Tag Archives: book reviews

Missed Connections – a review of This Modern Love by Ray Hecht

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It’s like real life, but better – Tinder slogan.

Apps like Tinder are a natural consequence of a world of pickup artists and pseudo-harems, where 10% of the men fuck 90% of the women and everyone else is left paying hucksters thousands of dollars to learn how to play a game they were never fit to play in the first place.

Datings apps play a big role in Ray Hecht’s new book This Modern Love. Everyone is connected but everyone is lonely and we follow four of these lonely lives in Los Angeles as they seek attachment.

Ben Weiss stands at the crux of this book. Ben is an introverted coder whose relationship coldly ends because his girlfriend discovered his profile on dating websites while maintaining such profiles herself. Ben comes off as particularly emasculated, lost in a world of text seduction. “Cuck” might be the going term, though I’d never advise you to use it.

The others fare no better, even Jack who understands how the game is played. As they seek meaning, Ben pays for a sensual massage, Jack goes through women, Andrea sleeps with a middle-aged man and Carla writes fanfiction and does drugs, and no one comes away satisfied. There is no app or social media website that fills the void in their lives and love, if it exists in this world, cannot be distilled into a few kb of data and remains elusive to these people.

Although I initially thought I couldn’t relate to the people in This Modern Love, I think I understand them. In college I tried my hand at dating, with terrible results, and while I can’t empathize with Jack, I do pity Ben. Like many young men, lost in an increasingly disconnected world and a contest of counterintuitive rules which no one ever wins.

This Modern Love is available at Amazon .

The Prophet Penis – a review of Arthur Meursault’s ‘Party Members’ (spoilers)

A repost. Find the original on Medium.

When you’re a dick you can do anything — that’s the only way to success!

When you’re a dick you can do anything — that’s the only way to success!

 

There is a scene close to the end of Party Members in which Yang Wei is confronted by his lackey, Pangpang. Pangpang has evidence which could doom Yang Wei’s ambitions: an audio recording of the night Yang Wei and his mistress ran over the daughter of migrant workers. Seeing that the little girl was still alive, Yang Wei backed over her to make sure she was dead.

I thought that perhaps Pangpang has some noble motive. Does he want justice for the girl Shanshan, whose grieving parents were railroaded for non-existent crimes and whose money was embezzled by Yang Wei — harmonizing at its finest — or perhaps he wants to send a message to the other officials, that they aren’t above the law?

No:

“Do you think this is about something else?” asked Pangpang, confidence beginning to emerge on his face. “I don’t know why you started talking about justice and changing things. I don’t care for any of that. I don’t care about that stupid girl who died — if her parents were so stupid as to allow her to play on the road then they deserve to have their daughter smashed up. I just want my fair share of all that money you’ve made for yourself over the last few months.”

Yang Wei promptly clubs Pangpang to death with his giant, talking penis.


Party Members follows Yang Wei has he moves from low-level desk jockey to powerful city official in the nameless and drab Ministry, fucking anyone who stands in his way. He appropriates funds intended for earthquake victims, netting him the favor of Director Liang, the monstrously overweight head official.

The trigger for Yang Wei’s journey is his co-worker, Little Qi. After a dinner where Little Qi shows off his wealth, Yang Wei’s penis decides enough is enough: it comes to life, guiding him to the top.

Along the way, Yang Wei acquires all the status symbols of a powerful official: an iPhone-addicted mistress, a black Audi, a Louis Vuitton bag (for storing his growing, sentient penis) and most importantly, a taste for KFC.

Keenly aware of what it takes to succeed in Chinese officialdom, the penis encourages Yang Wei to eat more KFC. We’re introduced to the bucket of KFC chicken by seeing a child defecate in one, where the penis teaches Yang Wei his first lesson. KFC continues to turn up throughout the book and its significance cannot be understated. To get rich is glorious; to consume fried chicken is erotic:

Grabbing the chicken, Yang Wei tore the flesh open with his fingernails, soiling the inside of his nails with breadcrumbs and fat. He brought the chicken up to his mouth, his tongue flicked in and out of the meat as he used his tongue and teeth to widen the hole he had made. Once done, he rammed the remaining shreds back down into the man-bag, the hot meat pocket fully encasing the head of his salivating cock.


Shortly before Yang Wei’s metamorphosis into a penis, he visits a prostitute. Among the choking smog, he sees the words EAT PEOPLE on a sign for a hair salon. The words change to FUCK PEOPLE.

