Book Review: Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How by Ted Kaczynski

Anti Tech

Yes. That Ted Kaczynski.

From Wikipedia:

Theodore John Kaczynski (born May 22, 1942), also known as the Unabomber, is an American mathematician, anarchist and domestic terrorist. A mathematical prodigy, he abandoned a promising academic career in 1969, then between 1978 and 1995 killed 3 people, and injured 23 others, in a nationwide mail bombing campaign that targeted people involved with modern technology. In conjunction with the bombing campaign, he issued a wide-ranging social critique opposing industrialization and advancing a nature-centered form of anarchism…

In 1971, he moved to a remote cabin without electricity or running water in Lincoln, Montana, where he lived as a recluse while learning survival skills in an attempt to become self-sufficient. In 1978, after witnessing the destruction of the wild land surrounding his cabin, he concluded that living in nature was untenable and began his bombing campaign. In 1995, Kaczynski sent a letter to The New York Times and promised to “desist from terrorism” if the Times or The Washington Post published his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, in which he argued that his bombings were extreme but necessary to attract attention to the erosion of human freedom and dignity by modern technologies requiring large-scale organization…

Kaczynski was the target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) longest and costliest investigation. Before his identity was known, the FBI used the title “UNABOM” (UNiversity & Airline BOMber) to refer to his case, which resulted in the media calling him the Unabomber. The FBI (as well as Attorney General Janet Reno) pushed for the publication of Kaczynski’s manifesto, which led to his sister-in-law, and then his brother, recognizing Kaczynski’s style of writing and beliefs from the manifesto, and tipping off the FBI. After his arrest in 1996, Kaczynski tried unsuccessfully to dismiss his court-appointed lawyers because they wanted to plead insanity in order to avoid the death penalty, as Kaczynski did not believe he was insane. On January 22, 1998, when it became clear that his trial would entail national television exposure, the court entered a plea agreement, under which Kaczynski pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at ADX Florence, where he remains as of 2017.

I was contacted by the publishers of Ted Kaczynski’s latest treatise Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How after writing a short but positive review of the original 1995 manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future on the website Goodreads. They offered me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Naturally, I was eager to take up their offer.

Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How is an astonishing and, in my opinion, important attempt at analysing and outlining the root causes of modern society’s ills and the potential end result of where advances in technology may take us. A work like Anti-Tech Revolution is not easily reviewed. Since this is not a work of literature it cannot be reviewed based on its narrative flow and style. We must examine ourselves before approaching a political manifesto. Fundamentally, how positive one receives the message contained within Anti-Tech Revolution will very much depend on one’s own pre-existing values and opinions. Kaczynski does an excellent job in outlining what he sees as the situation of our current malaise, but admits himself that certain audiences are more receptive to certain ideas than others and it is a wasteful use of time to try to convince an audience that will never accept the book’s basic premise. It is no use handing a copy of Marx’s Communist Manifesto to a confirmed Libertarian and expecting an overnight conversion to Socialism. So it is with Anti-Tech Revolution. How much you will agree with Kaczynski’s conclusions is most probably already determined before you even open the book.

It is also an unescapable truth that an audience cannot separate the author from the work, no matter how predisposed they may be to his views. The fact of the matter is that Ted Kaczynski did carry out a campaign of domestic terrorism that injured 23 people and killed 3 others. It is also a fact that Ted Kaczynski pleaded guilty and is currently serving eight life sentences without the possibility of parole. Is it moral to review a book written by such a person? How you answer that question will very much depend on your own pre-existing sympathies and value system.

I do not normally discuss politics on either this blog or on my related social media feeds. Regular readers will know that apart from the occasional book review I normally confine myself to satire and parody. However, in the interests of disclosure, I will state that I am not unsympathetic to the views of Ted Kaczynski and we both share similar views on phenomena like globalisation, centralisation, bureaucracy, technology and “leftism” (as Kaczynski described his view of the origins and psychology behind mainstream liberal thought in his original Industrial Society and Its Future). That statement alone will also automatically inform any reader on how much their own view of Anti-Tech Revolution might or might not align with mine.

My first thought on reading Anti-Tech Revolution was it quickly becomes apparent that the author’s current incarceration has quite the influence on the sources gathered by Kaczynski to outline his point of view. Jailed and presumably severely limited in access to the internet, Kaczynski’s sources largely come from whatever resources he has access to in his prison library (the Encyclopaedia Britannica is referenced frequently) and assistance he has obtained from his large number of outside correspondents. This has a profound influence over the book’s structure in both positive and negative ways. Millennials may not realise that scholarly books were once written without the aid of the internet and that it was once frequent to quote books from five, fifty, one hundred and even two thousand years ago. This reliance on older sources is quite refreshing to the modern reader and gives the book a wandering style not dissimilar to that of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s when the author makes frequent detours into classical or medieval philosophy and history. It also emphasises that many of the arguments and fears covered by Kaczynski are not confined to our digital age: the consequences of rapid technological progress have been known since ancient times. However, it is admittedly a weakness of a book that discusses technology to be so outdated on recent trends in technology itself (though it does reinforce the argument that technological progress is accelerating faster and faster). The smartphone revolution has passed Kaczynski by while he has been confined to a prison cell; likewise other recent advances are conspicuously absent.

