Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lost on Planet China -- J. Marteen Troost


This may prove difficult for me to write as I have been in love with this author, and I am a little disappointed in him at the moment. He let me down.


I’ve written about J. Maarten Troost’s first two novels with passion and excitement. I urged the masses to run to the nearest bookstore and buy Getting Stoned with Savages (2006) and The Sex Lives of Cannibals (2004). I even excitedly ordered his third book, Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Living Squid (2008). I waited to read the book because his other two works had been such a laugh-out loud fantastic read that I wanted to save his third attempt for when I needed a read that would make me smile. Unfortunately, Troost did not do for China what he did for the South Pacific. His words made me angry. I don’t know if it’s the fact he is married with two kids now, in his mid-thirties, or if he really is a culturally blind as this book makes him seem, but the way he talked about China made me want to yell at him.


I suppose my intense reaction could be due to the fact that I have lived in Asia and my experiences in Southeast Asia mirror many of the experiences he had in his 3 months spent in China. But I loved Asia. Yes, Bangkok is very polluted and crowded – driving there is a real bitch – and the modes of transportation and their bathrooms leave much to be desired. Based on his descriptions, China is very similar, though I will admit the pollution and traffic are probably worse. Yes, tonal languages are INSANELY difficult to master; I feel your pain, Troost. And I will say that there are places in Thailand where you can escape the hustle and bustle of a city inundated with western influences and karaoke bars; apparently China is lacking in this. So maybe I’m pissed off because he doesn’t seem to even try to understand China or enjoy his stay. I know people, tall white people, who lived in China and loved every moment of it. They weren’t blind to the obviously glaring concerns, but they also weren’t blind to the wonders of this Asian world. Troost seems to have missed the ball on this one. He should call this novel: “SOS – Lost on Planet China – The Story of One Man Bitching and Moaning his Way Across the World’s Most Mystifying Nation.”


Another issue I took with this work is how he seems to be force feeding a history lesson. History is important and, for a book like this, necessary; however, Troost seems to just want to increase his page count. Additionally, I have read some reviews that claim his facts are inaccurate. (One such a “fact” was his confident assertion that no one alive in China still has bound feet. A quick Google search indicates otherwise. If he meant that no one in China currently practices foot binding, he would be correct, but that is NOT what he writes.) He also constantly reminds the reader of his previous two books, the fact he is a writer, and his time of the South Pacific. I think success has destroyed him; he has lost his touch and become what appears to be a white privileged, conceited old man. Yes, 35 is OLD if you’re going to bitch and moan about every single blasted thing.


He opens the memoir/travelogue with an interesting piece on how Mormons and Chinese businessmen are everywhere. (I can support this argument. Except for the interesting fact that Mormons are not in China – which I don’t believe Troost actually acknowledges at any point. I would think that would be an interesting fact to work into his argument, but alas.)


He does still have a way with telling a story, I just wish he wasn’t so bitter about China. Some of his stories made me chuckle, a bit begrudgingly as I was/am annoyed with the work overall, and some of his descriptions are simply well done. Below is such a description from Lhasa.


“The late-afternoon light was ethereal, a darkening blue, but the mountains flared with sunlight. If Mars had been colonized by Buddhists, it would look like this” (287).


The story that had me chuckling the most was when he went to the pharmacy in an attempt to find lip balm. The high altitude had dried his lips and he was in desperate need of some Chap Stick.


“In the morning, when I awoke, the mountains were dusted with snow. But the air was very dry, dry enough to elicit the need for lip balm. I’d never felt the need for lip balm before. I am not a lip balm man. But here, up here, way up here, I had a need, and so I wandered into a Chinese pharmacy. The attendants were dressed all in white, as if this were a sanatorium, or possibly a lunatic asylum. I mimed what I needed and she understood completely. I was in need of a skin-whitening cream for hands” (288).


Now Troost goes on to complain about the Asian desire for white skin, which I also experienced in Thailand, but that’s not what struck me about his story. One of the few times I went into a pharmacy in Thailand was after a pretty bad motorcycle wreck on the way to Pai. I don’t even know what town we were in, but Budge and I set off to get bandages and medicine for Loren. A Thai pharmacy is apparently very similar to a Chinese one; all the attendants were dressed in white and we mimed what we needed, she pointed us to birth control. Like Troost, we eventually found what we needed. The difference between me and Troost is that I didn’t bitch about the misunderstanding. (And Loren healed up quite nicely.) I will say this novel makes me even more desirous of writing my Thailand story – though I’m not sure that I still want Troost to write my blurb.

Troost finally loves China and longs for her embrace, but only after the motor on the boat dies just 6 feet from North Korea soil and as much as he hates China, he is pretty sure he’ll hate North Korea more. And that is how the novel ends, with Troost begging China to save him from North Korea.


Troost is currently working on a book about India. In a recent interview, he clearly stated he did not like China but loved India, so maybe that book will bring back the writer I enjoy.
On a final note, I did thoroughly enjoy his jabs against Dan Brown’s novels.