The 1.3 billion-strong temper tantrum: Review of Arthur Meursault’s Party Members

You’re nine years old and showing off your new iPad on the school playground, and the class bully snatches it out of your hands. Now, there are two things you can do. 1) Deal with it. Snatch it back. This is what normal kids do. 2) Scream and cry. This is what the 1.3 billion-strong country of China does everytime it’s poked in the eye, like the recent Hague Tribunal ruling against its claims in the South China Sea. Snatched it right out of its hands and we hear the whole nation stamping its feet and squealing: “Waaaahh! Go away, Opium War bullies! Waaaahh!” Hurting China’s feelings has become established as a pastime, a sport. When China lost its bid to host the 2000 Olympics to Sydney it went, “Waaaahh!” The Olympic torch is snatched out of the hands of disabled bearer Jin Jing in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics. “Waaaahh!” The swimmer Sun Yang is poked fun at in the Rio 2016 Olympics for his doping history, and the whole country goes “Waaaahh!” The Rio organizers get the stars misaligned on the Chinese flag. “Waaaahh!”

Now the sport has taken the form of a novel. Lots of people aren’t going to like Arthur Meursault’s Party Members: Chinese customs officials who find reasons on every page to blacklist the book; patriots who don’t tolerate anything that puts their country in a bad light; cynics who freely disparage their own country but can’t stomach a single criticism by a foreigner; the humorless; sinophiles grateful for the privilege of being allowed into China; the Pollyannas who run the expat magazines assuming the burden of preventing China at all costs from losing face.

Meursault has done what everyone up till now has carefully avoided doing. He has gathered up all the worst aspects of Chinese society (a long list) and out of the trash heap hashed together an inexorable plot and absorbing narrative. Some may ask why anyone would go through the trouble of needlessly hurting the Chinese people’s feelings. The answer is simple. When everyone tacitly agrees not to write a certain book, this is precisely the book that needs to be written. Somebody would have written this book sooner or later. Meursault got his foot in the door first. I have to say he’s done a pretty good job at it too, but we’re not talking gentle satire here. After a relatively benign comic start, things quickly descend into the most uncomfortable, brutal reading experience even for the jaded. And that’s the whole point. China isn’t an easy place for a lot of people, including the Chinese themselves.

The art of satire exaggerates some aspect of reality to bring out a social truth. The more politically repressive a regime and the less freedom of speech, the more satire must distance itself from the recognizable present and veil itself in allegory. From 1949 until the 1980s Chinese authors could not publish satire in any form, unless as deadpan socialist realism (already unwittingly satirical), in such 1960s communist novels as Qu Bo’s Tracks in the Snowy Forest (林海雪原), novels which themselves were subsequently banned during the Cultural Revolution. But things have always been on shaky ground in the more relaxed decades since, and even the absurdist dystopia of Wang Shuo’s Please Don’t Call Me Human (1989), for example (one of China’s best-known contemporary satirists), got itself banned.

As a foreigner writing in English and publishing outside the Chinese Mainland, Meursault is under no such constraints. Making his job even easier, Chinese society requires no exaggeration or hyperbole to play up the humor; the prosaic reality itself offers ample material for the satirist. He has also racked up many years of experience living and working in China and knows his subject matter (as a resident myself of the country for almost two decades, I can verify the accuracy of his portrayal). The setting of Party Members is the fictional city of Huaishi, but it could be any of thousands of indistinguishable Chinese cities:

...a grey mess of squalid narrow roadways and imposing broad expressways crammed with traffic at all hours. Tower after tower of morbid office blocks and apartment compounds repeated endlessly to the city’s outskirts. If there was little history, there was even less greenery. A few dead trees lined the roads. Billboards of photographed flowers were nailed to fences in an attempt to brighten up the surroundings, but the effect was diminished by the huge propaganda slogans…proclaiming that Huaishi was “THE PARIS OF ASIA”…lying in the middle of the city like a congealed fishhead in a bowl of grey noodles, was People’s Square.

