Thoughts on China Underground--A Book I Didn't Want to Like (But Did)

To Tweet or Not to Tweet?

That’s not necessarily the question, but it's one I’ve been pondering for a while.

On the one hand, I’m loath to add another new form of communication to my life. After all, blogging is only something I’ve been doing for a bit over a year.

On the other hand, as I argue in a commentary about blogs that I’m hoping will be published in the next couple of months (in paper format—as it is aimed at people still skeptical about online writing), things change so fast in the digital world that we need to reckon time like dog years these days, which means it’s already been about a decade since I embraced the blogging life. In addition, Rebecca MacKinnon and Jeremy Goldkorn, two of the people whose views on such matters I value most highly, have just made good cases for giving Twitter its due.

I learned of Rebecca’s views via that most old-fashioned of communication formats, a face-to-face conversation (admittedly illustrated by show and tell on her laptop) we had at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong earlier this week before taking the stage together for a public dialogue on blogs (more about that in a later post perhaps). She described the way that (as a reader) "tweets" by others can help her get a sense of what’s happening on the ground in China, while (as a writer) her twittering can assist others who strive to stay up to date on various things (even where and when events she's involved in like our Literary Festival gig are taking place).

I learned of Jeremy’s take in a more high-tech way: by reading his website (one that I keep up with via an RSS feed, a wonderfully useful method for staying abreast of Danwei or for that matter China Beat, which as many but not all people reading this know isn’t hard to set up at all via Google Reader). He claimed Twitter was perfect for haiku-like mini-reviews of “really bad books,” using this tweet to illustrate his point: “Just finished ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Nicholas Talib. What an unpleasant man the author is.”

Well, surely Twitter could be just as useful for comparable reviews of “really good books,” which could be praised via shorthand references that you assumed people who followed your “tweets” would get (even if others might find them hopelessly elliptical or enigmatic). If that is the case, it would have been nice to have been a fully hooked up wannabe member of the Twitterati yesterday. I’d have composed this tweet on the plane en route home from Hong Kong and sent it out immediately upon arriving in San Francisco: “Just finished ‘China Underground’ by Zachary Mexico. Think Zhu Wen meets Warren Zevon, dark, funny, different, compulsively enjoyable, informative read.”

Well, I haven’t made the jump to Twitter, but I do want to get my take on China Underground out there right away—if for no other reason than to encourage CB readers lucky enough to be in Shanghai for the final weekend of the city’s International Literary Festival (that I had a great time being part of at its midpoint) to go hear Mexico tell some of his wild true-life tales. So, I’ll do so via the once-new but now so-last-month format of a blog post. I will have more to say about my brief though event-packed time in Shanghai and Hong Kong (a 7 day stretch during which I gave 7 talks and did 5 interviews, including one with a roomful of Chinese journalists asking questions about Global Shanghai and my thoughts about the 2010 Expo). I might also, later on, give some details about how I ended up with China Underground (and very suitably Zhu Wen’s I Love Dollars) as my post-Shanghai reading material (and what I read when heading to Shanghai). For the moment, however, I’ll just say a bit more about Zachary Mexico’s book.

I want to stress that, as the title of this post indicates, I liked it in spite of myself. I certainly didn’t want to be swept away by it. I actually was kind of hoping I’d hate it, so that I could have the fun of writing a harsh review of something for a change (after turning out a string of positive takes on books by journalists lately for periodicals such as Newsweek and Foreign Policy). So even though Paul French of the invaluable Access Asia website raved about it to me ("it's really special"), I began the book skeptically, especially after reading an “Introduction” that talked of the author’s admiration of Peter Hessler (an excellent writer to have as a model but a very hard one to emulate successfully) and a back cover that told me one chapter by the young American looking at “the diverse characters and subcultures” of today’s China would be an interview with a prostitute (something that is hardly a breakthrough given that comparable interviews show up in lots of recent books by Westerners as well as Sang Ye’s wonderful China Candid).

[Full disclosure: in a funny way, the fact that French had plugged the book to me gave me an added reason to hope I wouldn't like it. We've become friends, but Paul's lately been chiding me in online comments, generally in the nicest possible way of course, about my or my fellow China Beatniks being insufficiently cynical about some things and people he thinks deserve to be looked at through less rosy lenses, from the upcoming Shanghai World Expo to Emily Hahn. So I thought it might be particularly enjoyable to write a caustic review of China Underground that took him to task as its champion for being insufficiently cynical himself.]

Yet, by the time I finished the opening chapter (“The Peasant Who Likes to Take Pictures”) on the flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong, I found myself frustratingly enthralled. And when I reached Chapter 6 (“The Uighur Jimi Hendrix”) early in course of the flight to the States a couple of days later, I stopped fighting the book and gave in to its many charms. It is not without flaws (occasional small bits of repetition, some references to Chinese history that are smart but a bit too broad-brush for my tastes, etc.), but there’s no question that Mexico is a brash and compelling new voice in English language writing on China, and that his first book takes us into some of the many worlds within worlds that make up the PRC today (including that of people hooked on role playing games and that of Wuhan's distinctive punk scene) that other books in English just don't.

Reviewers in the U.S. will surely liken his approach to that of New Journalists like Hunter S. Thompson, thanks in part to the role that sex, drugs and rock-and-roll play in his often hallucinatory true-life stories (some of the very things that brought the late “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” songwriter Warren Zevon’s creations as well as those of Tom Waits to mind as I read the book), but the way it complements and resonates with the work of certain mostly post-Cultural Revolution or even post-Tiananmen generation Chinese authors and film-makers (not just the aforementioned Zhu Wen and Sang Ye but also Jia Zhangke, who gets alluded to in passing in the book, and Mian Mian, who gets thanked in it) is even more important.

If I Twittered, maybe I'd have actually done an early tweet saying something like "Reading 'China Underground,' at Paul French's suggestion, expecting to be underwhelmed," in which case I'd have to have added a final clause to the tweet I described above, not just noting the book's Warren Zevon-meets-Zhu Wen punch but also saying simply: "Hate to admit it; Paul was right."


jana said...

Just for fun, I tweeted your review:

@janaremy Twitter Book Review (or not) @chinabeat: http://tinyurl.com/d22hj5


zachary mexico said...

Thanks a lot. I love your site. Long time reader.

Z. Mexico

Jeff Wasserstrom said...

Thanks for tweeting the review, Jana, and very glad to hear you like our site, Zachary--though be warned, statements like that from people with fresh perspectives like yours tend to lead to invitations to contribute to China Beat! I'm just sorry our gigs at the Shanghai Lit Festival were on different weekends. Here's hoping that isn't the case next time we're both on the program--and that your proposed nickname for Chengdu residents (Chengdudes) catches on. For others following this comment trail, you can get a feel for what some China Underground chapters are like (and also simply see some cool visuals) by going to this site:
http://current.com/search/0.htm?s=on&v=on&r=off&q=raskin&x=0&y=0 .

zachary mexico said...

Jeff. I'd love to contribute something in future.

For those of you on twitter: I'm at @zacharymexico

Paul French said...

I still hate Zachary for being young and handsome though. It's just not fair!

zachary mexico said...

Hey Paul, meet me in the alley behind Jing An Temple at 543 AM tomorrow. Love love wink wink.

(Actually: thanks for the kind words. See you in a few hours?)


Anonymous said...

It seems to me, Mr. Wasserstrom, that you have finally retired your scholar's robes and are now primarily a highly credentialed journalist-blogger. One wishes that you had left the easy stuff to amateurs such as Jeremy Goldcorn (who actually produces very little) and Paul French (a bit more).