Arthur Meursault is the author of the dark comedy Party Members (due out in August). Set in the fictional Chinese city of Huaishi, it follows the exploits of Yang Wei, a mid-level government official led astray by greed and corruption.
Meursault left his native England as a teenager, throwing himself into the zeitgeist of China in the 2000s. He quickly became fluent in Mandarin, so much so that it earned him appearances on Chinese national television. With over seventeen years of China experience, he has a deep understanding of the country but a faded passion. Now he has decided to share his views in a novel that he isn’t expecting to be shortlisted for the Communist Party’s Book of the Month Club.
What first drew you to Chinese culture and made you want to study the language?
I’ve analysed myself and thought about this a lot over the years and I’ve reached the conclusion that it was just pure escapism. I was born in a rough and impoverished area of northern England that would be termed as “working-class” if anybody was still working. Either through a milk deficiency or some genetic throwback to a more effete ancestor, I was a little bit too soft, too small and too sensitive to really fit into that type of environment. When you’re a teenager growing up in that kind of area it’s natural to seek somewhere far away to escape to and “prove yourself”. In retrospect, it could have been anywhere – I might have developed a teenage obsession with Russia and be now speaking to you about my book set in Vladivostok – but China for one reason or another was the one I set my sights on. I quickly grew obsessed with the place and moved there as soon as I left school. If a lot of people are honest with themselves, a large percentage of young people in Asia are there for the same reason. If I’d been bigger and better-looking as a teen then some kind soul might have agreed to sleep with me and I probably would have stayed at home and got a job in a supermarket instead.
Did you enjoy your time in China?
This relates to the reasons for originally going to China. At first China is great for those lost souls who want to feel “different” and “special”: standing out from the crowd and the superficial false praise that the Chinese are so very good at doling out can fuel a wounded ego for ages. I had a great time for several years but was woefully naive: there are even videos of me on the internet of when I threw myself into Chinese Opera for a couple of years and won a national contest. I’d love to go back in time and punch my previous dancing monkey self right in his painted face. However, gradually as I matured and tried to do more than just get patronising pats on the head, I realised that the “specialness” and “difference” were not only false but a double-edged sword and that trying to be accepted for purely who you are is impossible as a foreigner in China. The disappointment and resentment kicks in soon after that. Learning the language well only exasperates the problem. It’s all downhill from there.
What was the inspiration for Party Members?
At one point I had an idea for a book called “China has Many Hells” that was going to be a Catch-22 type book featuring a gazillion characters, all miserable in their unique way. I wrote a few scenes and one of the ones I wrote was about an obnoxious Chinese dinner party where the guests are constantly trying to one-up one another with their latest iPhones. I’ve been in that situation in real life more times than I care to count and I didn’t even have an iPhone. Anyway, I enjoyed that scene so much that I wrote more and more into it, until I decided to just run with that story and dump the original idea for “China has Many Hells”.
The book is also heavily inspired by the obscure 1980s British comedy film starring Richard E. Grant called How to Get Ahead in Advertising. I might as well say that now before someone on Goodreads realises and awards me only one star.
To what extent are Yang Wei, Rainy, Pangpang and other characters based on real-life people?
They’re all based on real people, though only Pangpang is based on a single individual while Yang Wei and Rainy are composites. Yang Wei is basically a composite of every single nasty small-minded little person I ever met in China rolled into one. You can find him in every city in every province in China. Next time you read a news story about some corrupt official: that’s Yang Wei. Ditto for Rainy, but female.
Pangpang was a real life guy who worked at a factory in Shandong. He was a sales coordinator and terrible at his job. The guy was the fattest Chinese man I have ever met in my life: he could had been his own Special Administrative Region. At first I thought he was clumsy and likeable as he was always bullied remorselessly at the factory, but I later learnt he was also very corrupt and greedy, albeit not very competently. I actually got him fired when he stole a digital camera from my house and asked me for US$5,000 to give it back. The camera was probably only worth $200. After he was fired, he telephoned me once at 2am to invite me to a “party” at some bar on the outskirts of town. I politely declined. He then got a job in a pizza shop. I think he was much happier then.
How did you decide on names for your main characters?
Without revealing some of the twists in the book, it’s very important to know that Yang Wei’s name means “impotence”. When the book begins he is an impotent figure with no power over his own destiny: his rage stems from that fact.
Nobody gets any prizes for guessing why the fat character is called Pangpang.
Rainy is an interesting character (Christ, the narcissism of saying your own creations are “interesting”) and her name went through some changes. At first she was called Little Jade, which is a fairly common name throughout China. However, during the editing process I stumbled across a section on Reddit called the China Circle Jerk (or CCJ for short). I found it absolutely hilarious, especially their running jokes about stereotypical naive young Chinese girls who they would call “Rainy”. This was a much much better name than Little Jade, so Rainy got a makeover.
