The works of Isham Cook will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. Isham, by his own account, appears to be an American former-academic now based in China whose range of interests cover everything from massage, coffee and the old canal system of Beijing. I described his collection of short stories The Exact Unknown as “a voice outside the stereotypes” and one of the rare works on China written with “such truth, wit and honesty”. After reading his short stories, I went on to read his other works that I also reviewed for the viewing public. My favourite remains At The Teahouse Cafe: a wonderful collection of thoughts and ruminations on all things China with an insight that could only come from somebody who has been in the country for over two decades. Massage and the Writer took the same idea of having a compilation of related essays, but took the theme of massage rather than China. Again I found it to be insightful, thought-provoking and smoothly written. Finally, I found Isham’s experimental novel Lust and Philosophy to be challenging and intellectually stimulating, though I appear to be more in the minority in that view. Other reviews on Amazon described it as “rape literature” with one reviewer – Lloyd Lofthouse – even claiming “it is obvious that Isham is mentally damaged”.
So it was with great anticipation that I cracked open Isham’s latest work: American Rococo. Like At The Teahouse Cafe this is a collection of essays that have previously been featured on Isham’s blog, but this time he directs his observant eye to American society rather than China’s. Well, at least that is what I was expecting from the book’s title and the first few chapters. The name American Rococo conjured up images of a series of cutting essays on the current situation and trends within the United States – an occidental companion to his China-focused At The Teahouse Cafe. A 21st century equivalent of Dickens’ American Notes. Instead, American Rococo seems to have no overarching theme other than Isham’s own personal interests which is perhaps the greatest weakness of the book. Much more so than his previous work, your mileage will vary considerably depending on how interesting you find the topics that Isham decides to cover.
And what a range a topics there are! The erudite Mr Cook seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge on religion, Japanese theatre, Elizabethan chamber music and the roots of the English language. When my interests coincided with the author’s I raced through the pages eager to understand his conclusions and memorise any tidbits of information that had previously escaped me. His descriptions of life in South London during Shakespeare’s time were engrossing and I caught myself nodding along to his literary theories on Kafka. In fact, I will be forever mindful of American Rococo for introducing me to the idea that Kafka’s unfinished novels are better novels for the precise fact that they are unfinished. The idea of an unfinished novel that strays outside the narrative and never reaches its final destination had never occured to me as a perfect vehicle for the themes of helplessness and oppressive bureaucracy that Kafka obsesses over.
There is nothing wrong with a series of unrelated essays. As the author highlighted in his correspondence with me, the idea of centering a book of essays around a theme is a fairly recent phenomenon in contemporary publishing. Essays by Montaigne, Bacon, Emerson and others were never thematically unified. The same holds true with fiction. One of my most treasured books is a collection of all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock short stories. The stories range from tales of colonial derring-do, proto-science fiction, medicine and that dreadful time when Conan Doyle began dabbling in Spiritualism. The whole point is the style, the quality of the writing, and if the essays maintain a singular world view.
However, I am only human – and I’m sure that most of the other readers of American Rococo are too. Quite simply, there were several chapters where I just did not share the same interest as the author. The articles that interested me will be completely different to those that may interest any other reader, but it is inevitable with a myriad of topics that each individual will find their own hits and misses. I had to skim-read through the (to me) long, dry and boring essays on the intricacies of lute craftsmanship in the Middle Ages or rather scholarly paragraphs on clause differences between old English and Danish that should remain in the debating halls of a university English Language department. There is also a tendency within the author to slip occasionally into the dry style of academic writing. It is obvious that Isham – self-publishing under his own Magic Theatre label and not beholden to the whims of big media – writes primarily for himself rather than for a defined audience. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this as genius stems from the individual rather than committee, but it does mean that appreciation of his writing depends greatly on your own interest in his chosen topics.
