The Public Speaks: Reviews of Party Members

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Not coming soon to a book review section in Time Out Beijing any time during this millenium

It’s been almost two months since my book Party Members has been out on the market. You won’t have seen it reviewed in any mainstream blog, expat rag or literature publication though as everybody I’ve spoken to is shit-scared about reviewing a book that savages the CCP (and is a little bit naughty). I’ll post more on this another time, but today I wanted to share some reviews written by you – good old Joe Public. Generally, reviews have been quite favourable.

The legendary author Isham Cook wrote a long and detailed review of Party Members. Isham writes beautiful book reviews worthy of his profession as a fully-credentialed English Professor. Rather than detract from his blog by pasting the review here, I’d urge you to go and take a look at his website. Have a read at some of his other work while you’re there too.

Reddit user and mod extraordinaire /u/tan_guan also wrote a great and well-written review on the /r/China reddit. I’d copy and post it on here but unfortunately reddit is blocked on my work computer in case I use it to access pictures of scantily clad young women with manjaws and hairy bush. Hence, you’ll have to click here to read it.

There’s a cutely named little blog called Balancing Frogs that hails straight outta the renegade province of Taiwan that also wrote a balanced but non-froggy review. Again, I’d like to direct any web traffic back to the blog where it came from so should you be interested you can read the Frog Balancer’s review on his site.

Aside from the above, there have been a host of great reviews on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Goodreads.

Troy Parfitt, author of Why China Will Never Rule The World:

It’s difficult to review this novel without giving too much away, so I’ll keep it relatively short. Party Members by Arthur Meursault is a dark comic novel about China’s (ahem, what’s a phrase that’s diplomatic?) sociopolitical issues. It tracks the life of Yang Wei, a low level cadre who wants to, for reasons I won’t go into, lest it spoil the fun, climb the rickety social ladder. To get rich is glorious and all that Deng Xiaoping jazz. And so Yang Wei sets about screwing people over, in every conceivable sense. But this is not your typical anti-hero novel. It’s not one of those novelized morality tests where the protagonist is pure sleaze, but pure sleaze with a grand plan and the writer wants you to examine your soul and ask, ‘Do I cheer him on or hope he fails?’ No, no, it’s a cultural expose. A dark and twisted cultural expose – extremely dark and seriously twisted – but it reveals more truth about China than you’ll find in a dozen volumes of non-fiction. All the glorious themes are present and it’s lavishly clear that the author has spent (done?) time in the Middle Kingdom. Meursault captures China’s exoticism precisely and by exoticism I mean rot. Oh, and the names. Yang Wei lives in a city called Huaishi (which probably means “Bad Affairs”), an expensive section of town is Taigui (“Too Expensive”), etc. The novel is hilarious, the writing solid, but the story is also tragic, a parody of China’s oppressive kleptocracy, where state officials are often little better than gangsters and where laobaixing, or common people, are powerless to redress their excesses. Party Members had me gripped from beginning to end. The detail is exceptional and little things that don’t seem significant come back into play. Plotlines thicken and overlap and by the final paragraph even the meaning of the title has expanded. In sum, this is a novel I wish I’d written. It deserves a large readership. Five stars.

Alec Ash, author of Wish Lanterns:

I enjoyed this satirical novel, written under the Camusesque pen-name ‘Meursault’, which mercilessly rips into Chinese society with the cynicism and jadedness that betrays a long-time resident. It epitomises a negative attitude a lot of us have struggled with, and at times I wonder if the author really shares it or is just sending it up. Either way, the book works as a biting and funny satire, and there is real knowledge of the country between the lines. The writing is compelling, and it’s a page-turner even if sometimes you don’t want to turn the page. I’ll echo all the trigger warnings below, there’s lots of explicit content and it’s not for the faint of heart. But that’s what makes it so fun.

Quincy Carroll, author of the overly long-titled Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside:

I went into this novel not really knowing what to expect. Starting with the positives, Party Members is well written, and the author (Arthur), clearly had a unique vision, which he was able to execute successfully for his purposes. As far as I know, there’s no other book currently on the market quite like it.