As the title suggests, Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How is neatly divided into the “why” and “how” of Kaczynski’s worldview. The book is divided into the following four chapters, with several appendices included at the end:

Part One: The Development of a Society Can Never Be Subject to Rational Human Control

Part Two: Why the Technological System Will Destroy Itself

Part Three: How to Transform a Society: Errors to Avoid

Part Four: Strategic Guidelines for an Anti-Tech Movement

Parts One and Two cover the “why” of what Kaczynski perceives as the reasons for modern society’s problems and why it needs to be destroyed. Parts Three and Four get into detail on “how” to do so. Here I shall outline each section in more detail.

The first part – The Development of a Society Can Never Be Subject to Rational Human Control – is the book’s most accessible. The reader doesn’t have to subscribe to the author’s anti-tech views to understand and agree with the arguments contained within. This is a very rational argument, but one that does need constant emphasising as its lesson does seem to be forgotten again and again by socialists, fascists, utopians, bureaucrats and all others who keep repeating the same mistake. No society can be controlled 100% by a central authority, and no central authority can forecast with 100% accuracy the direction the future will take. The development of human society, because it is composed of those strange irrational creatures called humans, can never be forced to completely follow a model concocted by some central planning theorist. Again, there are many echoes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s works on randomness and probability – more than once I wondered if Taleb was aware of Kaczynski’s writing.

Initially, it seems strange for a book dedicated to technology to devote its first section to the fallacies of economists and political theorists, but the logic soon becomes clear. Kaczynski is providing background on the human forces that have given rise to our growing use and dependence on technology. On the one hand we have competing groups throughout history who use technology to gain short-term advantages over their rivals in the eternal scramble for access to resources without consideration to the long-term consequences (though Kaczynski makes the excellent point that this is inescapable: any group that thinks too long-term will inevitably be wiped out by their more short-term thinking neighbours. A good argument as to why China’s current relentless growth may succeed but doom us all in the process). On the other hand, we have central planners who advance technology in an attempt to further control society and make accurate predictions to its future. Kaczynski argues that this is impossible. To even predict with total accuracy what would happen across the entire world in just the next sixty minutes would require an impossible amount of calculations.

We then move onto Part Two: Why the Technological System Will Destroy Itself. This section will be more familiar to readers of Kaczynski’s original manifesto and follows similar themes of self-propagating systems, accelerationism and environmental destruction. Great detail is given in this section – much more detail than can be covered in a mere review – but suffice to say, Kaczynski does not share the same views of people like Ray Kurzweil and other technologists who believe we are heading for a post-Singularity utopia where an all-knowing Artificial Intelligence will advance eternally and transform us into digital immortals. No. Though Kaczynski is unable and unwilling to give a timeline, his very forceful argument is that technology can only continue to accelerate, and we are accelerating to our inevitable ruin. The global spread of the technological system over our now tightly interconnected world means such ruin will also be global (perhaps little pockets like Bhutan may survive; Bhutan incidentally resembling probably the closest real-life example of how Kaczynski views a more sustainable society).

Anti-Tech Revolution doesn’t delve into how technology and “leftism” progress forward together as the original manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future did, but the undertone is there. Shanghai-based accelerationist Nick Land has repeatedly alluded to the metaphor of an increasingly inter-connected, tech-dominated, left-leaning world that has slowly but unstoppably grown through the course of history as something akin to an out-of-control Lovecraftian monster (although Land appears to want the monster to succeed). Fellow neo-reactionary Mencius Moldbug has also coined the succinct epitaph: “Chthulhu may swim slowly, but he always swims left.

The question is: if the technological system is fated to inevitably destroy itself (and us with it), why does Kaczynski wish to bring about its destruction and why bother writing a manifesto explaining how to do so? His argument is simple. It is better to destroy the system now rather than later. Destruction of the world’s technology would be devastating and involve death for a large percentage of the global population, but it will be nothing compared to the total destruction that awaits us when technology is even more advanced and our resources even more depleted.

With that argument, Kaczynski launches into the “how” of his revolution. Parts Three and Four discuss a strategy to create an anti-tech movement and outlines the errors to avoid. Anybody who has ever read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals will know what to expect in these two sections; Kaczynski himself acknowledges his debt to this book, though he shares zero common ground with Alinsky’s objectives. Many references are made to historical revolutions (the Bolsheviks, Mao, Irish nationalists)  and a few short-term and long-term strategies are presented as possible options for anyone who seriously wishes to take Kaczynski’s argument to their logical end. Like the chapter on human irrationality, a reader doesn’t have to share Kaczynski’s worldview to appreciate the detail and thoroughness of his arguments. Incarceration has obviously given the Unabomber time to consider every angle possible, and the steps on how to organise a community are food-for-thought for daily life, not just when organising the downfall of technological civilisation.

Inevitably, the “how” of the book is weaker than the “why” since the “how” is more conjecture than arguments based on empirical evidence. There are a small number of times when it also seems to descend into something akin to Live Action Role Playing, but these few and far between.

Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How was probably one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in the last ten years. It was the first time since university that I actually read through a book with a pen and paper to take notes. There are a handful of books that after reading them have left a deep and lasting imprint on my mind and political outlook – Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Taleb’s Antifragility – and Anti-Tech Revolution will join them on that list. This isn’t the work of a psychotic nutjob: all of Kaczynski’s arguments are backed up with empirical evidence and his writing is both intelligent and highly logical. I can see the truth of what Kaczynski is trying to tell us, though I am personally unable to follow the logic all the way to its conclusion. Who exactly is going to carry out his anti-tech revolution and bring down everything modern society is based upon? Certainly not me. I will be the first to admit that if anybody succeeded in enacting Kaczynski’s grand plan than myself and my family will be amongst the first to be wiped out. Rootless, atomised within urban society, unable to survive without the accoutrements of modern technology and lacking the support network of someone in a more traditional way of life: I and everybody I hold dear would be dead within weeks of a large-scale takedown of the internet, an electromagnetic pulse, blowing up our energy sources or any of the other possibilities that Kaczynski outlines. That’s if the destruction of the technological system didn’t cause a nuclear meltdown or war that wiped me out first. I may be sympathetic to the views of Ted Kaczynski, but I have too much skin in the game to wish to see his vision succeed. Despite this, I agree with his conclusions on where we are heading – and it terrifies me. Culture wars and skirmishes between the alt-left and conservatives are just mere paraphernalia to what is really going on.

Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How by Theodore John Kaczynski is published by Fitch & Madison and available on Amazon. Ted Kaczynski does not receive any remuneration from the sales of the book.

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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.

 

 

Book Review: American Rococo by Isham Cook

AmericanRococo

 

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.

Isham Cook blogs at http://www.ishamcook.com and American Rococo is available on Amazon.

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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.

Book Review: Expat Jimmy by Travis Lee

expatjimmy

 

Within certain expat circles, stories about one’s first day in China are almost akin to stories about losing one’s virginity. There is a certain oneupmanship involved in trying to depict the first moments of one’s time within the Middle Kingdom that wouldn’t be out of place within a male locker room. Considering the physical symptoms of jet-lag that normally occur after a long-haul economy-class flight it’s amazing how few people readily admit to just falling straight asleep on their first day in China, but these are probably the same people who claim that the first time they had sex it was with their Double-D endowed babysitter and lasted all night till the bed broke.

(When people ask me about my first day in China I normally regale them with the tale of how I went alone to a hotpot restaurant and ate all of the food when it was still frozen as I didn’t know I was supposed to wait for the waitress to bring along the bowl of hot soup. That actually happened… but it was not until about three weeks after my arrival. If I was to tell them that my first day in China involved nothing more than a three hour wait in the airport for somebody to collect me followed by nothing more exciting than an early night and 45 minutes trying to translate the remote control for the air-conditioner than I imagine that they’d probably wander off bored and look for a Hunter S Thompson novel.)

Travis Lee may be known to long-term China expats as one of the occasional writers for the now defunct Lost Laowai blog. He has previously released a novella entitled The Seven Year Laowai which is a semi-autobiographical story about being an English teacher in the third-tier city of Wuhan and the strange types of fellow educator that is often found in these schools. Now Travis has released Expat Jimmy – another short story (very short, in fact) which acts as a spiritual prequel of sorts to his previous work.

travis
I (WAS) AN EDUCATOR!

Across its hundred or so ebook pages, Expat Jimmy details the first day in China of the aforementioned “Expat Jimmy”. Like the protagonist in The Seven Year Laowai, Jimmy appears to be a semi-autobiographical stand-in for the author – a fact he clarifies within some of his blog posts. Jimmy arrives in Wuhan and is shown around the city of Wuhan by long-term sexpat expat  and Head Teacher Adam. Throughout the long day they go through an implausible number of activities and places for just one day – let alone the first day in a new country fighting against tiredness and jet-lag. Jimmy visits a few bars, a nightclub, a KTV joint, a restaurant, the house of a Chinese family, the house of another foreign teacher who wishes to buy drugs, and even witnesses an attempted suicide on the streets. Compare this to my own list of activities that I accomplished last Sunday which is composed of nothing more than ordering a pizza and watching five back-to-back episodes of Breaking Bad.

The amount of places visited is unrealistic, though I can understand that the author is trying to present an introduction to all the weird and wonderful aspects of life in China within the vehicle of a one-day timeline. It doesn’t quite work and there is almost a little too much happening within the one hundred pages of this story for it to settle in the reader’s head and leave an impression. In addition to the numerous places visited, there is also an underlying story of Adam’s past hinted at, as well as fears within the newly arrived teacher that he is setting out on the same path.

Travis is a good writer and has a knack for describing the feelings of emptiness and vague fear that are experienced by young rootless individuals seeking out meaning in a new set of surroundings. His characters all carry an air of being lost or searching for something that isn’t there to be found. There is an existential dread lurking in the background that I enjoyed. Both Expat Jimmy and The Seven Year Laowai have some great elements but I felt both were not quite the finished product. Now that Travis has some experience in writing I would like to see him perhaps combine his two stories into one whole and create a tale greater than the sum of its parts. I hope he can rise to the challenge.