Review over? Is that all? Well, if American Rococo was just a collection of essays on music and literature, I would probably draw the review to a conclusion right now. Yet amidst the ink spilled on Philip Glass and Beowulf, there are other essays which are more focused on Isham’s personal philosophy rather than dissections of music and literature. It is these essays that provoked my strongest reactions to the book, and not always in a positive way.
A picture forms of Isham Cook after reading even just two or three sentences from any of his books. Libertine, sexually open, promiscuous, obsessive… in fact the author himself did a decent job of outlining some of these qualities in his semi-autobiographical novel Lust and Philosophy. Isham regularly recounts his joy in delving into the fleshy pleasures of life. He delights in the excessive, the sensuous and the extravagant. The title of the book American Rococo takes its name from the titular essay where Isham expands on his love of American excessiveness. To him, the rolling curves of the obese are beautiful, not disgusting. The inflated gibberish of street graffiti eye-catching rather than an eye-sore. Isham is a true child of his generation. In several chapters he promotes the wonders and delights of drug use and free love. His embrace of free love, wild extravagance, LSD trips and happy communal living seems firmly rooted in the 1960s and 70s which is when I presume Isham went through his formative years.
This utopian vision is repeated time and time again with an evangelical fervour worthy of the Christians and modern Atheists that he dissects in his chapter on modern atheism. To the libertine author, it is not enough that atheists have discarded traditional conservative beliefs when they still cling to “outdated” concepts like monogamy. To Isham, monogamy is a religion that in his position of Prophet must be destroyed and replaced with free love if we are ever to move forward as a species.
I use the word “Prophet” deliberately. I’m an advocate of Fourth Turning theory and when reading American Rococo found it very much to fit within the thinking of what The Fourth Turning described as a “Prophet” mentality. To those unfamiliar with The Fourth Turning, it was a landmark work written in the late 1990s by William Strauss and Neil Howe where they linked historical change to generational change that repeats itself in a never-ending cycle. Within their theory, certain time periods correspond almost to the seasons of the year: typically history is a cycle of Crisis (war, famine, revolution), a “High” (the post-war peace when society operates on shared principals and vision), Awakening (when a younger generation who are unaware of the horrors of war begin to rebel against the conformity of a peaceful but uniform society), Unravelling (when society begins to break down, institutions are attacked and become weak, individualism is strong) and back to Crisis. The mood and values of the generations born within those different times correspond accordingly.
With his mantra of free love and LSD for all, Isham epitomises the “Prophet” mindset of those born within the “awakening” time of the 60s and 70s. The Prophet sees it upon themselves to destroy the old establishment and create a new society based on new values. You can see this in the mentality of most baby boomers and their unparalleled success of completely transforming society in their image over the last sixty or so years. In his final essay – Advanced Love – Isham describes how he has stood at the front of the classroom in the image of the Prophet exhorting his students to embrace polyamory and communal living as his so-called most “advanced” form of love. Reading this part I wondered if Isham realised he came across just as evangelical as those Christian teachers who arrive in China and try to surreptitiously convert their students over to Jesus by sprinkling Bible quotes into their lesson plan.
I agree with a lot of what Isham Cook has to say. I also enjoy freedom and liberty and actually agree with almost all of his conclusions on the progression of society… it is the results that I disagree with. As a member of a younger generation than Isham’s, I have seen the end destination of many of his utopian beliefs. For his “American Rococo”, generations afterwards must suffer an “American Hangover”. After the Prophets have completed their great task of destroying the old, there is nothing left for the following generation but to wander through the ruins like nomads.
During the writing of this review, I exchanged some emails with Isham about his views on polyamory. In one email he writes:
[On polyamory]… this word is not to be confused with polygamy, polygyny or polyandry. I have no interest in traditional polygyny, still practiced by some Mormons in the US, in parts of Africa and the Middle East, etc. — the keeping of more than one wife, not always with their full consent. That’s a kind of slavery and is deplorable and sexist. Polyamory is simply the freedom to let people choose how they wish to organize a family and under what terms. This could be triads (2 males/1 female or 2 females/1 male), dual couples, or group or communal families. Children could be raised in common or raised exclusively by their biological parents. Sexual sharing may be allowed or not. There are no top-down rules. Each family unit decides their own rules and what kind of relationships they are willing to entertain with others. Ideally, there is no oppression, coercion, brainwashing or cult-like behavior.
