Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Black Humor in Red China: Meursault’s Party Members

There’s a comic masterpiece on the loose here in Asia, a book screaming to break out of the small circle of Western expats who’ve read it. It’s titled Party Members, by the pseudonymous Arthur Meursault, and it's deadly stuff.

This book puts to shame a lot of the satire published and hailed in Britain and the US. Meursault’s novel is a kick in the teeth, a page turner that doesn’t miss a beat, by turns hilarious and brutal--the hilarity and abject brutality set in a death struggle to see which will come out on top. In fact neither wins as both manage to be so over the top.

Vis-à-vis his Western literary peers in the genre (writing on corruption and greed in London or New York) Meursault certainly benefited from his immersion in the boom-town culture of contemporary China. If there’s anything in the West as fruitful of black humor as a Communist Party bureaucracy directing a bourgeois capitalist revolution, I’m not sure what it might be.

Meursault follows the career of an at first utterly unremarkable low-level official in the government ministry of a third-tier Chinese city. The narrative tells the tale of how he breaks out of his craven mediocrity after his penis, having had enough and able to keep silent no longer, begins to give him life lessons.

Yes, a talking penis, with its own philosophy. The premise, I know, sounds too predictable, or lame, or juvenile, or something. At least that’s what I feared before I took up the book. Who wants to read a few hundred pages of dick jokes?

Boy was I wrong. This book just snaps and pops and sizzles along. Meursault is a sharp prose stylist and ironist; he knows how to wield understatement and offhand aside to riotous effect. Party Members is far, far from a book of dick jokes. In fact, maybe the only dick joke in it is the title. Which is a feat really: that the writer kept himself so thoroughly from succumbing to cheap humor.

I knew I was in for something very different by the time I reached the second page. I’m something of a connoisseur of beginnings, and Meursault’s opening pages are as good an instance of setting tone as I’ve come across in years.

This novel reminds one of Gogol, of his genre-changing short tales like “The Nose” and “The Overcoat”, but given the hyper-consumerist Chinese setting, it’s like Gogol blasted at rock concert volume, wrecking machines and fireworks and shouts as accompaniment.

But does Meursault give us the real boomtown China or an overly negative version? I think the question is rather irrelevant. This is a fictional world, of course, but like all worthwhile satire it is a fiction informed by things that happen or might feasibly happen in the society it depicts. Or as one reviewer on the book’s Amazon page put it: “Foreigners who have lived in China for several years, upon returning home discover that curiously, nobody really believes even the tamest tales of what happened while they were there, as if they are telling war stories at the breakfast table.”

So again: In a novel such as Party Members, it is a matter not so much of recording actual conditions, but of turning up the volume, selecting and pushing certain elements so they cannot be ignored. It is not a total picture of China, but a harrowingly palpable one, enough grounded in social facts to be relevant. All societies suffer from corruption, and a society that has modernized at the breakneck pace China has, and has done so under state direction, will necessarily face unique challenges.

Related to this (and thinking again of the novel’s breakout potential) Meursault has done an amazing job making his fictional world accessible for those who don’t know the contemporary Chinese scene. Yes, there are occasional “in jokes” and allusions, but in general, any reader who knows the rough outlines of China’s history since Mao is going to have no trouble getting into this book.

As a fellow writer of satire, Party Members held especial interest for me, as I had to deal with similar challenges of narrating grotesque metamorphoses and fantastic improbabilities in my novel A Taipei Mutt. Whether I succeeded or not is hard for me to judge, but Meursault has done brilliantly.

And so: If you appreciate black humor, political intrigue, and want to be hit with something that will leave a bruise, don’t hesitate. Pick up a copy.

Eric Mader

And while you're at it, check out my Taipei Mutt. Both Meursault's novel and mine are available in print and ebook.

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