As someone who has lived abroad in China, I was intrigued by the angle Meursault chose to take in writing this story about a power-hungry mid-level bureaucrat in the country’s interior (a satirical lambasting of the CCP/Chinese materialism/me culture), but I will admit that I entered with reservations about the fact that it was written by a Westerner. There are those who will say that I’m being unduly sensitive with that last comment, but the problem is one of representation—that and the fact that any perceived hypocrisy on the part of the author (whether warranted or not) will only serve to detract from the central message of the story.

That’s not to say that Meursault is off-base with his criticism; on the contrary, the topics he addresses (corruption, misogyny, etc.) are all scourges on contemporary China, but they’re scourges elsewhere, too. This could easily have been a novel about the Trump/Clinton/Boris machine or bankers on Wall Street (to be sure, Yang Wei, the main character, puts the term “big swinging dick” in an entirely different light), and I felt myself being pulled out of the narrative constantly because of these doubts. While it is easy for outsiders to focus on the absurdities of the Chinese government, I think that I would have found it more interesting and effective if Meursault had provided a more nuanced portrayal of Chinese society, since in my opinion, that’s closer to the truth. That was clearly never the writer’s intention, however. If you’re searching for something provocative, or you’re simply an old China hand who needs an opportunity to vent, then look no further: this is the book for you.

(Quincy’s review is the only critical one I’ve received so far. I respect Quincy and enjoyed his bookI’m not typing that bloody name again – but I 100% disagree with the points he raises here. Westerners absolutely can have valid and valuable opinions about China that simply cannot be expressed by Chinese due to their political constraints or cultural upbringing. I find Quincy’s argument that Westerners shouldn’t be critical of China or the CCP because of the “Trump/Clinton” machine or Wall Street to be the same empty whataboutist argument used by Chinese when they say “You cannot understand China – you’re a foreigner!” or “If you don’t like it – go home!”.)

J.Summers had this to say:
Kafka crossed with Tom Sharpe
This is an astounding book. It’s about the most no-holds barred take-down of the CCP and Chinese materialism you will ever read. It’s dark, with more dark humour laced on top – a cross between Kafka and Tom Sharpe. It’s packed full of laughs, plus incredible insight and humanity. Some of it’s very sad and filled with pathos. I read it cover to cover in a day. Trigger warning: it’s quite rude! Second Trigger warning: those enamoured by the mystique of China and the ancient, respectable, inscrutable oriental may get their PC dreams shattered.

I honestly feel this is an important work. It’s easy to overlook it because of its dark humour and filthy jokes but it is a deep and brutal shivving of all that is wrong with modern China delivered with stunning effectiveness by a shockingly talented writer. Those who don’t know China may blanche. Those who do, and who have gotten out with their sanity, will read it and shudder.
RECOMMENDED.

Cayse International:
The Real Story
Party Members focuses on the day-to-day goings on in China. It is full of explanatory stories and examples of many cultural traditions that exist there and how the CCP has manipulated these cultural traditions to suit its’ party doctrine. Chinaphiles and those wanting a “clean view” of Chinese culture will not be pleased – but those seeking the truth about what Chinese ( and much of Taiwanese) culture is truly about will find many previously closed doors opened. The books complexity may confuse some at first, but the interwoven plot will carry the message well. Examples right from present day news are mixed in with “traditional” culture examples to provide a rich context.
It is not a book for prudes> This must be made clear. It is quite graphic in topics that may “Offend” the sensitive SJWs. But these examples are deeply relevant to the book and are really at the base of much of Chinese culture.
Reading it is/was an exciting journey that explained a lot about the current situation in China, and by extension, Taiwan.
Highly recommended for the open-minded and those wanting a view of what China is and where the present day facade came from.I received an early copy for reading and review – Thank You Camphor Press.

Scott:

Humorous and entertaining read

Disclaimer: I was given an advanced copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review. The author of this book is a talented writer. I enjoyed his humorous take on modern day China, and he clearly knows China very well. Overall, I found the book quite entertaining, but many readers may be put off by the graphic sexual content throughout the last two-thirds of the book. I think I would have enjoyed the book more with extra China-related humor and fewer penis references, but the penis-references make up a key part of the story. Overall, I’d give the book 3.5 stars, but I don’t think that’s an option on Amazon.
Gerard Manogue (I really enjoyed this review):

This book had three main strong points: Firstly, I thought that Arthur Meursault, whom I assume is a foreigner, was very ambitious to write an all-Chinese cast. Some will obviously question the authenticity of that but I respect the author’s boldness, and he pulls this off well for satiric purposes. Also, the book was very well written stylistically, unlike many other books about China (looking at you Tom Olden) that are written by foreigners. Lastly, I will not comment on whether or not the China depicted in this book is representative of the “real” China (whatever that means) but I did think that Meursault’s vision, in all of it’s darkness, squalor, and sordidness, was quite unique. Some scenes brought about a very uncomfortable, visceral reaction, and even the most optimistic foreigners wouldn’t be able to deny some of the scary truths within these pages.