I’m actually familiar with polyamory and aware of the distinctions between polyamory, polygamy and polyandry. However, I do not share Isham’s rosy view of its benefits. In my opinion, polyamory cannot and does not work in practice because of basic human nature. Both genders are naturally promiscuous but in different ways. Whereas a male will wish to copulate with as many different females as possible (since sperm is plentiful in comparison to eggs), females are more likely to gravitate towards the higher status males, even if that means sharing access and child paternity with the alpha male with other women in a kind of quasi concubinage. This is called hypergamy, and there are very good biological reasons why it exists. If you were a cavewoman in more primitive times it made sense to bear the children of the male with access to the most resources. One astonishing statistic is that before the dawn of civilisation, seventeen women reproduced for every one man.
Hence, it is my belief that the nature of hypergamy means that the ideal of polyamory will always devolve into the more nightmarish reality of polygamy. Isham writes (emphasis mine): “Ideally, there is no oppression, coercion, brainwashing or cult-like behaviour.” For me, that is the killer. The ideal may be freedom, but look at any social circle, structure, organisation or company that you have encountered in real life. The inevitable result is always hierarchy and power plays. If the group is lucky it just dissolves when the members gradually exit, if not the end result is normally conflict.
Destroying traditional family structures doesn’t result in a hippy communal paradise; it results in atomised and rootless individuals and a society drowning in anomie (the same atomised individuals that Isham describes in his essay on Airbnb hosts). Taking responsibility from biological parents for their children’s’ upbringing doesn’t result in everybody helping each other out at the top of Plato’s ladder of love; it results in broken homes and state intervention. Isham argues for a polyamorous society; my rebuttal would be to look at polyamorous societies throughout history and really see how successful they are. They went extinct. I can agree that monogamy is a kind of religion and a kind of female enslavement, but it’s equally a kind of male enslavement. It’s the promise of a wife to call one’s own and the chance to spread one’s genes into the next generation that is the basis of all true civilisation. Polyamory does not end in a loving free-for-all; female hypergamy ensures that it results in a small number of alpha males with large concubines and armies of disenfranchised men underneath. That’s not utopia, that’s a slave society. At times I wondered how much Isham really understands about the nature of women, despite the considerable amount of time he devotes to them. To put it in even blunter and cruder terms, there was more than one moment when I wanted to throw the book into the bin and I caught myself muttering “it was people like you who fucked up the world.”
(Note: if any reader wishes to read something which also discusses polyamory but comes to similar negative conclusions as the ones I have raised here, I would recommend any of Michel Houellebecq’s books)
If the preceding paragraph sounds angry and disdainful – you’re right. I did experience those feelings constantly throughout the essays where Isham expands on his utopian vision. However, let’s not let my opposition to Isham’s views colour a potential reader’s opinion of American Rococo. There is much to like here and I would still recommend it to anybody interested in good writing and intellectual debate. Just look at the passion it has invoked in me while writing the above paragraphs. As I noted in one of my previous reviews of Isham’s books, the role of a true teacher is to provoke reactions within his students and guide them into thoughts and viewpoints that they may not have considered before. In this, Isham succeeds once again. The two or three essays discussing his polyamorist ideal have probably given me more to ponder than anything else I’ve read this year.
So, go and read American Rococo. You’ll learn a few things that you didn’t know before on a wide range of topics that may even engage a new found passion within you. It will also challenge your notions of freedom and independence. I disagreed with nearly everything Isham had to say, but I had a great time doing so. Unlimited freedom has consequences. Unlimited freedom has a price. In the case of American Rococo, that price is about $10 if you buy direct from Amazon.
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.