We are not meant to like the hero of the story, Yang Wei (whose name, 阳痿, means “impotent”), a lowly faceless bureaucrat in a menial job with the city government. Certain things are so ugly they’re almost beautiful, and that’s where the humor lies. The Chinese do things in their daily life that the rest of the world doesn’t. All the author has to do is describe them. The rudeness of strangers, the fake friendliness of those who want something out of you, the toadying and money-grubbing, the class contempt for rural migrants, the obsession with iPhones and luxury handbags and black Audis (Yang Wei masturbates inside one in a showroom before buying it) to the exclusion of anything else in life, the squalor and the spit, are all wrought into a sharply focused technicolor mosaic, systematically unfolded. Visitors to China who have witnessed the disaster zone known as a public toilet are in for a delight, as they follow a drunken Yang Wei into a restaurant’s men’s room and watch his contribution to this peculiarly Chinese form of performance art. The scene is worth the price of the book alone, but since I want the author to reap some earnings from his effort I won’t divulge any details.

Soon the rollicking comedy takes a darker and more disturbing turn. Yang Wei’s member begins talking to him and starts instructing him on how to really be a dick — the only way to get ahead in China. Over the course of the rest of the narrative he undergoes a part Dorian Gray, part Kafka’s Metamorphosis-style transformation — the book’s depraved but brilliant conceit — which again I don’t wish to divulge here and spoil for the reader. But along the way you can expect many horrendous scenes, such as a repulsive and quite explicit three-way sex or rape scene (we can’t help averting our gaze) involving our hero, a prostitute, and a bucket of KFC. Yes, the chicken meat is engaged with sexually. Meursault has a great deal of fun with the notorious irony that the comfort food of choice for a great many Chinese, for all their disparagement of Western food, is none other than KFC.

On a more mundane level, the reader will notice throughout the novel an utter lack of kindness and friendliness shown by the characters toward one another. This is another unfortunate truth those who have experienced even just a brief sojourn in the country will appreciate. Of course, there are nice people in China; I wouldn’t have survived here so many years myself if it wasn’t for the real friendships I have made among locals. The social truth which is being underscored, however, is well known and derives from a nasty combination of two traditions: first, the time-worn tendency among the Chinese to look out only for their own family and regard strangers with apathy and suspicion. Second, the general hostility of the Communist Party toward anyone not among their own (and toward their own as well), a bilious mind-set which infects everything and everyone and trickles down to individual behavior in ways people are scarcely aware who don’t know anything else. At the same time, it must be admitted positive strides have been made over the past 10-15 years as more and more Chinese travel aboard and encounter simple, spontaneous friendly interactions and customer service for the first time, but there is still a long way to go (oddly, non-Communist Hong Kong often displays the same rudeness, but not Taiwan or Singapore).

Many predictably will protest that Meursault’s is a grossly one-sided affair. One could turn things around and concoct an equally convincing positive account of China, full of uplifting scenes and touching, memorable characters. Even novelists depicting China’s political repression seek to counter the struggle or tragedy with sympathetic protagonists engaged in heroic actions and stoic determination against the forces of evil or disaster. This is to miss the point. The problem is, this is exactly what almost every novelist on China, Chinese and foreign, already does.

Meursault counts Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk among his literary influences. We wouldn’t want to condemn those two important and popular novelists merely because they explore the dark side of contemporary American society. When China learns to take it on the chin and lose face again and again and again; in other words, when China mellows out, as it must at some point in the future if it doesn’t want to explode, it will be able to take critiques of its society in stride and laugh them off like water off a duck’s back.

I salute this debut novel by Arthur Meursault which is guaranteed to earn him more enemies, Chinese and foreign, than friends. But to me there is no more admirable way of knowing who your true friends are than by declaring forthrightly where you stand.

Party Members is available on Amazon: image

Arthur Meursault’s website: I am Meursault

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Related:
Book review: The Exact Unknown by Isham Cook
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China

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