However, I did think that Meursault’s attempts to humanize some of the characters made the societal criticisms less effective, mainly because the book is more of an allegory (as satire usually is) and less of a character-study. For example, the first few chapters give an exposition of the protagonist Yang Wei, a sort of Chinese Everyman, and this exposition isn’t much more than a cataloging of everything that is wrong with modern China: the education system, government policies, societal expectations, filial piety, bad manners, terrible hygiene, etc., and how Yang Wei is the average product of all these flaws. Yang Wei acquires an insignificant government post, marries a woman with no personality, and spawns a typical “little Emperor” technology-addicted son, he is essentially pre-engineered into a world where one has to aspire to be mediocre. I didn’t think that this was bad, I actually thought it was well done and quite funny, and brutally honest in the best way. The jaded foreigner within me was rooting for Meursault to continue on. The story for the most part afterwards is cast underneath this satiric light. Later on though, we see the characterization and short-lived entrance of little Shanshan, and this snippet is probably the most hopeful, human portrait in the book. Moments of two-sidedness like this one are rare, and thus I found these moments to be a little out of place with the rest of the book, as Meursault is mostly railing on China for a comedic, seemingly black-and-white effect. While both Yang Wei and Shanshan are both portrayed as victims of a system much bigger than the both of them, Shanshan is meant to be sympathized with, whereas Yang Wei, and most of the other characters, are mostly meant to disgust, repulse, and as a result humor the reader. There is a noticeable lack of balance. Considering my overall impression of the book, something wants me to think that if Shanshan’s character was allowed to survive and develop further, she would have become like one of the many prostitutes that Yang Wei indulges in throughout the narrative, or more ambitiously, another government official’s wife with no personality. How is Shanshan any different from the child s***ing into the bucket of KFC? I understand that the book is meant to be about the darker effects of power and money, and how these things take people down terrible paths, but when the book is always so focused on the negatives, these little attempts at humanization don’t seem genuine.

I do also lurk on r/China from time to time and I am familiar with the whole “Rainy” archetype, which I find hilarious, and while I was really excited to see Meursault’s take on this phenomenon, I didn’t think the potential humor of this idea was fully capitalized on. Mainly this is because I think the whole idea of a Rainy must exist within a “foreigner male – Chinese female” dynamic, to put it roughly. Basically, I think that if Meursault wanted to have a Rainy in the book, he should have written a foreign character. The materialistic, iPhone-toting side of the Rainy was captured well enough, but the bad English, poor social skills, stalking, culture clashes with whatever English teacher unlucky enough to get involved with Rainy, etc., these vital elements of “Rainyness” were just not present. Another thing that I thought was a little inconsistent, if all of the characters are Chinese, and it is evident from the text that the characters are speaking Chinese together, then why on earth would Yang Wei or any other character in the book refer to her as Rainy? Maybe a little pedantic of a complaint, but nonetheless I did question the logic of this. Maybe I am trying to say that only a foreigner can see the “Rainy” in a Chinese girl. The character Bella in Quincy Carroll’s ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside’ in my opinion was a more accurate caricature.

Though I did find this novel to be a tad mean-spirited in some parts, it is still a very fun and insightful read, while not being too heavy. It does play up to “ultra-unreal” tendencies seen these days in modern Chinese literature. Unfortunately the sexually explicit content, shock, violence, and descriptions of Yang Wei’s penis (that are borderline homoerotic at times) will probably prevent the book from being taken seriously in more “highbrow” circles. Overall though I did enjoy this book, and I do recommend it, especially if one currently lives or has spent time in China. Meursault does indeed have a valid and valuable perspective.

Hector Snuggs:

An astonishing book. I could not put it down. The writing is beautiful even though it is talking about the most horrific things and the plot is gripping.

