
The twelve characters in the book are all aligned with animals from the Chinese zodiac and share the same characteristics. This is explicitly stated in the final part of the book when each character’s chapter heading is given a phrase like “I am loyal” or “I am resilient”. A lot of the characters certainly seem to share autobiographical elements with Hecht as well. There is an English teacher who drifts through life without purpose, a journalist with an alcohol problem who moves from one assignment to the next, and an aspiring artist who craves attention. I mention these characters because it brings me back to my primary problem with the book: I just didn’t like these characters. Since I’m an asshole these characters just struck me as lazy, undisciplined and narcissistic. I’ve met thousands of these types of people and I really don’t care for them. The only character that I had any respect for was the “bad guy” of the book Marco who is the Tiger character. Marco is a businessman who sleeps around and is the characteristic selfish expat with no concern for the world around him. Yet I liked his determination and honesty. Even when he loses all of his business to his zerangi Chinese business partner, he picks himself up, gets married and starts another business. Unfortunately the book punishes him by throwing his new wife into a seemingly incurable coma. I felt more compassion for him than all the other characters combined who spend most of the book in a hangover and wondering why the world doesn’t pay them enough attention. However, like I said, I am certain that I hold the minority view. Most people will identify with these people and find their journeys interesting. For me though, it was a series of tales about narcissists without any bigger picture. Yet this is my problem, not the book’s problem. In fact, there was a (great) line within the book that described perfectly how I felt about it:
It’s an anticlimactic story. I wonder why I even tell it. It’s self-destructive, solipsistic and beneath my education and ambition.
I’ve been quite negative in this review of South China Morning Blues, but should you buy it? The honest answer is, probably, yes. If you’re new to China then the book does a superb job of introducing the flotsam and jetsam that one will encounter living in the country. The characters motivations and desires all ring true. If you’re a “nice guy”, teaching or DJing in China or perhaps with just an interest in the country, you’ll enjoy the ups and downs of the protagonists and the situations they find themselves in. There is something for everyone to relate to in the book: loneliness, self-doubt, fear of the future. It’s only cynical old assholes like me (and maybe Isham Cook) that will have trouble finishing this novel. Like Marco the Tiger character, we are the “weird old guys” who everybody else thinks has a strange minority opinion.
It’s a good thing that there are people like Ray Hecht and books like South China Morning Blues out there to capture the zeitgeist of the age. They don’t tell my story, but they tell a story: a different person’s interpretation of life, China and what’s important. As the author says in the final chapter of the book, the twelve characters featured in South China Morning Blues have different viewpoints and inhabit different universes. What is true for one is not true for another. I might live in a different universe to Hecht, but what he has written is true for his universe. And it might be true for yours too. It really depends whether you consider yourself a nice guy or an asshole.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.