Travis Lee blogs at http://www.travis-lee.org and Expat Jimmy can be found on Amazon.

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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.

The Pigeon Responds!

It’s Chinese New Year… which means the arsenal of fire crackers exploding outside my door make it impossible to compose a proper blog post. Plus, several discounted bottles of baijiu are also not helping the cause.

So, in place of a carefully crafted series of witty bon mots, instead we pass this week’s soap box to one Simon Clode – author of the book The Last Flight of the Pigeon that was reviewed here last week. You may recall that I dissected this prose as particularly and peculiarly Partridgean… and Simon has responded in the same vein. Rather than cut-and-paste his response to my review here, I instead encourage you to pop over to his blog and take a look at it yourself. It’s a masterclass on how to reply to book criticism.

Now where did I put that baijiu? I’m feeling dangerously sober…

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Celebrate the Chinese New Year of the Cock by purchasing my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that also features a giant Chinese cock. It was meant to be.

Book Review: The Last Flight of the Pigeon by Simon Clode

Disclaimer: Normally when I write book reviews I add a little disclaimer that, unlike all my other posts, it is written in a spirit of some seriousness. That will not be the case today though. A second disclaimer: this review is going to be packed with references to British culture that will only be resonant with British men of a certain age; so if you’re American or under the age of 25 you might as well log off now and go look at Buzzfeed or something. Third disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book by the author to review who wrote: “[I] would love it if you would review Last Flight of the Pigeon. It’s deliberately not a book aimed at China experts or people who’ve been here long enough to claim anything more than a visit. You can savage it as much as you like, it was a hobby project to fill the hours of visa limbo I willfully put myself through. Is that a defensive enough proposal for you?”

Last Flight of the Pigeon is a structurally sound, inoffensive and workman-like account of an Englishman in his early thirties who decides for no reason at all to cycle from Beijing to Kashgar. Why he decides to do this is beyond me. His passion for navigating by bicycle between one pollution-heavy city to another is never fully explained in the book. Such Quixotic endeavours have never made sense to me. I can understand the desire to conquer more primal challenges – like wanting to sleep with a redhead or trying to finish a triple-deck cheeseburger in order to get a discounted lunch – but I personally can’t relate to those people who want to put themselves through extreme physical punishment in order to climb a rock or walk really, really far. The response of some mountain climbers to why they put themselves through the ordeal of climbing a mountain is “because it’s there”. I still don’t get it. As Jasper Carrott once noted, an elephant’s bottom is also “there” but you don’t see many people trying to climb up them.

The title is a misnomer. The “pigeon” in Last Flight of the Pigeon isn’t one of the feathered variety that are rumoured to carry TB and Jack Duckworth used to keep in his back yard on Coronation Street, but actually one of the iconic “Flying Pigeon” bicycles that were China’s mainstays before everybody decided to become cunts and drive Audis instead. Simon points out that it was actually meant to be “Flying Dove” but since there is no differentiation in Chinese between the words “dove” and “pigeon” the translation came out slightly less poetical than intended. At least a popular chocolate bar managed to get the translation right otherwise I’d be sat writing this whilst chomping on an unappetising bar of hazelnut pigeon.

(For a book saturated with obscure British pop-culture references, I’m upset that Simon didn’t include John Shuttleworth’s classic Pigeons in Flight at any point)

However, after about four chapters of Simon writing in detail about his efforts in buying a Flying Pigeon bicycle, his desire to want to ride a Flying Pigeon from Beijing to Kashgar, the history of the Flying Pigeon, a long list of the Flying Pigeon’s technical aspects, and what the Flying Pigeon means to him, China and the world… the Pigeon breaks down on the very first day of Simon’s bike trek before he’s even left Beijing and he covers the rest of the 4,999 kilometres to Kashgar on the back of a Giant mountain bike instead. (“Giant” is a brand of bicycle by the way, I didn’t mean that he was actually riding a giant mountain bike. That would be preposterous. As far as I know the author only has normal sized legs.) So after all the initial build-up, the Last Flight of the Pigeon turns out to be a short ride out to the fifth ring-road. Despite this, the title remains unchanged, though I personally would have changed it to Riding on the Shoulders of Giants.

Safely ensconced on his new mountain bike, Simon then proceeds on his 5,000 kilometre journey to Kashgar. To give credit to Simon, with Last Flight of the Pigeon he has really managed to create an astonishing writerly achievement, as reading the book genuinely felt like I was riding 5,000 kilometres to Kashgar. I felt every single one of those kilometres. Every. Single. One. I have to admit that I almost gave up on Last Flight of the Pigeon more than once, but luckily for the author I was on my Christmas holiday in a third-world country with several very long car journeys to endure, so with nothing better to do I persevered to the end.