This book is dark as hell. It describes the life of a minor Chinese Communist Party official and his ascent up the social ladder. On the way the author shows all aspects of modern Chinese life, as well as a few gross inventions of his own.

There are some stand out scenes in the book that are as hilarious as they are disgusting. The small boy relieving himself in the KFC. The main character pleasuring himself in an Audi A6. The invention of a drink called F-Max that is made of human urine. You won’t forget these scenes in a hurry.

There’s a lot going on behind the disgusting scenes. The book really gets under the skin of life in China and goes even deeper than that. A few plot threads get very nihilistic and readers of Nietzsche and Kafka will recognise many references to their thinking.

I only heard of this book because a friend showed me a copy. It deserves to be more widely known but probably won’t because of its rudeness.

JMay:

I bought this book because it was recommended to me on reddit.com/r/china which is an internet forum well known for China bashing. I am very critical of the Chinese regime and have experienced much frustration living in China.

While I am not anti Chinese per say I think satire is sometimes the best medicine and this book really lays bare the s*** show that is life in modern China under the CCP. It is laugh out loud funny in places. It’s definitely a must read for foreigners who have spend some time and frustrations living and working in China however if you are in any way sensitive please be aware that this book is not a politically correct book. It will offend and in some ways goes a bit too far but you can’t help but know that the author is really on the money and his portrayal of modern China is very accurate.

One reason it loses a star is I feel it is too long.
*SPOILERS FOLLOW*
The sections where Yang Wei is talking to his penis are a bit tedious and childish however the talking penis is an important metaphor. It just feels like the delivery mechanism for the metaphor could have been delivered differently.

Stephen:
Having lived in China and Taiwan for more than 16 years I thoroughly enjoyed this book
Disclaimer: I was also given an advanced copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review. Having lived in China and Taiwan for more than 16 years I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author displays a very keen understanding of Chinese officialdom! From getting married in China and trying to organize my parents in law pension I think I’ve met all the characters in the book. For those not so familiar with China I’m not sure how many of the “in” jokes will be noticed but anyone having spent time there will definitely appreciate it, I read it in a couple of days and long nights when I should have been sleeping. Highly recommend.
Director Liang (a good contrast to Quincy Carroll’s review):

Foreigners who have lived in China for several years, upon returning home discover that curiously, nobody really believes even the tamest tales of what happened while they were there, as if they are telling war stories at the breakfast table. The squeaky clean Chinese media, the language barrier and preconceived expectations create a “you wouldn’t believe it if I told you” resignation that only those who have been there could really understand. This book brings you all those stories, wrapped in a fanciful, somewhat sexualized and fanciful narrative, perhaps with the hope that after you suspend disbelief of the absurd, you might believe the merely strangely Chinese parts more easily.

It may seem Meursault is criticising Chinese people. But he actually shows us a world of government officials gone wild. He shows us the crushing matrix of servitude and indebtedness that curses all Chinese from birth. The actors of his world are powerful but inhabit a world of powerless, cowering extras who are used, abused, killed or robbed without concern or care – in other worlds the Everyday Chinese whose best hope in life is to have a boring existence. This is a country where dating sites will list sleeping as a hobby.

Yang Wei is one of the powerless (his name is literally “impotent” and “mediocrity was his to enjoy”) who discovers the secret of rising above the meaningless masses. His rise is interwoven with real incidents of abuse, both everyday and straight from Chinese newspapers. It’s as if he is “EveryOfficial”, an amalgam of all the mid tier officials in forgettable smog ridden cities of only 15 million people or so, nursing off the third rate teats of China’s less lucrative scams. And his journey is the 1990s and 2000s journey of China itself, a kind of Midnights Children with less chutney and more KFC.

And, as such, as a part of the lost majority of China, he’s least in touch with the actual meaning of the world he lives in. Is KFC foreign? Why is driving an Audi so important? Does he really need a Mistress on the side, given he has KTV girls and hookers? Why was he so powerless? How far should he go now he knows how to abuse the society he lives in? Does anybody care to stop him? What exact motive will actually drive someone to stand up to him? If you know none of the answers to these questions, are you truly powerful? Or just lucky enough to act in such a way that you ride the crest of a wave?