A description of a “Rainy” girl from the CCJ:
let’s be clear, it’s not just poor English that constitutes a rainy, it’s the meandering thoughts that go nowhere and a preoccupation with the lives of laowai and how they might be ensnared into marriage that’s a hallmark of rainy behavior.
Rainy has just enough self-awareness to know how odd her behavior is (“maybe there are some persons thought me is a crazy girl”) but she rationalizes it away. Fueled by all the bullshit expats have told her about life back home, she’ll do anything to get that ticket to waiguo, husband in tow and mix baby on the way.
The novel is set in a “third-tier city.” What does this mean?
A third-tier city has a KFC, but no McDonalds. It will also have a branch of Dicos. There won’t be a Starbucks, but there will be knock-offs like Moonbucks or elaborately designed independent coffee shops that serve Blue Mountain coffee for 88 RMB and are AWFUL. Everybody will say that the city is “very world-famous” for a certain dish that you’ve never heard of and on inspection resembles a smashed clam. There will be four foreigners living in the city. All four will be English teachers, and at least three of them will be alcoholics. Somewhere in the centre of town will be a “Tourist Heritage Site” of a Ming Dynasty temple that was built in 2007.
Is the city of Huaishi based on a real place?
Oh, hell yes. It’s an amalgamation of two cities in Shandong Province that I spent a lot of time in: Linyi and Dezhou. Eagle-eyed readers might recognise the braised chicken that Huaishi claims as its specialty dish to be one and the same as Dezhou’s “Paji” chicken dish. Linyi is the main influence though. Wikipedia tells me that every year Linyi produces three million tons of compound fertilisers, which should tell you how shit it is. When I was in Linyi it really was a shining example of the worst of Chinese society: there was a scandal involving women being forced into undergoing unwanted abortions that resulted in the human rights activist Chen Guangcheng getting jailed. I used to get plainclothes policemen following me in case I was an undercover journalist. I would ask them for cigarettes when I was short.
It’s rare to get such accomplished writing in a first novel. Had you done much writing before Party Members?
Good Lord, what delicious flattery. Thank you. I’ve had blogs in the mid-2000s, which were fairly popular (Yellow Wings and Sinocidal) and I wrote for a few expat rags, though I wouldn’t call paid advertorials for all-you-can-eat buffets at the Hangzhou Marriott proper journalism. I wanted to be a journalist for many years, but soon realised I wasn’t middle-class enough and couldn’t afford to intern for a decade. I seem to remember winning a national youth writing contest in the UK back when I was a teenager. It was a short story about a homosexual in World War One. No wonder I was bullied.
Party Members is a hard book to fit into a genre. How would you categorize it?
There was a wonderful article recently by a Chinese author called Ning Ken which called for a new literary genre in China called the “Ultra-Unreal”. I think that description fits the book perfectly: honest descriptions of a crazy society that would be considered unreal in other countries. You can read more on it here.
Personally, I like to think of my book as a kind of horror. When you think about everything that’s in the book – rape, murder, corruption – there’s no other way of classifying it other than horror. I do throw quite a few jokes in though, so I suppose “Dark Comedy” is more apt. Oh, there’s a talking penis too, so maybe it should be “Dark Comic Fantasy”.
The book cover is outstanding. Can you tell us something about it?
It’s great, isn’t it? Even if you don’t like my writing, you should still buy the book for the cover art. How’s that for a sales tactic? It’s by the dissident Chinese artist Badiucao, who is based in Australia and features his unique subversive style. I’m wondering who will get kidnapped first and dragged back to China to read a forced confession: him or me? I hope it’s not me; I’ve already booked a holiday to the Maldives for next year and getting kidnapped will be extremely inconvenient.
What messages do you hope readers will come away with?
Let’s be honest: not everybody is going to like this book, and I’m not just talking Chinese. When I was trying to get the book published it was shown to somebody quite senior in a large publishing house who dismissed it as a “rape fantasy” (even though there’s only one rape in the book at the very end, and she didn’t know that).
I hope that people will appreciate that the book is a criticism of certain elements of China and the Chinese and not meant as a diatribe against an entire people. I didn’t write Party Members in a Munich cell after a failed beer hall putsch (that’s my next book). I want people to be angry and horrified after reading the book. It’s pretty relentless, I admit that, but that’s why there’s also a lot of humour in the book too. There is absurdity in many many things about China and its system. Most of all I hope that readers will agree with me that unchecked greed can only end in one result: death and destruction.
Party Members is a damning indictment of the corruption and greed in China. Is that your personal take on China?
