The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China by Isham Cook

The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China

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An American author takes on China in this story collection.

Cook (Massage and the Writer, 2014, etc.) offers a book of “tales,” which he distinguishes from short stories in that they occupy a space between fiction and fact. Each deals with modern China from a non-native perspective, and they range from a strange, sexual Taoist fable (“Injaculation”) to a miniature sci-fi play about sex robots (“Reset”). Even stories that focus on China’s native inhabitants are touched by the author’s status as an outsider, which he highlights throughout the collection. “Writings by and about the East are borrowed instruments of Western pathos, indictments in the name of political correctness, disposal units for our sexual garbage—anything but an honest engagement with the Other,” Cook writes in his introduction. For this reason, he begins with his own lived experience of China, which serves as the base on which he builds his book. The tales handle China and Chinese people very intimately—particularly Chinese women. Many of the protagonists are men engaging sexually with women or women engaging sexually with men (or with themselves). But although a consistent thread of eroticism runs through the book, there are exceptions—notably, the Kafkaesque and weirdly tender “A Little Accident.” Another constant is a Chinese society in flux between communism and capitalism; it seems to have replaced a modular part of itself so that the fanatical devotion to the party of an earlier generation has given way to girls who will gladly trade virginity for the latest iPhone. Cook has a clear affection for the country and manages, for the most part, to avoid the traps of Orientalism, into which many other Westerners writing about China have fallen. He seems particularly entranced by China’s precarious position in the modern world: “The fact things could go either way and no one has the slightest clue what will happen makes China, I believe, the most exciting place to live in and write about today.” Although the tales often feature characters’ sexual proclivities and neuroses, they don’t overshadow the book’s overall point—to tell a few good stories about the way China is now.

A surreal compilation of tales about sex, love, and money in the Far East.

Pub Date: March 13th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0988744530
Page count: 220pp
Publisher: Magic Theater Books
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2015


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