There are fun Chinese names to enjoy if you are an insider, but as very very few foreigners can read Chinese, Meursalt has not belabored these, they are just Easter eggs for fun. The book walks the line between entertaining you, but also reminding the reader of many issues and questions that beg for redress but you may have accepted (if you lived in China) or assumed incorrectly about (if not). One learns as much from what the characters in the book don’t care about and ignore or concrete over (history, culture, truth, justice) as what they do.

Some have said – how can a Westerner write about China? The author has lived in China for many years, speaks and reads near perfectly in Chinese, has studied classics and appeared in Chinese media. He has spent more adult years in China than many Chinese writers or artists. Is this all there is to China? Of course not. Do bad things happen in other countries? Yes read all about it on any newsstand. Is this a story a Chinese book seller would publish? As of the 2016, the year of publication of this book, they are a bit busy confessing their crimes on television.

As such, expatriate literature on China is an important viewpoint.

Even if it still probably won’t be believed.

GuessImStuckWithThis:

If you ever wondered how Kafka’s “The Castle” would read if narrated from the point of view of it’s bureaucrats, or how much ass-kissing O’Brien had to do to obtain his position in Room 101, and would love to read a book about that, written in a Pynchon-esque, absurdist style, then this is the one for you.

Alternatively, if you have a familiarity with the murkier, dingier depths of China, outside of the shiny facades of Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen, then this will definitely evoke a rueful laugh or two.

Although perhaps a bit too unrelenting in it’s criticism of the wonderfully harmonious communist party,this book is clearly inspired by experience of the China that not many outsiders are acquainted with. It’s obviously written with a real passion for the Chinese people, but utter contempt for their government (something that many are unfortunately unable to separate in their mind)

DO NOT READ IF EASILY OFFENDED

However I would say this is probably the best thing to have come out of Xi Jinping’s China so far, except for, of course, his own cascading, erudite and unparalleled magnum opus: The Governance of China. The two books are perfect companions for each other.

Jonny:

laugh out loud moments. A must read for anyone who has spent time frustrated in China. An unfortunately accurate portrayal of modern day China.

Loses one star for being a bit too long. The Penis metaphor was initially funny but too many pages are dedicated to it.

Elias:
A grim, pessimistic (and often gross) view of how to get ahead in China and the party. I’m not sure if enjoyable would be the right word for this book, but it was a ‘good’ read. I laughed, I winced and got angry as this ‘fictional’ story feels to be very close to the truth. Along with the main narrative about “how to be a dick!”, you learn about the different aspects of living in China, from the pressure exerted on sons to produce heirs, mistress culture, showing off/losing face and the ever elaborate Lunar New Year ritual, which are all instantly recognisable to those of us who live in Asia and resulted in many laugh out loud moments for myself. Be warned this novel is at times very graphic (remember it is a novel about a guy who listens to his penis on how to step on others to get ahead)!
And some anonymous reviews:
Anyone who has lived or spent serious time in China will appreciate so many aspects of the novel. It’s impossible to put down and really gives the reader pause to think throughout. It’s entertaining and serious, and daily life in China has been captured perfectly within the greater story line. A book you will remember reading and be thankful that you did.
Party Members will genuinely frighten anyone who has ever considered China as a viable travel destination
Deeply disturbing, slightly unnerving and pretty much the stuff of nightmares having said that this is a book that both exploits and entertains in equal measures. I had an advance copy of this book back in 2012-13 (that period of my life remains a bai jiu infused blur) and I distinctly remember reading the novel in one setting. I also remember needing to call home and tell my parents how much I loved them and looked forward to seeing them at Christmas. This book reads like one part American Pyscho (if he tried harder), one part Kafka’s The Transformation and one part dark thoughts. If you’re considering China as a viable carrier option, are currently in China and beginning to second guess your recent decisions to ‘see it out till Easter’, or if you’re simply unnerved by how well you’re life is going, then this is the book for you. Absolutely NSFW but if you get through a few chapters during your lunch hour, you’ll never look at KFC in the same light.
Brilliantly Twisted Stuff
I couldn’t put the book down. It was like a hybrid of a David Cronenberg movie/American Psycho with a character from Viz in there. Having spent a little bit of time in China, the many digs at Chinese culture had me laughing out loud. There are some hilarious parts in the book, some are genuinely sad, the ending will leave you aghast.
And if you want to know what I think about the book, you can read my own review of my own book (written under the benign influence of 二锅头)

***

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.

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