Lu Xun used EAT PEOPLE as reference to the cannibalistic nature of Chinese society. Updated to the twenty-first century and the continued glory of getting rich (and eating KFC), Meursault puts a modern twist on Lu Xun’s critique. Simply put, the elite no longer eat people. They fuck people, and to paraphrase George Carlin: when you’re fucking people you have to keep fucking them until they’re all dead.

The strong devour the weak, and Yang Wei’s penis ends up devouring him, walking upright and transforming Yang Wei into a flaccid, helpless penis. The book ends with a test designed to weed out the final stragglers: the sodomy of Little Qi, told from Yang Wei’s perspective. And when I say Yang Wei’s perspective, remember that at this point Yang Wei is the penis and the penis is walking upright. We are spared no detail, of course, and as I was reading a near first person description of someone else’s bleeding anus, I thought, an editor gave this his blessing. Or, he told Meursault to crank it up to eleven. Either way, the scene made me uncomfortable and that’s the whole point.

We finish Party Members understanding that the penis will continue its rise through the ranks without its due comeuppance, and this takes us back to the penis’s first lesson, given after Yang Wei sees the child defecate in a bucket of KFC:

That no matter what you do, no matter how badly you behave, even if you are literally turning everything you touch into shit — nobody will stop you. Be careful of those with more power than you; but in regards to everything else, you should treat the world like a leftover bucket of KFC. Just shit all over it.


I once worked with a man who proclaimed that God had sent him to China. Prone to long soliloquies on how China would soon overtake the West, he dismissed the Great Firewall as a Western myth while simultaneously defending the blocking of Facebook. He bragged about his powerful Chinese connections and frequently promised the people he liked that he could keep them “safe” come contract renewal time. Once he was too old and the school no longer felt like lying about his age to secure his residence permit, he had no choice but to return to America, where he published a glowing book about China through a vanity press. Party Members is a sharp critique of a nation that takes itself too seriously, and I wish I could force him to read it.

Preferably with a bucket of KFC.

Party Members is available on Amazon. Check out Arthur Meusault’s blog too.

Read my other book reviews here.


Quotes from Party Members:

Originality, creativity, self-reflection, and all the other useless qualities unnecessary to China’s relentless growth had been expunged to create a reliable army of the unreliable. Any morsels of these vices that may have sat nascent within the young Yang Wei had been successfully harmonised out of his system.

As long as there was always somebody unimportant around to clear up the mess, everybody would just concentrate on their own affairs out of fear of attracting attention to themselves and losing the little empires they had struggled so hard to accumulate.

They had never existed, and any memory of them was soon replaced with the intricate details of who a certain Shanghai actress was dating and the fact that a new season of China’s Got Talent had been approved. Shanshan’s life was as short, fleeting, and unimportant as that of the butterfly that had led to her death.

These days all of the old gods were dead, buried beneath decades of Mao’s destruction and forgotten by the unstoppable march of modernity. Only the God of Wealth remained, grown fat by the offerings and prayers for sports cars, designer clothes, and the latest mobile phones.

intReview: The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu

I met Travis Lee on a cool November morning in 2016. He was waiting for the library to open, and I noticed he was holding a book. I decided to ask him about it…

W: What are you reading?

T: The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu. I just finished it.

W: What’s it about?

T: This guy went around over the years interviewing people in China. This is a translation of some of his interviews.

W: What kinds of people?

T: The book’s subtitle is ‘Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom-Up’, and I guess you could say that’s true. These are all ordinary people. A lot of his interviews skew towards those who have been mistreated by the Chinese government.

W: Maybe it doesn’t skew; maybe it’s normal.

T: I’ve thought about that too. Of course, Liao Yiwu is a dissident writer. The introduction to this book makes that clear, with a good deal of mythologizing.

W: Mythologizing?

T: In the introduction, Wen Huang, the book’s translator, relates the story of Liao Yiwu’s birth: he was born when the Great Leap Forward was launched. During the famine, he nearly died from edema. According to Huang, Liao’s mother took him to an herbal doctor in the countryside who held him over a wok that contained boiling herbal water. The herbal steam miraculously restored him.

I like the use of the word ‘restore’ rather than ‘cure’. ‘Cure’ denotes serious weakness. Restore? Temporary weakness. Liao Yiwu wasn’t afflicted, not really, and the steam allowed him to return to his previously strong state. Pair it with ‘miraculously’, and a myth is born.

So, during a famine that killed 45 million people, we are to believe that Liao Yiwu was “miraculously restored”, a presumably divine act that would allow him to later live on the lam as a dissident writer, barely known in his own country. But there’s nothing “miraculous” about it; hydrotherapy is a well-known alternative treatment for swelling.