It’s remarkable how little anything of interest happened to the author during his long journey to Xinjiang. Apart from one or two incidents with sand storms and the hazards of attempting to pitch a tent within one, the journey is mostly a catalogue of tyre punctures, checking into hotels and what he had for lunch each day. At the back of the book is a list of all the statistics that were accomplished during the journey. One of the stats is that 51 pot noodles were consumed during the journey. This is certainly true as almost every single one of those pot noodles is mentioned in the book. Being the sad bastard that I am, I actually did a Ctrl+F search through the book and counted mentions of 32 of those 51 pot noodles.

The author doesn’t provide much background on himself or why he decided to move to China, but we do learn that he previously worked in the public sector back in the UK. His public-sector background shows as anyone who has had to work in the competitive private-sector would never have the ingrained habit of writing long statistic heavy reports that nobody reads. At times I felt that a Project Manager approach had been used to formulate the book. I could imagine the creation of each chapter… a long list of boxes waiting to be ticked off one by one and inserted into each chapter before it felt complete.

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Something like this

Each chapter cycles (ha!) through the same structure: description of the journey so far, pot noodles, some historical facts thrown in on the particular town or city featured in that chapter, a handful of comedy references to spice up the writing, and a couple of lazy liberal sideswipes at how awful UKIP is or how the British are bigots to show that he has the correct opinions on things. Sometimes the references to British culture from the 1980s or 1990s can be really obscure – even when I myself am a British man who grew up in the 80s and 90s. The book should come with a trigger warning to Americans that it contains dangerously obscure references to Ed Miliband and Kajagoogoo. This brings me to my next point about the book: it’s difficult to understand who the audience is that the author has in mind to read the book. Non-British will find most of the language and references baffling, Old China Hands will find nothing new here about the country, and those without an interest in China may not be interested in it at all. Sometimes I felt that the book was intended for the author alone.

If it sounds like I’m being a bit harsh on Last Flight of the Pigeon: you’re right. The book is largely inoffensive (apart from the asinine virtue-signalling swipes about the British and colonialism) and there are people who enjoy such books detailing long journeys from Point A to Point B – Simon would probably get along very well with Christopher Rehage who wrote about walking from Beijing to Urumqi. Unfortunately, I’m much more degenerate than Simon and prefer a bit more colour in my stories. The author freely admits that he wrote the book as a hobby project when going through a period of not having very much to do. It’s an unpretentious book that doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t.

AND THEN I CHANGED MY MIND.

About three-quarters of my way through Last Flight of the Pigeon, a remarkable revelation hit me. Prior to reading the book, I had just completed Nomad by Alan Partridge which also features a journey by the renowned broadcaster and radio DJ. In Alan’s case it is a journey by foot from his beloved Norwich to a nuclear power station in Dungeness. The more I read Last Flight of the Pigeon the more I slowly realised that it wasn’t about cycling from Beijing to Kashgar at all. No. Last Flight of the Pigeon is in fact an affectionate tribute to Alan Partridge written by a true aficionado. The similarities between Alan and Simon are startling:

  • Both spend a lot of time sleeping in motels.
  • Both seem to only communicate with hotel receptionists and/or petrol station attendants.
  • Both have weird fascinations with vehicular transportation and like to describe it in detail.
  • Both talk constantly about their obscure hometowns and music that ordinary people have forgotten about.
  • Both have strong views on the pedestrianisation of city centres.

There were moments within the book that were straight out of Partridge:

“So before we get to that point I should make two things clear. First, they are both very clever people.”

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“There is more to Xinjiang than this”

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“These establishments always – and I mean always – possess at least one angry dog. This one was no exception.”

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“Other journeys of a similar length include: for fans of a good time – Dublin to Galway; for fans of Didcot Parkway – Bristol to Oxford to London; for people on Spring Break – Los Angeles to Tijuana; for EU workers wanting a filthy weekend away – Brussels to Amsterdam; and for residents of North London – It’s like cycling around North London a lot, whilst refusing to acknowledge anywhere else exists.”

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“Where are you from?”
“I’m British.”
If inquisitor is female – “Are you married?”
“No”
“Why not? How old are you?”
“31, but I have a girlfriend in Beijing”

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And how could one read the following beautiful Partridgean-style quote and not be in any doubt that Last Flight of the Pigeon is actually the finest Partridge fan-fiction ever created?

“When I wasn’t sleeping in a tent near a graveyard, rubbish tip, or jaw-dropping scenery, I would be frequenting one of China’s business hotels. They often award their own stars but by global standards, they’re somewhere around two or three. What is not in doubt is the value they provide. I didn’t pay more than £35 a night, the average price was under £20, and some were as cheap as £12.

Five-star they may not be, but more often than not you get at least one bed and a clean bathroom with a powerful shower. You don’t need more than that, but how best to maximise the Chinese business hotel experience on a bicycle journey I hear you ask.”

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Once I realised that Last Flight of the Pigeon was actually a love-letter to Alan Partridge, my whole perception of the book changed. I began to read the book with Alan’s voice in my head. Immediately it transformed from a dry account of a long bicycle journey to a hilarious experience of one man struggling to find his place within the universe. I then proceeded to enjoy the book immensely.

