Review – Party Members by Arthur Meursault
This book had three main strong points: Firstly, I thought that Arthur Meursault, whom I assume is a foreigner, was very ambitious to write an all-Chinese cast. Some will obviously question the authenticity of that but I respect the author’s boldness, and he pulls this off well for satiric purposes. Also, the book was very well written stylistically, unlike many other books about China (looking at you Tom Olden) that are written by foreigners. Lastly, I will not comment on whether or not the China depicted in this book is representative of the “real” China (whatever that means) but I did think that Meursault’s vision, in all of it’s darkness, squalor, and sordidness, was quite unique. Some scenes brought about a very uncomfortable, visceral reaction, and even the most optimistic foreigners wouldn’t be able to deny some of the scary truths within these pages.
However, I did think that Meursault’s attempts to humanize some of the characters made the societal criticisms less effective, mainly because the book is more of an allegory (as satire usually is) and less of a character-study. For example, the first few chapters give an exposition of the protagonist Yang Wei, a sort of Chinese Everyman, and this exposition isn’t much more than a cataloging of everything that is wrong with modern China: the education system, government policies, societal expectations, filial piety, bad manners, terrible hygiene, etc., and how Yang Wei is the average product of these flaws. Yang Wei acquires an insignificant government post, marries a woman with no personality, and spawns a typical “little Emperor” technology-addicted son, he is essentially pre-engineered into a world where one has to aspire to be mediocre. I didn’t think that this was bad, I actually thought it was well done and quite funny, brutally honest in the best way, and the jaded foreigner within me was rooting for Meursault to continue on. The story for the most part afterwards is cast underneath this satiric light. Later on though, we see the characterization and short-lived entrance of little Shanshan, and this snippet is probably the most hopeful, human portrait in the book. Moments of two-sidedness like this one are rare, and thus I found these moments to be a little out of place with the rest of the book, as Meursault is mostly railing on China for a comedic, seemingly black-and-white effect. While both Yang Wei and Shanshan are both portrayed as victims of a system much bigger than the both of them, Shanshan is meant to be sympathized with, whereas Yang Wei, and most of the other characters, are mostly meant to disgust, repulse, and as a result humor the reader. There is a noticeable lack of balance. Considering my overall impression of the book, something wants me to think that if Shanshan’s character was allowed to survive and develop further, she would have become like one of the many prostitutes that Yang Wei indulges in throughout the narrative, or more ambitiously, another government official’s wife with no personality. How is Shanshan any different from the child defecating into the bucket of KFC? I understand that the book is meant to be about the darker effects of power and money, and how these things take people down terrible paths, but when the book is always so focused on the negative, these little attempts at humanization don’t seem genuine.
I do also lurk on r/China from time to time and I am familiar with the whole “Rainy” archetype, which I find hilarious, and while I was really excited to see Meursault’s take on this phenomenon, I didn’t think the potential humor of this idea was fully capitalized on. Mainly this is because I think the whole idea of a Rainy must exist within a “foreigner male – Chinese female” dynamic, to put it roughly. Basically, I think that if Meursault wanted to have a Rainy in the book, he should have written a foreign character. The materialistic, iPhone-toting side of the Rainy was captured well enough, but the bad English, poor social skills, stalking, culture clashes with whatever English teacher unlucky enough to get involved with Rainy, etc., these vital elements of “Rainyness” were just not present. Another thing that I thought was a little inconsistent, if all of the characters are Chinese, and it is evident from the text that the characters are speaking Chinese together, then why on earth would Yang Wei or any other character in the book refer to her as Rainy? Maybe a little pedantic of a complaint, but nonetheless I did question the logic of this. Maybe I am trying to say that only a foreigner can see the “Rainy” in a Chinese girl. I think that the character Bella in Quincy Carroll’s Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside was a more accurate caricature.
Though I did find this novel to be a tad mean-spirited in some parts, it is still a very fun and insightful read, while not being too heavy. It does play up to “ultra-unreal” tendencies seen these days in modern Chinese literature. Unfortunately the sexually explicit content, shock, violence, and descriptions of Yang Wei’s penis (that are borderline homoerotic at times) will probably prevent the book from being taken seriously in more “highbrow” circles. Overall though I did enjoy this book, and I do recommend it, especially if one currently lives or has spent time in China. Meursault does indeed have a valid and valuable perspective.
Meursault, Arthur. Party Members. Camphor Press, 2016. Kindle.