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The short story is a much maligned artform in recent years. Once the vehicle for many a fine author to express themselves in (Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft, Arthur Conan Doyle, HG Wells… hell, even Charles Dickens), the short story has fallen out of favour in the 21st century. Publishing styles were to blame for both the rise and the fall of the short story. Back in the 19th century, authors looking to establish themselves would submit their stories to magazines and journals, thus stories would have to be short and concise to fit within the magazine’s word count. It is easy to forget that one of the greatest literary creations of all time – Sherlock Holmes – was a regular appearance in short story form within the pages of The Strand Magazine; only four novel-length Sherlock stories were ever written. Even those famous stories which have entered our cultural consciousness as “proper books” began their life as weekly or monthly submissions to literary journals. American readers stormed New York’s wharf when the final instalment of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop finally made it to their shores, though later the entire saga was re-published in book format.
Readers in the Victorian and Edwardian eras wanted short stories that they could follow over time and discuss with friends – they were the fin de siècle equivalent of devouring a HBO series box-set and dissecting it over the water cooler with colleagues. This trend continued with the rise of science fiction magazines during the 1930s to the 1950s which gave legends like HP Lovecraft and Raymond Bradbury a platform for their works. However, just as publishing demands gave rise to the short story, it also killed it. TV all but killed off the weekly and monthly literary journals – only the stodgy old New Yorker magazine pretentiously stands alone. Today, the big publishing houses won’t touch a short story collection unless you are Neil Gaiman. Typically, unless an author is already very well established, there seems to be little demand for short story collections and getting one published can be nigh on impossible. With the decline of story reading, big publishing houses have to bank on the big novel-writing names to generate profits meaning fewer and fewer chances are taken on short stories by unknown authors.
This is of course a terrible shame, as some of the best books I have ever read have been collections of short stories. This brings me onto Isham Cook and his collection entitled The Exact Unknown.
Isham Cook is a mysterious figure who has been writing about China and other interests for quite some time now. In his photograph he appears like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, emerging from the shadows to tell us about “The horror, the horror” of the lives we lead.
The first thing to understand about Isham Cook is that he does not shy away from writing about somewhat taboo subjects like sex and prostitution. He also does not like the term “short story”. In the introduction to The Exact Unknown – which is actually superbly written and probably the best part of the book (I normally skip author introductions but this one is worth making an exception for) – he reveals his distaste for the term and explains why he prefers the word “tale”.
I adopt the word tale rather than the short story as my literary medium for a number of reasons. Words undergo semantic change. The “short story” means something quite different to younger people these days than it does to the dwindling genteel readership familiar with the term that is now dying off and will be replaced in due time. The younger generation is liable to think short story is a short news story. The distinction between fiction and nonfiction too is blurring, increasingly tripping up even well known writers, who confuse rhetoric with veracity when it’s all rhetoric anyway and are then accused of plagiarism.
So this collection of tales is a fun and breezy read; the tales are normally no more than eight or ten pages in length, though there are a handful of exceptions. You could quite happily read one or two on the bus or train during the daily commute which is how I tend to read short stories (my Kindle is stacked with short stories for this very purpose).
True to his introductory words, the tales seem to blend fiction and non-fiction. Some of the tales are told in the third-person, while some are told in the first-person: it is these tales that seem to draw on elements of Isham’s own personal experiences of life and love in China. And there is a lot of life and love in this book. I have never met the author, but I would guess that Isham is your classic open-minded liberal of the 1960s and 70s. He has an open-minded attitude towards sex, massage and prostitution. To Isham, as long as nobody is getting hurt then adults are adult enough to make their own choices in life and have the liberty to follow their heart to reach their chosen destination. This attitude seems to be gradually becoming extinct as today’s liberals become ever more puritan and seek in sexual matters to become even more conservative than the traditional establishment that they replaced. It is refreshing to read Isham’s honesty and openness when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Others will of course disagree. As Isham himself points out, any writer describing situations where foreign men and Chinese women have sexual relations is opening himself up to an avalanche of criticism from many different angles.
We have no such hang-ups about sex here. I thoroughly enjoyed the twenty tales contained within The Exact Unknown. Isham writes well and is a clean writer too. I would guess that he is a Professor of English or some such equivalent as his grammatical structure and story arcs are all well crafted. Many of the tales feature sex and sexual relations between Chinese girls and their English teachers. One of my few complaints of this book is that I wish Isham had diversified the backgrounds of his protagonists a bit more as the figure of the wandering English Professor on the Chinese campus does get a little repetitive.
There are some gems within this collection and Isham mixes up the narrative styles just enough to keep it interesting. He obviously prefers writing dialogue as many of the tales are dialogue heavy, but when he does describe the world around his characters he does it with an eye for accuracy and the interesting detail. For example, here is Isham on those angry individuals often encountered on public transportation:
There are those who congregate at the subway door even when there are few passengers and there is ample room in the car. Some do this heedlessly, but I have noticed more and more of the angry doing this on purpose. So with some passengers blocking the entrance because they need to get off soon, others doing so absentmindedly, and still others doing so deliberately, it can be quite an ordeal nowadays to get on, and not just during rush hour. The curious thing is that most are barely aware of your exertions in pushing past them and no feathers get ruffled, though caution is advised when forcing yourself past the angry.
One sympathizes with their need to maintain a veneer of dignity and their poignant desire, in the absence of any actual power in their life, to command a small patch of territory. It’s more difficult to do this out on the street than down in the subway, where by blocking the door they can control and regulate the flow people on and off the train. They remind me of those quixotic homeboys in imaginary bearskins and epaulets stationed at elevators in Chicago housing projects, deciding who can enter or not and exacting fees at will. Still, force yourself on you must, not that one wants to cross them, as difficult as they’re going to make it for you.
As well as sex, the other dominant theme within The Exact Unknown is the blurring between fiction and reality. Already covered in his introduction, Isham believes that the best stories are deliberately vague on what is real or not. I tend to agree. My favourite tales within the book were those that featured a situation where it was difficult to distinguish who was telling the truth or who was playing whom. A tale about customers getting cheated at Beijing Zoo’s Clothing Market leaves us unsure who exactly was the one doing the cheating. A casual affair with a student may or may not have been recorded. A one-night stand with a Shandong woman raises questions on whether the expat narrator was really the one doing the game-playing. Anybody who has lived in China – that land of endless ambiguity – will appreciate the infinite shades of grey that Isham paints his tales with.
Not every story is a winner. A couple of the tales seem a little rushed in their conclusion and I was left wondering if there was more of the story to come later in the book. The main culprits for this flaw are the tales Let the Sunshine In and The Hickey. Both feature incidents that occur during the courtship of an American teacher and his young student, though I felt both left the reader hanging at the end. The final tale in the collection – Injaculation – a bizarre tale featuring temple gods and what I assumed to be tantric fertility rites left me completely baffled.
However, apart from one or two stumbles, I enjoyed every minute of The Exact Unknown and I take my hat off to Isham Cook. Not many authors, certainly not those with an eye to future publication from a HarperCollins or a Penguin or those who concern themselves overly with how they are perceived by the public, write with such truth, wit and honesty – certainly when it comes to writing about China at least. To quote Isham’s introduction again: “Literature on China as well is bounded by the parameters of the tragic and the exotic and the sentimental in between, packaging a people as likeable as us if not quite like us.” Finally with The Exact Unknown there is a voice outside the stereotypes.
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.