Oh, and I also enjoyed the stunning finale to the book when the author announces, for no reason at all, that he has herpes. I certainly didn’t see that one coming.

And on that bombshell… all that remains to be said is that Last Flight of the Pigeon is available on Amazon. If you’d like to see more musings from a man who really missed his calling in life to be a provincial radio disk jockey, you can find Simon’s blog here.

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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.

Shanghai Talk selects its Top 3 China Books for 2016…

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Tom Carter showing off his photography skills again…

I’m pretty cynical when it comes to the boldness of China’s expat magazines, so I almost fell off my chair when I saw that Party Members was featured in Shanghai Talk Magazine’s Top Three China Books for 2016.

I have now pulled myself up off the floor and sat back down again.

Wonderful to be sharing the honour with two other books that I have mentioned and rate highly: Isham Cook’s At The Teahouse Cafe and JFK Miller’s Trickle-Down Censorship (both reviewed here previously). They both make fantastic Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanzaa gifts (choose as appropriate) for loved ones in the CCP.

You can see an image of the magazine reviews here on imgur, though you’ll have to grab a copy of Shanghai Talk’s December issue in order to hold the review in your own blessed hands. It’s available from all good Element Fresh outlets and coffee shops across the city. It also may appear on their website in the future. The reviews are written by none other than Tom Carter – editor of the acclaimed Unsavoury Elements (a book I was nearly included in but I threw a hissy fit at the time and watched all the Rocky films back-to-back instead).

Personally, it is refreshing to see one of China’s expat magazines has the boldness to not only feature books that are less than positive about certain aspects of China, but also has the foresight to highlight innovative works from small independent publishers that are otherwise ignored by most media outlets. I have no idea how Shanghai Talk got it past the censors, but I take my hat off to them for doing so. Except I don’t wear a hat. I lost it when I fell off my chair. I’ll raise a glass then.

The Nanfang also ran a review of Party Members recently, though I am sad to say that the announcement was a bittersweet one. At the same time The Nanfang announced that they were closing after seven years of being in the business. I always had a soft spot for The Nanfang – especially when compared to the abysmal Shanghaiist – and I’ll miss its news, views and reviews (good name for a magazine).

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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.

Book Review: Trickle-Down Censorship by JFK Miller

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China meltdown

China’s censors can be a sensitive bunch.

Once upon a time, your friendly reviewer worked as an Editorial Assistant on a tier-2 city expat rag. The title Editorial Assistant was more than a little overblown: it was little more than a glorified copy writer and certainly didn’t deserve the capitalisation. I would never claim to have been at the forefront of journalism (my biggest scoop was tracking down the reservation number of a local teppanyaki joint), but I did have the occasional brush with China’s hard-working censors.

March 5th is Lei Feng Day – the happy-clappy Socialist holiday built around the Communist hero Lei Feng who is revered in China for darning the socks of his colleagues and getting run over by a truck. The holiday – which has been declining in recognition over recent years – typically is used as an exhortation to the nation’s youth to volunteer, do good deeds, and be a good Socialist role model. The veracity of Lei Feng’s existence is held in some doubt by more than one observer, but even today you’ll see posters of the deceased do-gooder posted round schools every March.

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Study the good example of Lei Feng! Love the Party, Love Socialism, Love the People.

As part of our March edition of the magazine, we decided to include a section on Lei Feng, his history, and what his legacy meant today. All good stuff guaranteed to please our sinister Overlords – the idea was even suggested (read: he told us we had to do it) by our magazine owner (a slimy businessman who was more concerned about filling the magazine with adverts for his private English language school than genuine content). For the cover we chose a glorious Cultural Revolution propaganda painting featuring a rosy-cheeked Lei Feng valiantly leading the masses of the world towards a bright future of volunteerism. This painting was done during the period in the 1960s when China tried to align itself with many African countries in order to position itself as a leader of the Third World against the US and the USSR; so the crowd in the background included two or three black people amongst the Lei Feng worshippers.

What wasn’t to like?

We were more than a little confused when our censor informed us that we couldn’t run the cover. Our initial thoughts were that the Cultural Revolution era poster may have been deemed too politically sensitive, but similar pictures within the magazine had been deemed fit for approval before. The timing of the rejection coincided with one of the censor’s ad-hoc visits to the office, so we had the rare opportunity to ask the censor (a middle-aged woman with a bureaucratic job in a local university) what was the issue with the Lei Feng cover.

Her reply was astonishing.

In her eyes, the issue was not Lei Feng nor the Cultural Revolution themed painting, but actually the inclusion of black people amongst the volunteers stood behind Lei Feng. She stated that it wasn’t racism – she insisted she had no problem with black people – but that featuring black people as volunteers implied that they were more likely to volunteer and do good deeds than Chinese people were. To her, the fact that the revolutionary crowd included three fictional Africans, was a damning indictment that three fictional Chinese had decided to stay at home that day. Her suggestion was to edit the cover so that the skin colour of the Africans was altered to make them appear to be Chinese. With little time left before our monthly deadline, we had little choice but to swallow our distaste and put the Africans through the whitewash.

