Author: Isham Cook

American essayist and novelist based in China since 1994. Writing philosophy: downmarket, big concept, provocative, discriminating, outrageous, creepy, sordid (every conceivable epithet). Ballard, Beckett, Borges, Dick, Kafka, Hesse, Melville, Mishima, Sade are influences.

Lotus: Updating the great Chinese socialist realist novel

With the Communists fighting both the Japanese invaders and the Guomindang reactionaries in a triangular war, the 1930s-40s was a tumultuous and extraordinarily violent period in the country’s history, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, mostly civilians. Such an earth-shaking era was story-worthy to say the least, and revolutionary authors applied their firsthand experience of the war years to penning firey, action-packed pageturners in the tradition of socialist realism. Among the best-known of these novels were Liang Bin’s Keep the Red Flag Flying (红旗谱), Qu Bo’s Tracks in the Snowy Forest (林海雪原), Yang Mo’s The Song of Youth (青春之歌), Liu Qing’s Builders of a New Life (创业史), and Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan’s Red Crag (红岩), all written in the late 1950s-early 1960s (also published in English by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing). This flowering of communist fiction dried up during the Cultural Revolution. To Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao, nothing was quite revolutionary enough to pass muster and she banned virtually everything, including the aforementioned novels.

The decades since have presented a quandary for Chinese writers. With socialism firmly established and war and devastation a thing of the past, in the absence of some new vital struggle or national emergency, it must have been, and continues to be, a tall order to revisit the authentic socialist realist novel. That is until the contemporary female writer Zhang Lijia saw what was staring at us all along and has now fashioned into an impressive new work of socialist realism, the novel Lotus (Henry Holt & Co., 2017). What momentous cause was this up-and-coming author the first to bring into urgent focus? None other than the great scourge of prostitution and sex work.

Facebook, rococo vulvas, and the pornographic imagination

A rococo vulva, which apparently violates Facebook’s ads policy.

Authors who publish independently on the subject of relationships and sexuality are soon acquainted with the industry’s strictures. They boil down to two: 1) If the content of your book contains graphic descriptions of sex, it will likely get involuntarily pegged as “erotica,” even if you thought you were writing something literary. 2) If the cover of your book is too sexually suggestive, it’s also likely to get pegged as erotica or simply turned down for distribution altogether. And then there’s Facebook, which is not less but far more comprehensive in its family-friendly guidelines and requires a considerably steeper learning curve. But first a few observations on book content before moving on to our primary concern, book covers, and finally Facebook.

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 15: Zigaago

The old hippie sat facing Malmquist, his rainbow-tattooed penis proudly displayed. “It’s like this,” he said, an imaginary sphere poised on his fingertips.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“That’s what I was getting at.”

“Haven’t we had this conversation before?”

“All conversation is the same. What’s different is the man.”

“Cool. Here’s to Ray.” Malmquist clinked glasses with Cornelius. “Damn this ale is good. Why did I just toast to Ray?”

“That’s just what I was getting at.”

“One minute I was talking to her, then I’m talking to you. I don’t remember you coming back.”

“I never left, man.”

“But you clearly did.”

“Yeah, I left for a moment, but I didn’t really leave. I’m always here. Ray left.”

“I don’t remember that. Didn’t I already leave and come back?”

“You did. You two left together before I returned.”

“I know as a fact I left because I’m still frying from the acid I ingested in Ancient Rome. But I didn’t know I left with her.”

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 14: Roma

ALMIGHTY
TRUTH IS ON THE MARCH
NOTHING CAN STOP IT NOW

Malmquist slammed the straw pillow with his hand. “Fuck!”

Attica walked in. “Quid agis? Esne bene?”

“Do you have a candle? I can’t see the writing clearly in here. It’s too dark,” he said as he responded to the message on his tunic.

“Quid est?”

“A candle. You know, light. Fire. A candle.” He depicted a candle with his fingers.

“Mentula sagittandi?” She masturbated an imaginary cock.

“No! I don’t mean a hand-job. I mean a candle, with a flame.”

“Candela?”

“Yeah. Candela.”

She returned with a candle. The grimy cubbyhole illumined, the tunic now spelled out:

I’M NOT EASY
BUT WE CAN DISCUSS IT

“I’m fucked. I’ve lost the connection and it now seems to be mocking me. Oh, of course, you wouldn’t understand.”

She pointed to her sundial watch. “Hora est.”

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 13: New Gary, IN

He pointed at a food tray behind the cafeteria counter.

“Oh, you again. Hominy grits?” she asked.

“A lot.”

“Can’t give you a lot. Everybody get the same portion.”

“I didn’t ask for a lot. I said there’s a lot.”

“What you mean?”

“You asked me hominy grits, and I’m telling you how many grits there are in that pan.”

“Your humor so bad it’s good. Anyway you can’t eat shit. You can’t fool me on that score. I can serve you a coffee, though. I want to watch that trick of yours again. You seen him do that coffee trick, Akeeshea?”

“I’m watching.”

Deshondra served Carrot a cup of coffee.

“Yep, you folks just lovin’ the sugar,” said Carrot as he opened the dispenser into the coffee and held up his other hand to high-five her. Without taking his eyes off her, he stopped the flow of sugar just in time before the coffee overflowed. “Tee-hee.”

The ladies stared poker-faced.

“Don’t know how the hell you do that,” said Deshondra. “But you wasted us a half dispenser of sugar again.”

“Poor man’s cocaine.”

“What’s up?”

New Book Release: American Rococo

What do seashells, obesity, graffiti, and the American ghetto have in common? Nude hot springs and the Japanese theater? Atheists and family-values conservatives? Why do atheists go on religious pilgrimages? How have schools infantilized our understanding of Shakespeare, and the textbook industry conspired to turn our language’s history into agitprop? What is the single most dangerous sexual idea that even the liberated can’t handle?

Ranging across centuries and continents, Isham Cook’s far-flung essays, whether discoursing on the most radical or homespun of topics, are guided by the notion of the “edge.” The edge represents the limits of conventional understanding, the zone beyond stereotypes and groupthink; it is​ where received ideas are recast in fresh and striking ways.

“Food for thought, elegantly prepared.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Reminds one of an etching that has been precisely scribed to create a sharp effect.” — Michael Collins, author of St George and the Dragons: The Making of English Identity

“Imagine a conversation over thirteen evenings with a perceptive and erudite companion.” — James Lande, author of Yang Shen: The God from the West