Throughout this book I had to wonder, is this true? Am I reading what people actually said?

Let me give you another example: The Human Trafficker. Now, according to the introduction, Liao gained these people’s trust. He interviewed this guy in prison and says that he could not take any recording equipment inside.

W: As you’d expect.

T: Right. He had to write up the interview from memory, but what is he remembering? What happened or what he wanted to happen? Take the ending. After the Human Trafficker expresses no remorse over conning young women into sexual slavery, Liao Yiwu claims he said this:

“If it were the judge, I would first cut off your tongue as punishment. It deserves to be cut off.”

I don’t doubt that Liao feels this way. But did he end the interview like that? Did it say it at all?

W: Does it matter?

T: It doesn’t ruin the book for me. It is interesting to contemplate though; what was lost or added?

W: You called him a “dissident writer”. Did he conduct these interviews illegally?

T: According to the introduction, most of his works are banned in China. Liao himself was arrested after Tiananmen Square for recording a poem dedicated to the victims of the massacre, among other things.

The introduction states that he has spent most of his career on the run.

W: Do you consider that more mythologizing?

T: Oh yes. He’s a renegade writer who was “miraculously restored” during one of the worst famines in history, remember? And now, the government fears him so much they will do anything to silence him.

W: It makes sense. From what I’ve, the CCP is quick to silence any dissent, however small.

T: True. Look at Liu Xiaobo. The Hong Kong booksellers. I don’t think he or his supporters are lying, but they are using it to craft a narrative. I don’t think anyone can deny that.

W: In his interviews, is Liao crafting a narrative?

T: When it comes to government reprisal, few in this book go unscathed. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: The Tiananmen Father. Have you heard of the Tiananmen Mothers?

W: No.

T: The Tiananmen Mothers are a group of friends, relatives and parents of the victims. They demand that the Party acknowledge the massacre, name the dead, compensate families of the victims and punish those responsible.

W: I hesitate to ask how their efforts are coming along.

T: Ding Zilin, the group’s founder, is under house arrest.

W: How about the Tiananmen Father?

T: He’s a Sichuanese man whose son was murdered in the protests. The government did not let him take his son’s body home for burial. They let him view it, before hastily burning it along with the other victims’ bodies.

It’s a moving interview. Let me tell you how he ends it:

“Our life is too hard right now. We live on two hundred yuan a month. We have to raise our granddaughter and support her education. She is our only hope. She is the only thing left after the loss of my two sons. Despite this, we don’t want to bother Professor Ding [leader of the Tiananmen Mothers]. It doesn’t matter if we live or die. Professor Ding has to live. She is the one who helps keep the issue alive. It’s been sixteen years since the June 4 massacre happened. Sooner or later, justice will be done. We probably won’t live long enough to see the day. Whatever happens, we can’t let the Communist Party get away with the bloody debt owed to families like mine.”

W: Next year will mark twenty-eight years. No acknowledgement seems to be forthcoming.

T: I lived in China for the twentieth anniversary in 2009. People were scared. Perhaps they still are. The thing is, the Party is in power. All they need to do is wait. Sooner or later, all those pesky eyewitnesses will die, leaving rumor and hearsay.

W: There are records too.

T: Records can be altered. Destroyed.

W: History is written by the winners.

T: There are no winners here. In 1989 everyone lost.

W: Were there other stories that caught your eye?

T: The interviews near the end were weak. Some of what the interviewees said, such as the prison stories. There are about three people who were sent to Chinese prison, and they were tortured and sexually assaulted by the other inmates.

W: Are you saying it didn’t happen?

T: I’m saying the events seem exaggerated, yes. “Needlessly dramatic”, might be the right words.

W: How do you know it didn’t happen?

T: I don’t, but I suspect they’re dramatizing.

W: You hope they are?

T: Yeah, sure.

W: You’ve talked about exaggeration. Was there anything in the book besides the Tiananmen Father that you didn’t doubt?

T: It’s not that I doubt every interview in the book. Only that some statements, from the interviewees and Liao Yiwu himself, seem farfetched. I mean, the Street Singer claims that his blind father drowned in a river. The Street Singer was supposed to be watching him, but why was a blind man swimming in the first place?

What doesn’t seem farfetched is what we know happened. Tales from the Anti-Rightist movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution.

Liao Yiwu interviews a former Red Guard. He, the former Red Guard, has no remorse over what he did. They bullied, harassed, tortured and killed people, all in the name of Mao Zedong. If you want to see the power of a cult of personality, forget North Korea. Look at China, 1966 to about 1975. Mao Zedong knew he was on his way out, and he was determined to make his country pay.