Absolutely. Anybody who says otherwise is either a liar or a journalist for The Economist. In fairness, some of the greed is due to historical circumstances and a pendulum swing-back from the austerity of the full-on Communist years, but there is a Chinese tendency towards greed and vulgar displays of wealth. I don’t begrudge people taking the capitalist road and earning as much money as possible, but more often than not in China that money is accumulated through corrupt means. Any honest person just gets stamped down.
Your book is extremely controversial. Are you afraid of any personal repercussions?
I wouldn’t mind a bit of excitement in my personal life: it can’t be any worse than going to the same office for 12 hours every day. Being kidnapped and placed under house arrest holds a certain appeal as it’ll give me time to write my next book. Salman Rushdie’s career only really took off after the fatwa and I’d love to be invited to all those posh literary parties with canapés and fizzy wine. However, friends, family and my publisher disagreed, which is why I keep a low profile and use a pseudonym. Still, getting my book to a stage where there are personal repercussions will at least mean it’s been a success, so I guess it’s a mixed bag. Hopefully Xi Jinping holds a rally to burn the book in cities across China. I don’t mind as long as they buy the book first. Oh shit, it’s China, they’ll be burning pirated PDFs of the book instead. Damn.
Why did you choose the name Arthur Meursault as your pseudonym?
Meursault was the name I used to use when blogging and commenting on blogs back in the mid-2000s. As mentioned earlier, I have a bit of a soft, sensitive side so I quite like French existential literature. Meursault comes from the Camus novel L’etranger (The Outsider) and it is one of my favourite books. I’ve occasionally seen it translated into Chinese as 外人. That’s only a single character away from 外国人 (foreigner) and an apt description on how I felt about my status in China. Hence, Meursault was born. Also, I once shot an Arab dead on an Algerian beach. That’s a literary joke by the way; please don’t report me to Interpol.
There are passages of Party Members which reminded me of Lu Xun. Are you a fan of his writing?
Very much so. I’m prone to cynical and nihilistic thoughts and I appreciate the darkness in Lu Xun’s work. His Diary of a Madman is one of the finest pieces ever written about China, and borrowed heavily from the 19th century Russian literature that I think represents some of the greatest literature ever created. I also have a soft spot for his last collection of short stories – Wild Grass – when he basically gave up on trying to raise political points and instead wrote these wonderfully misanthropic poems and stories full of total poetic despair.
What are some of your favorite fiction titles?
As much as I consider the French a country of degenerate cheese-eating poseurs, I love their literature. L’etranger by Camus, Mémoires d’un fou by Flaubert and Houellebecq’s Platform and The Possibility of an Island.
Any recommendations for China books?
Anybody who has an interest in China should at some point read Ralph Townsend’s Ways That Are Dark. It was written in the 1930s by an American diplomat in China and is the most shocking and damning account of China ever written. It’s over-the-top in many many ways and undeniably has some racist undertones; however, it is written in this beautiful flowing prose that modern writers just can’t emulate. His whole account of what he thinks of China is relentlessly dark: it reads almost like an example of Lovecraftian cosmic horror when he despairs over the futility of hope. It chokes you.
On a lighter note, I got much joy as a teenager reading the Kai Lung books written by Ernest Bramah at the end of the 19th century. They were collections of short stories set in Imperial China as related by a wandering storyteller. They’re largely forgotten now, which is a crying shame, as they were creative, funny, whimsical and had a unique way of portraying the classical Chinese language into English that I’ve never seen bettered.
Who are your favorite authors?
I’m the complete opposite of a modern-day US university course on English literature in that I generally like my authors dead, white and male. I devour classics. At one point in my life I refused to read anything by anybody who wasn’t dead by 1935. I’ve softened on that stance since then though. Party Members has some obvious inspiration from Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. H.P. Lovecraft never ceases to amaze me, though if I had to choose a favourite living writer it would either be Thomas Ligotti or Michel Houellebecq.
You have a blog (arthurmeursault.com) with some rather incendiary posts. Can you tell us something about it?
It’s a mix of some of my old and new writings on China, but primarily a vehicle to flog a few extra books. I don’t take it very seriously, except when I’m taking down CCP apologists like Mark Zuckerberg. Then I really put the boot in. The primary purpose is to entertain, so readers shouldn’t take anything on there too seriously. I’d rather write jokes than facts: I wish I could be a TV sitcom writer in Hollywood but I don’t know enough Yiddish slang. Occasionally I write book reviews of other China-focused book where I drop the sarcastic tone. I expect at some point I’ll run out of things to say about China and then I’ll either stop blogging or write about other things that interest me like 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoons or sniffing glue.
Your blog has a series of Yang Wei cartoons. How do these fit in with the novel?
They’re not connected in any way at all to the book except featuring the main character Yang Wei. Obviously, he’s more two-dimensional and cartoonish in the cartoons, plus he hasn’t undergone the transformation yet that happens to him in the book. And on that bombshell, it’s time for me to conclude this interview. Good night.