A book not about English teachers, or people struggling to find their way in this world, is definitively more than welcome in the very tight panorama of foreign writers in China. It certainly can offer a different type of insight on how foreigners often perceive China and its costumes and breaks the wall of self-imposed silence that we are courteously invited to build around us when we enter the country. The book is also a ferocious, absurd and wildly entertaining satire (think about a “Kafka meets Vonnegut meets Fellini” take on Chinese politics), definitively worth your precious time, but only if you share the same sensitivity of course: “Party Members” comes with a very sour taste which won’t appeal everybody, certainly not the ones looking for bucolic images of the Chinese countryside and the innocent people who populate it.
Arthur Meursault, long-term expat, author and blogger (find him at arthurmeursault.com) doesn’t hold back when detailing the protagonist’s sexual escapades (which in turn become more and more violent and disgusting as his path to power paces up), his moral decay and ruthless business practices. Language is often as rich and lavish as graphically disturbing, yet always coated by a dense and wicked sense of humor. The fact this book is not for the faint-hearted goes without saying, and by turning away from this upside down morality play readers will deprive themselves of a great deal of liberating fun. The prose is extraordinarily effective and proves to be highly accessible without being too simple or poor.
The very private relationship between your typical Chinese everyman and his penis turns into an unstoppable hunger for power that will bring our anti-hero at the top of the local section of the Party where, thanks to a system that awards ruthless behavior, he will have the chance to indulge in is favorite pastime: destroying people’s lives in order to get ahead. The story follows Yang Wei from his birth to his untimely, but well deserved, end… From being the most average and unassuming Chinese government worker of an imaginary Chinese town, to a shark whose quench for power and destruction looks unstoppable. His life changes all of a sudden after being humiliated by a colleague and former friend flaunting his promotion and newly-gained social status; Wei, beaten and humiliated, has the most surprising and life changing encounter of his life, an event that will lead his life to vertiginous height of uncontrolled debauchery and moral corruption. Wei’s penis starts not only talking to him, acting as an advisor and master, but dictating his agenda and slowly, but steadily, taking control over him. Wei’s penis coming to life changes his life completely and shakes his priorities. Inspired by the motto “The only way to be successful is to be a complete and utter dick”, Wei steam rolls everyone—his family, his parents, his coworkers, his subordinates, anyone representing an obstacle is bound to disappear one way or another.
For anybody familiar with China and its rather unique way of doing business, descriptions of meetings, parties, KTV and spa sessions will sound disturbingly familiar (and hilariously disgusting): when you’re on top, the sky’s the limit and nobody will dare to say anything to you, let alone stop you. Relationships are shallow and the only agenda is survival: people are judged by what they bring to the table, be that money, connections, face, or sex. Being a dick (and controlled by a dick) saves Wei from relenting his run to power. Only when he begins questioning his own actions, on the light of a very overly reproachable occurrence, his fate will be doomed, thus letting his dick to accomplish his destiny and become the biggest “dick” of the office (a fate that was impossible to escape apparently from the very start of this descend into absurdity).
The book’s main selling point, Wei’s penis as a character, is also one of the weaknesses of the entire story. It doesn’t really emerge as a well-developed character and struggles in finding its own voice. His dialogues are stiff (no pun intended) and explanatory sometimes. It takes several chapters to find some sort of personal voice rather than being the author’s alter ego. Meursault himself seems to struggle in distancing himself from what is the (a)moral angle of the book, but Wei’s dilemma and final retribution, although absurd, sound real from the entire length of the story.
Meursault’s sense of humor is wild and cruel: he describes a society without morals or faith, where everything is allowed. What’s most important is not getting caught. His book is fun and fast to read, yet it still finds the time to involve the reader and seek his or her complicity. Laughing is always relieving, but questioning how far you can stretch your sense of fun without being an insensitive “dick” popped in my mind several times as the protagonist’s actions became more and more extreme.
Another question that may arise while reading is if it’s acceptable for a foreigner to criticize his host country in such a virulent way, a question valid for every foreigner living in any country. The book doesn’t conceal his not-so-subtle sense of frustration and comes with an urgency that may reveal the author’s personal struggles in China (struggles common to many expats, I imagine). It’s a good chance to read a different kind of book about China, something that doesn’t happen too often. Recommended.
Party Members is published by Camphor Press (camphorpress.com) and can be purchased on Amazon or in selected book shops.