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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
“There is more to Xinjiang than this”
“These establishments always – and I mean always – possess at least one angry dog. This one was no exception.”
“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.”
“Where are you from?”
If inquisitor is female – “Are you married?”
“Why not? How old are you?”
“31, but I have a girlfriend in Beijing”
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.”
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.
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.
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 Cafeand 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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
(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.
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.
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 –hiscompany 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.