Such is the logic of China’s mysterious censors. I’m not the only person to have encountered such experiences. Australian JFK Miller was editor of well-known expat rag That’s Shanghai from 2005 to 2011. Now, in his book Trickle-Down Censorship, Miller exposes to the wider world the trials and tribulations of being an editor within the world’s most censorious regime.

The story is a fascinating one. The saga of the That’s magazines will be familiar to most long-term expats in China due to the well-publicised story of how it was founded by Mark Kitto… and subsequently stolen from him. Kitto was a pioneer in the world of China expat magazines, and is well known for his own book China Cuckoo * and an article on how laowai can never be Chinese. Kitto’s shadow looms large over the narrative in Trickle-Down Censorship. Though never referred to by name – he is always referred to as “The Briton” – Miller picks up the story from when he joined That’s Shanghai as editor in 2005 shortly after Kitto’s forced departure. We are immediately introduced to Miller’s opaque boss “Mr Li”, the person accountable for cutting Kitto out of the business and the main person responsible for ensuring the ever-watchful red pen is never far from Miller’s editorials.

And that’s where Trickle-Down Censorship becomes its own story. Rather than choosing to be a book about “What happened after Kitto”, instead we are treated to an insider’s perspective on the day-to-day dealings with the magazine’s censors. This is a wise move from the author. Instead of playing second-fiddle to another person’s story, Miller chooses to highlight to the world on how it is to be a foreign journalist in a highly controlled Communist country.

The author is humble about his limitations. He readily acknowledges that his main task is to provide fluffy city-info to expats rather than being on the forefront of investigative journalism. This self-deprecation continues throughout the book. Though Miller bemoans the censorship and nonsense he had to combat daily, he is ever mindful that the magazine he steered was just a small small ship within the ocean of Chinese authoritarianism.

Trickle-Down Censorship will provide few surprises to the Old China Hands out there. The insights on what is and what isn’t sensitive in the eyes of the CCP will not be revelatory to anybody who has lived in China for many years or worked within the journalism industry. However, what it does do is provide a fascinating, well-written and concise overview of Chinese censorship at both the micro and the macro level. Miller was new to China when he arrived in 2005, but he obviously invested his time well and is able to cite numerous anecdotes and stories about the smoke and mirrors of what China tries to present to the world; whether it be its obsession of deleting images of supposed poverty in China-based Hollywood movies (we’re looking at you, Mission: Impossible III), or hiding stories of the Shanghai stock market’s collapse.

Miller encounters several ludicrous situations similar to my Lei Feng cover. Early on during his tenure at That’s Shanghai he is almost forced to delete a map of China because it doesn’t feature the geographically-minuscule Spratly Islands, and is reprimanded by his censors after using the phrase “Mao would turn in his grave” to “not make fun of Chinese leaders”. However, the more insidious side of censorship soon begins to show its face. As any journalist operating in China will tell you, the biggest censor at That’s Shanghai was neither the official censors, nor “Mr Li”… it was none other than Miller himself. He quickly learnt to self-censor and edit out any potential sensitive subjects before it ever even reached his censors. He writes:

“Self-censorship is essentially self-preservation. The first law of nature is also the first law of self-censorship. Work goes into a story; work you’d rather not waste with a careless indiscretion that may fall foul of your censor. You often edit something questionable out of story in order to save the story; you sever a limb to preserve the body. You “murder your darlings”, not to rid the page of extraneous ornamentation, preserve a plot line or enhance pacing, but simply to maintain the life of a story. Plus you don’t want to waste other people’s time. You have freelance writers, photographers, designers, illustrators and editorial staff to consider. You don’t want to risk their hard work coming to not either.”

Or, more succinctly:

“Self-censorship is the true genius of the system.”

And there’s the rub. The truly Orwellian aspect of censorship is not only what is removed from the public’s sight, but the effect it has on the writer themselves. If something potentially sensitive is never written, before it even gets to a censor, then the battle is already won. That’s the true power of censorship. I can totally understand the situation of people working in China like Miller who have no choice if they wish to continue earning a living. Sadly, more than one China-watcher adopts this mentality even when not based in China and takes it upon themselves to be the country’s White Knight even when not necessary – “the Pollyannas who run the expat magazines assuming the burden of preventing China at all costs from losing face” as Isham Cook describes them. As an author who has had his own tell-all book on China rejected from review by both expat magazines and the Western mainstream media, I have more than a little understanding of the infection of self-censorship.

I recommend JFK Miller’s Trickle-Down Censorship for anybody looking for a glimpse within the machine that is the world of China’s censorious regime. It’s smoothly written with more than the occasional flourish of the absurd (an occupational hazard when dealing with CCP censors). It’s also a very timely book: in a time when the Western mainstream media is more controlled by political and economic interests than at any other time in its history, the lessons of Trickle-Down Censorship are increasingly applicable to our own culture as well as China’s. Miller never won his battle against censorship in China – it was an impossible fight and one that was lost before he even arrived in China – but his description of the process and its effect on people has never been more needed.

Of course, the supreme irony is that there isn’t a chance in Hell that That’s Shanghai would ever review their former editor’s book on censorship.