W: You seem more inclined to believe people who were hurt by the government.

T: Even their stories don’t escape the narrative trap. The basic events…I mean, someone’s father was a landlord. They were persecuted. I’ll believe that before I believe that a leper’s wife was burned alive and no one did anything about it.

W: Some of the stories are more rooted in well-documented history, it seems. Did you enjoy the book overall?

T: I did. For all the questions it raises, it tells you a lot about China and the Chinese people.

This book is abridged, by the way.

W: How so?

T: Straight from the introduction: They selected twenty-seven stories that they felt were representative of his work and of interest to Western readers. I’m interested in reading the whole book, not what someone has decided would interest me.

W: That might explain the skewing towards people who’ve been mistreated by the government.

T: Perhaps. I want to read the whole book to find out.

W: Would you recommend The Corpse Walker to others?

T: Yes, as long as you know what you’re getting into. Read the introduction carefully. The translator’s acknowledgements too, where he treats you to this:

“Following his release from a Chinese prison, Liao Yiwu asked a blind fortune-teller to forecast his future. The fortune-teller felt around Liao’s face, inquired the date and time of his birth, and told Liao that his future would start to look promising because he would be assisted and blessed by several guiren, or noblemen.”

The translator than goes on to thank several people who helped bring the book to life. Without them, we wouldn’t have The Corpse Walker.

W: Seems that fortune-teller had a point.

T: I know, right? Who am I to doubt him?

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The Corpse Walker is available on Amazon. Check out more of my reviews here.

 

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Postmodern Cantonland: a review of ‘South China Morning Blues’, by Ray Hecht

The Gibson-esque Sprawl exists, and it’s here. We’re sitting in a postmodern
Cantonland. Culture and identity can’t keep up, and everything gets
spread thinner and thinner. Tens of millions of migrant workers enter
the area every day, and hundreds of thousands of us aliens from overseas
mix in too. Maybe this is what the future of globalism looks like. It’s
prosperous to be sure, but not very romantic.

In the summer of 2008, I received an email. If you’ve ever taught English in China, then you know the email, and its promises. Free apartment, travel money, paid holidays, and my favorite: the opportunity to experience life in a developing, dynamic country.

In South China Morning Blues by Ray Hecht, we hear from twelve people experiencing life in China, the developing, dynamic place for expat reinvention since 1979.

The book opens in Shenzhen with Marco. Marco isn’t just an expat businessman, he is the expat businessman, a failure in the West who has come, has seen and is all set to conquer:

“Jackie”, my workmate (Chinese people and their English names, am I right?), bobs his head up and down. Looking so damn out of place, he wears the same white dress shirt, with the outline of a wife-beater underneath, which he wears every day. Badly in need of a haircut and with long pinky nails, he looks like he couldn’t get a job here serving drinks, and yet I know that he makes a salary four times the national average.

Marco never learns Jackie’s real name, and by the time Jackie steals Marco’s clients and leaves him high and dry, it’s too late; Marco shows up in Guangzhou, heavier and humbled.

There are twelve narrators whose chapters are marked by their Chinese zodiacs. Most of them want to be someone else, someone “successful”, what they want to see in the mirror instead of what they actually see. If I tried to sum up everyone’s stories, I’d never finish this review.

So I’ll touch on a couple:

Sheila and Lu Lu are young Chinese women caught between modern life and tradition. Both bend, and it’s Lu Lu who breaks, marrying a policeman she met while working as a KTV girl. She cheats on him, staying stays in a loveless marriage for the financial support, which comes in handy; her husband arranges everything, and Sheila helps her give birth in Hong Kong, ensuring that her child will have all the benefits of Hong Kong citizenship.

Terry is a Chinese-American writer who works for a local magazine by day, by night putting together “the great expat novel”, Cantonland. He becomes involved with Ting Ting, an artist who has moved to the Pearl River Delta region from Beijing. Not content to merely practice art, Ting Ting treats herself like a work of art, coloring her hair and recoloring it when her natural roots show through. She yearns to be an instrumental part of the next great art scene. Ting Ting is too concerned with appearances; she spends hours coloring her hair for her date with Terry, and he never comments on it.

The party at Lamma Island closes out the book, but while the book ends, everyone’s stories don’t stop.

We do.

We stop hearing about these people as their lives go on: Terry is a step closer to writing his book, Lu Lu has given birth to her baby and Marco?

He sits unnamed on the ferry, a shell of diminished importance.

***

Some people have lamented the lack of a “great” expat novel; they wish to see an expat equivalent to The Sun Also Rises. Another reviewer brought this up concerning Quincy Carroll’s excellent Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.

