News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Am busy with grad school preparations so I'm putting up some old essays from the original, now defunct website, This puppy was a first attempt at a book review and written on 2003-05-11
The Inscrutable Occidental
A Review of River Town: Two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler

River Town is a good read, but in large part because it is a consciously slick production. The author introduces many quite interesting aspects of life as he saw it in the interior of China, but of equal interest to me was his avoidance of risky material in a scrupulous effort to avoid offending the reader. Generally, this would restrict an author to nothing but cliché, and perhaps the same is the case here. But because Peter Hessler’s clichés are vignettes of ‘foreigner meets contemporary Chinese life’, a genre still quite underrepresented, it comes across as fresh and insightful. Which, in a sense, it genuinely is.

Indeed it took 250 pages before the book bored me, which, if I may be forgiven for saying so, is quite impressive because I seem to become bored far more easily than most people. The boredom set in precisely when the author tried to do what he is manifestly incapable of doing: penetrate established issues and bring fresh insight to bear upon them. But perhaps this a flaw common to most travel writers. Writing successfully for a home audience about home issues means adherence to higher standards of knowledge, argument, and rhetoric for one is writing in a more competitive and established marketplace. For those unacquainted with China, even the dustiest of clichés will be perceived as being fresh, the reader charmed by their apparent novelty, while superficial knowledge and trivia are misunderstood to be the wisdom of the veteran expatriate. Graham Greene made a career out of this. But please don’t be put off: for most of the book, the author delivers information of sufficient novelty and agreeability that I didn’t want to put it down. It is a genuinely good back and one that I think will last. For a while, anyway.

In brief, River Town is exotic due to its understated pictorial descriptions of rural China and somewhat familiar because events are interpreted by a sensitive, transplanted mid-western American who studied at Oxford and uses such terms as ‘sporting.’ And everything is laid out in forms and terms that most readers will understand immediately. In other words, the book provides a middling description of China that lies somewhere between giving the reader something new and nothing new. The downside to this marketing strategy is that the book is never riveting. To be riveting would require taking a position on issues. Unfortunately, all positions are potentially offensive to someone, i.e. some potential customer.

As might be expected, the book is most noteworthy, not because of what happened to Peter Hessler in China but because of what he believes happened to him in China. A book is usually only as interesting as its author, the writer being the prism producing the kaleidoscope of events we see in his work. In this regard, key is Peter Hessler’s passive personality and the clumsy encounters with the locals that he sprinkles the book with; his sensible choice of material with regards as to what to put into the book and, more importantly, what to safely keep out of it (most of unrelenting hostility from some of the locals, and most of the abiding unhappiness and hostility he himself felt during the first several months); his multicultural mindset and unrelenting sympathy for other cultures and the common man in particular; his understanding of people and himself that changes with the passage of time and his increasing fluency in Chinese. Perhaps for me the most interesting aspect of all was the author's apparent complete lack of interest in penetrating beyond the first layer of human psychology and his almost unbelievably superficial understanding of human interaction. His comprehension of what is going on around him is only marginally better than that of non-Chinese speaking Bunt, the straight-up, right-thinking, confused, and ultimately easily manipulated central character of Paul Theroux's Kowloon Tong.

Having said this, I should also say in his favor that he makes a diligent effort to understand that people are indeed a product of their backgrounds and that disparity of income breeds envy and so forth. I just wish he could have done something with this other than to just state it in a manner that sounds almost like a tenet of dogma. Again, this is a good book. It could have been better, but it’s not bad. But perhaps I do protest too much.

After all, it is not easy to make a living by writing books. (For what it’s worth, I have yet to find a publisher of my own work.) This being his first book, perhaps he thought it wise that he confine himself to the readily acceptable. Perhaps the next book will be better. Most likely it will be. One can always hope…

For all of the reasons above, the present book lacks striking passages and quickly slips from the memory. Without trying to be harsh, the book is simply and genuinely quite forgettable. For the first 150 pages it conveys the message that everything in the world is intelligible, that well-meaning individuals are the key to resolving every issue, that everything, when it is reduced to its fundamentals, is simply a matter of being friendly and sympathetic to the other side. Obviously this is a worldview that many of us would question. But, this being a book that plies one with scenes of a new place and people, the cinematic suspension of disbelief launches and critical thinking is adjourned in favor of the pleasure of experiencing this fresh and exciting setting and its folk. For most of the book, you're too drawn in by the understated descriptive passages, the bizarre human interaction, and the passage of odd events in general to really notice.

Having said all of this, I still find it impressive Peter Hessler manipulated and massaged his material to such a smooth outcome. And much of what I have criticized about this book did not strike me until many, many pages into it. So, if it's in the bookstore give it a gander. If you’re in a library, check it out. If you’ve been to China it will certainly bring back memories, even if it might not inspire new ones...
Biff Cappuccino

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