Book Review: The Exact Unknown

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Isham Cook is quite the blogger. The mysterious Beijing-based writer has completed a new book of blogs reformatted as literary short tales entitled “The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China,” a follow-up to 2012’s novel “Lust & Philosophy.” Full of grotesque universal truths, strange depictions of Eastern modernity, and the proverbial expats caught in the middle, the book can be flawed in sections but is always a compelling read.

In the introduction Cook explains to readers that he doesn’t want to write about the exotic, tragic China so popularized by fifth generation art films of the 80s and 90s. But rather, as the title states, it’s about modern China. He also clarifies why he uses the term ‘tale’ instead of short story, in order to have a broader outlook covering all aspects of writing from the semi-autobiographical to straight fiction.

The book is erotic, funny, and sometimes profound. Sexuality is a central theme, but doesn’t always take itself too seriously. Even the most philosophical elements are never dry or academic, but with just the right amount of absurdity to entertain as well as enlighten.

“The Persistent” is first, jumping us right into the subject of dating in China. The tale concerns an obsessive woman who won’t go away, and the narrator describes more than a few of his own experiences with Chinese women. The stalkers, the 30-somethings, the virgins. The line “foreign men in this country do tend to attract the psychos of the female population” sums up well what much of these tales are about.  As does a subsequent sentence, issuing no judgments: “This is not necessarily a bad thing.” That’s a bit of the point, wild things happen in China and that’s the reason to be there.

The namesake “The Exact Unknown” concerns seduction via vodka massage, the Surveillance State, a plot about blackmailing over a video which may or may not exist, and in a literally-anticlimactic ending it concludes with no sex. It could almost enter the realm of Philip K. Dick over the speculations upon reality, but ends too prematurely for that kind of depth.

“iProstitution” is one of the funniest pieces, ostensibly about the selling of one’s body for Apple products but really more about sexual frustration in general. “A Little Accident” is refreshingly not about foreigners at all, an original short story just concerning Chinese characters. Again portraying reality as ambiguous, it concerns an elderly man who may or may not be cheating a young woman (and/or doctors cheating her) and the subject of Chinese Medicine which may or may not work at all.

“Good Teacher, Bad Teacher” takes the oft-used campus setting as far as it can go, with an intense Western teacher expounding upon philosophy and culminates in mysterious naked yoga massage advanced courses. There is the unresolved mystery of “Paradox,” whereas an interesting premise is set up with mysterious nude pictures of students emerging yet in the end there is never is a true explanation, no resolution.

“The Curious Benefits of Neurosis” is about various massages, some of which get quite graphic. And hilarious at the same time! The first-person narratives are often the strongest, and (so one assumes) the closest to autobiography.

Some tales like not much of narratives at all. “The Mean and the Angry” is not so much a story as a description of various Beijing subway archetypes. At times it seems as insider knowledge of Beijing is required, and if a reader is not familiar with greater Middle Kingdom tropes then the whole thing may be hard to follow. Still, the audience is sure to mostly consist of expats.

“Let the Sunshine In” is among the best, a truly engaging work of drug literature about a naïve Chinese student’s first LSD experience. Very vivid descriptions of a bathroom setting, which tends to be a terrifying and confusing place when having a bad psychedelic trip. Not to mention the chronological distortions at play.

Two tales are written in play script formats are used, with “The Hickey” and the penultimate “Reset.” They read well as prose in of themselves. It’s hard to expect that anyone will ever act out the plays in real life, with the copious nudity and sex scenes and all; but it’s nice to imagine. “Reset” is the longest piece in the book, about sentient robotic sex toys. The tale is extremely philosophical, hard science fiction, and well-written social commentary/speculation on the future of China and all humanity’s sexual relationships.

The final story, “Injaculation” is written in the second person and mixes Taoist sexuality with hard scientific biological-psychedelic principles. There is a diverse range of writing styles, but same themes keep coming up…

The author clearly has a vivid imagination, and is talented at the craft of writing. Still, whether semi-autobiographical or not, it would be nice to not lean so often on the cliché of expat teacher in China. There are expats doing other things, and maybe more Chinese protagonists would be nice. While the setting is something that Cook is truly an expert on, and he really writes about it compellingly, it can get repetitive. Let’s hope Cook’s next book takes up more original territory. I for one am extremely anxious to read more.

Isham Cook’s blog can be seen at Ishamcook.com and the Exact Unknown is available on Amazon.com.

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