Cook (Massage and the Writer, 2014, etc.) offers essays detailing his observations of Chinese life, culled from his years of living there.
At first glance, Cook’s collection appears to be a standard account of an expat’s observations of life in contemporary China. He writes about Chinese music and customer service culture, marvels at Chinese “disposable cities” and the “yellow fever” phenomenon, and contrasts Chinese hospitals to their American counterparts. As an American who has lived in China for many years, Cook provides insights into a culture that is notoriously opaque to outsiders, its intricacies and quirks revealing themselves only after significant immersion. Yet Cook doesn’t quite embody the expected Western expat perspective. For example, in the first essay, “Why I support China’s Great Firewall,” Cook calls for the closing off of Chinese society from Western influence, advocates for censoring breasts and cleavage from the media and public life, and makes a veiled threat about annexing Taiwan. “The notion that Chinese students don’t want to return to the motherland is a myth,” he writes. “If any of them ever tells you that, you should assume suspicious intentions.” Also, “The next Great Digital Leap Forward, I predict, will be China’s control of the entire World Wide Web, a Sinicized Internet. A cleansed and purified Internet. A socialist Internet with Chinese characteristics, from which the whole world will benefit.” After such statements, readers might await the punch line: surely this is an American expat lampooning the propaganda of the Chinese state? No punch line arrives. Cook appears to mean what he says. In later essays, a more critical version of Cook attacks Mao as well as the oppressive working conditions and dogmatic education system in modern China. The confusing ideological inconsistency distracts during even his less political essays. Cook is a solid writer with an eye for detail, but the reader is left unsure of what he’s truly trying to communicate.
An odd book of essays offering inconsistent views of modern China.
Excerpted from Shanghai Talk magazine's "Top 3 China Books for 2016": Based in Beijing, Cook's 2012 experimental writing debut, Lust & Philosophy, didn't go down as smoothly as his 2014 follow-ups, The Exact Unknown and Massage and the Writer. The latter, which traces his prurient exploits throughout East Asia, ensured that Cook would be blacklisted by mass-market book reviewers but secured him a cult following of libertines.
Cook's latest offering, At the Teahouse Cafe, abandons the erotic for more mundane musings about life in China. In his preface, Cook makes it clear that he refuses to fall into the Western journalist trappings of remaining safely removed from the narrative while catering to "the expectations and stereotypes of Anglo audiences for an oppressed and tragic China." Instead, Cook "freely implicates myself in my interactions with locals." He delights in not being constrained by the "mass-market sameness of a major publisher," unlike, say Peter Hessler or Evan Osnos, both with whom Cook has a love-hate relationship for their finely honed yet ultimately "monochromatic voice of earnestness and righteousness."
Other topics in Teahouse are less contentious and more edifying, spanning modern and ancient Chinese history, urban life, the art and music scene and even biracial romance. Each one is brilliantly written; some worthy of an academic journal, but all together feel more fragmented than his previous collections of essays. Content with having rattled the Puritans and Victorians who haughtily guard the world's literary reviews and Sunday book supplements, and perhaps longing to finally get in the good graces of Beijing's foreign writer colonies, Cook may lose some loyal fans with Teahouse, but it could very well thrust him into the mainstream acceptance that he has for so long shunned.