Recommended.

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JFK Miller (artist reconstruction)

Trickle-Down Censorship is available from the good people at Amazon

*For a fascinating little diversion, there’s an intriguing review of Kitto’s China Cuckoo on Amazon that is worth reading.

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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.

Ray Hecht reviews Party Members

This is Ray Hecht.

hecht

Let’s all say hello to Ray.

“Hello Ray!”

Oh that wasn’t a very good hello. Let’s say it louder and all join in this time.

“Hello Ray!”

That’s better.

As you can see from his photo, Ray falls within China’s 9-dash line and is thus an integral and inalienable part of the Motherland.

I once wrote a review of his book South China Morning Blues which I recommended if you were a DJ in China.

Now Ray has reviewed my own book, Party Members.

Let’s all take a look at Ray’s review.

Party Members by Arthur Meursault is an intense, ugly, gruesome work of fiction that will leave most feeling nauseous. It’s also a page-turner that is kind of essential reading for China observers. Reader discretion is advised, be aware that this one may offend many if not all…

Basically, the novel is a satire which viciously critiques the excesses of contemporary post-economic reform China. As titled Party Members, it stars a low-level Communist party member who lives in a third-rate polluted city and decides to indulge in the very worst of corruption. It is incredible how far it goes, which is a testament to author Meursault’s mind in both imagination and depravity.

The protagonist, who is certainly no hero of the story, is Yang Wei. He starts out as a very unremarkable Chinese man. “Not one in a billion, but one of a billion,” exceptional in his mediocrity. The story starts out critiquing how dull and quaint the average Chinese citizen can be in their complacency, but soon Yang Wei stands out indeed as being a particularly shameless party member.

To be specific, one day Yang Wei’s penis starts talking to him and pushes him to literally act like a dick in order to get what he wants. So begins an series of progressively worse moral failings, from familiar disrespect to copious descriptions of prostitution and shallow consumerism. The literary critic in me ponders whether hearing of voices represents schizophrenia, or if an unreliable narrator device is at play. Although later scenes seem to indicate that it is ‘true’ in the world of the story, for reasons unknown his penis seems to gain the ability to speak and thereafter instructs him to be a terrible person.

Comparisons of Irvine Welsh’s Filth come to mind, which was about a corrupt police officer who had a tapeworm that could talk. Somehow, Meursault is even able to outdo the famed Welsh in writing vulgarities.

Despite whether or not the particulars of the story will appeal to all readers, Party Members is mostly well-written by technical standards and stays interesting one way or another. However, the descriptions can get too dense, and there are far too many adjectives. Even several long-winded speeches, satirical as they are, can come across as whiney nihilistic teenage rants. “The only way to be successful is to be a complete and utter dick… Just shit all over it!” More often than not the novel descends into telling not showing, with plenty of words such as “scumbag” thrown around in the narrative, unnecessarily reminding the reader how to judge the various scenarios.

Subtle, Party Members is not. Crass and disgusting, it still can’t be denied that it reads fast. It’s also hilarious at times, with ridiculous situations one can’t help but laugh at. In a sick sort of way. From toilet humor (there is actual drinking of piss as part of a scam marketing campaign), to the recurring theme of copiously describing greasy KFC food.

Yet, as the plot goes on it gets uncomfortably worse. Once the chapter about the child named Shanshan comes—which is about a terrible urban legend in China concerning car accidents and homicides—it becomes very hard to read.

The ending is legitimately horrifying. The question remains though, is this strange China tale supposed to be classified as horror?

Most unlikable protagonist ever. Which is of course the point.

It must be said that China is an enormous and complex country, with major problems but it may not be fair to look at it through the lens that Party Members embraces. The most cynical possible interpretation of Chinese society is a point-of-view worth exploring through this book, but there is a bigger picture and hopefully this isn’t the last word when it comes to China fiction. Meursault is certainly very knowledgeable about China issues and a talented wordsmith, but it just doesn’t seem healthy to focus that intently on the worst of the worst with no solutions whatsoever. Perhaps the genre is dystopia, in that case? Dystopia which takes place in the present.

All in all, reading this will leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. And being able to do that is something of a literary feat, in a way.

Thank you Ray.

Ray likes to review books. He also likes MDMA, but he likes to review books more.

Sometimes Ray writes books too. He has a new one out called This Modern Love which is published through the world’s largest publisher – Amazon CreateSpace. It has MDMA in it. And a man who masturbates over online fanfiction after eating a baloney and mustard sandwich.

Do you like baloney and mustard sandwiches, children?

You can buy the book here.

And that, children, is the end of this blog post.

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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.

Book Review(s): The Isham Cook Collection

Isham’s books relaxing on a pillow in a style probably remiscent of how he might relax in a massage parlour.

(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.

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The cake in question.

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.

massagewriter
The new cover to Massage and the Writer. I prefer this one: very David Cronenbergesque

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.

At The Teahouse Cafe, Massage and the Writer, and Lust & Philosophy are all available at Amazon. You can also read more at Isham’s blog.

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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.

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)

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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.