Arthur Mersault’s satirical novel is an absurdist work, which unabashedly displays its influences (Kafka, in particular) like an oversized knock-off belt buckle. Mersault can seem—brazenly, at times—unsympathetic toward China. Nevertheless, to review this book by picking at its generalizations, overall pessimism and occasional forays into race baiting is, I would imagine, missing the point. You’re either in on the joke or you’re not. A Sinological reading of this book would be a bit like doing a feminist critique of the Tucker Max oeuvre.
The thrust—as it were—of the story is the transformation of protagonist Yang Wei, a hopeless mediocrity, about to rise. Astute readers will guess early on of the nature of Yang Wei’s evolution, but the novel plays it out in a series of droll, if occasionally gross vignettes that effectively, and brutally, skewer the mores and habits of China’s ruling cadre. While some of these vignettes may lack appeal to readers possessing low tolerance for lurid descriptions of bodily functions (or, as in one instance, sexual assault involving fast food chicken), I found it a frequently compelling read.
It helps, of course, that Mersault is an acidly funny writer with a keen sense of the absurd. After all, China is a chaotic place. Residents or frequent visitors to China will instantly recognize some of the observations that frame the main narrative. While it’s hard to call the book inaccurate—several sections are barely fictionalized versions of actual incidents—when taken as an aggregate over 286 pages, the novel describes a dystopianism at odds with my own experience in China. That is to say, the book’s description of life in China is certainly true, in the sense that many of the characters are crude, but recognizable archetypes in modern Chinese society.
The novel’s setting, a fictional Nth-tier city, named Huaishi, is suitably and believably blighted. There are certainly cities like Huaishi. God knows I’ve been to them. But this isn’t so much a novel about China, as it is a work of dystopian fiction, set in a version of China. Whether that version is past, present, future, Earth-2 or in another parallel universe is unimportant. The China described in this novel is a backdrop against which a fundamental and nearly universal truth gets played out as an extended metaphor on the bargains we make with ourselves to get ahead.
This book will not be for all tastes, but I still found Yang Wei’s metamorphosis strangely diverting, and there were sections which had me laughing out loud. A good book, perhaps, for those days when the Cycle of China Funk becomes a bit too much.