Instead of looking back and making comparisons, let’s look forward. Along with Up to the Mountains, books like Harvest Season and South China Morning Blues set the standard for fiction from a transient class of lifelong outsiders.

Available at Amazon and the publisher’s website.

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Migrant Laowai: a review of Quincy Carroll’s ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside’

She continued to badger him in Mandarin. She asked him why he had come to China and, more pointedly, what he was doing in Ningyuan. Daniel told her that he was bored of America, and when he spoke, the others started, taken aback. They considered him as if he were crazy.

One of the things you learn about China, once the initial excitement wears off and having a white face is no longer a novelty, is that you are an outsider. Master Chinese or not, you are still an outsider.

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is the story of two outsiders. Daniel is a young ESL teacher who tries to ingratiate himself with China. He has great Mandarin, understands the culture and takes his job seriously.

Thomas has recently arrived from a kindergarten in Changsha, where it’s implied that his departure was not by choice. Daniel gets him signed on at the last minute, and Thomas is not the least bit grateful. Quite the opposite: he believes it is the school’s duty to hire him, China is his playground.

In that way Thomas is like many older men I worked with in China. Compared to Daniel, Thomas is cynical, making no effort to understand China. He passes cold judgments and gives his teaching duties the same enthusiasm you would muster for sweeping a dirty floor.

Daniel is the young optimist, less set in his ways. Throughout the book he displays a fondness for Chinese culture absent in Thomas. For Daniel, as for many expats, China is a place for discovery. For Daniel, that dream is still vivid:

They asked [Daniel] about China, but he could not articulate how it had changed him, for, despite trying his hardest, he could not explain it to himself. There was a wildness to the country that fulfilled certain promises in his heart, promises he had made to himself as a boy but had long since forgotten.

The China described in this book was brimming with possibility, opportunity, and the barriers that held you in check back home are gone. Daniel seeks what he wants, understands what he doesn’t want: to live a quiet life of work like his friends. As for what he does want, he decides the best solution is to integrate himself into Chinese culture.

Thomas makes no effort, thumbing his nose at everything they do, barely speaking Mandarin. Tension between Daniel and Thomas grows, climaxing at a Spring Festival dinner. After Daniel calls out Thomas for being a creepy lecher, Thomas points out:

After all is said and done, he’s here for the exact same reasons as the rest of us: easy living, zero responsibility, and a chance to make himself into whatever he wants.

The truth of that statement cannot be glossed over. No matter what Daniel tells himself, the Middle Kingdom is a place where Daniel can work little, live freely and dream the eternal dreams of youth in a developing Never-Never Land where responsibility comes to die.

Daniel understands that Thomas has a point, that Daniel is also an outsider no matter how hard he tries. He gets a taste of this earlier, before argument with Thomas. Daniel is close to the carpenter and his family — the carpenter’s son shares his English name — and Daniel agrees to celebrate Spring Festival at their house, bringing the carpenter some whiskey.

Over dinner they commend Daniel on his Mandarin, and we slowly see what Daniel is: an oddity. A show. They pressure him into eating a dog’s paw, and after a heavy round of drinking the men turn on their new karaoke machine. Daniel doesn’t want to sing, but…

When Hong noticed him standing there, he stood up and started pointing — first at Daniel, then at the screen. He pulled him by the forearm to where he had been standing, then gave him a microphone and sat down. Laowai chang! he shouted, to the approval of everyone else. Then he started chanting: Laowai chang! Laowai chang!

They want Daniel to dance for them. He refuses, but in the end he does what every other laowai does, no matter how hard they try to resist.

He dances.

***

All of us who teach English in China are migrant laowai. Some just acknowledge it. For all of Daniel’s attempts to integrate himself, one must ask, is he successful?

Thomas isn’t, and it is clear that he stopped trying years ago. While Daniel is a migrant laowai in denial, Thomas understands not only what he is, but that it is too late to change. After Thomas wears out his welcome, he pulls a midnight runner; we then find him in Bangkok, ready to start fresh:

Hailing a cab, he paid the driver using the last of his money, then climbed into the backseat and nodded off, dreaming of Bangkok. He knew that he would have a drink in his hand soon enough, and, after all, he had always been a believer in second chances.

East Asia offers many men second chances. For men like Thomas, it offers third and fourth chances too. Men like Daniel are still on their first.

Men like Thomas better hope the supply never runs out.

***

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is available at Amazon and Inkshares.

You can learn more about author Quincy Carroll by following him on Twitter and liking his Facebook Page.