Rock Paper Tiger: A Book About Modern China that Rocks

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Rock Paper Tiger, an up-to-the-minute, kaleidoscopic romp through contemporary China with some side-stops in US-occupied Iraq, is the first novel of Lisa Brackman, already well known as a blogger. She’s also one of my best friends, and I’d been waiting to get my hands on this book for at least half a year. It will officially launch next week, but it’s already for sale here, and you should go right now and order your copy. No matter how good a friend Lisa is, I wouldn’t tell you to do that unless I loved the book. Love is an understatement.

Lisa has done  the impossible: created a taut, breathless thriller that along the way takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through China, the big cities, the smaller cities, the places tourists go and the country’s underbelly. She manages to weave into the narrative an endless stream of details about life in China, what living there actually feels like, such vibrant images you can touch and taste them. In effect, it’s a kind of primer on life in modern-day China, yet it never feels like we’re being lectured or taught. Each image and each description is tightly connected to the story.

Rock Paper Tiger’s plot is complex, with as many twists and turns and borderline cliff-hanger chapter endings as a Dan Brown mystery – only Lisa, unlike Brown, is a great writer.

The hero Ellie Cooper, an Iraq war veteran now living in Beijing, doesn’t know what she’s getting into when she says “Nice to meet you” to a guest at her artist friend’s apartment, Hashim, a Uighur. Hashim is in the book for all of 15 seconds, but it’s this chance and rather meaningless encounter that soon has Ellie running as fast as she can, despite a leg wound she suffered in Iraq, as she’s pursued by American mercenaries and Chinese PSB agents. And others. We never know who to trust or what’s motivating them, and we never know where Ellie’s roller-coaster chase will take us next.

Interspersed with (and related to) the chase are Ellie’s flashbacks to several years back when she served in Iraq. One fateful day she stumbled into a secret prison that bears an uncanny resemblance to Abu Ghraib, but due to a mega-dose of fear and confusion she says nothing, despite her horror and her knowledge something really bad is going on. Does this make her a party to the crime? That’s a question Ellie has to live with.

Another twist: a good portion of the story takes place online, within a video game Ellie must play in order to communicate with friends who – she hopes – can help her figure out what’s going on. The descriptions of this virtual world and the challenges she meets there, like being attacked by a nine-headed, bird are among the most imaginative in the book.

Every scene is jammed with imagery, but never to the point of being cluttered. If you’ve never been to China you may think Lisa is exaggerating. If anything, her descriptions are often understated, and hilarious. Here’s Ellie, trying to hide from her pursuers after she arrives in Chengdu:

I catch a cab outside the train station, take note of the giant statue of Mao with his arm outstretched like he’s directing traffic – or maybe he’s just trying to greet the patrons of the shopping malls and the Starbucks down the street.

I get to the backpackers’ joint, wedged between a hotpot restaurant and a camping-supply store on a narrow lane.

“No baggage?” asks the…clerk? Manager? You can’t call somebody a “concierge” when he’s sitting behind a scarred desk in a beige room containing a bulletin board leprous with notices about treks to Tibet and Jiuzhaigou and dubious job offers to teach English, a pressboard bookcase overflowing with paperbacks, and a pile of backpacks heaped in one corner.

Lisa similarly brings to life aspects of China that many of us take for granted: train travel (hard seats, soft sleepers and hard sleepers), Internet bars, dumpling houses, VPNs, Beijing art colonies, the lifestyle of the nouveau riche, the seedy karaoke bar of a backwater village, the sulfurous air of a coal mining city, the pollution (just about everywhere), the way Chinese people always ask your age and whether you’re married…. For everything she observes (and that’s a lot of things) she comes up with an image, often startling. How can she come up with so many images, and how can they all be this satisfying?  Some new buildings in Beijing, for example, are “glassy high-rises with green Chinese-style roofs perched on top, like somebody put party hats on the heads of awkward giants.”

What impressed me the most is that Lisa does the same with the flashbacks to Iraq – the imagery is just as detailed and precise. She’s been to China many times, but never to Iraq. People who served in Iraq will have a hard time believing Lisa didn’t.

Imagery and style and the thrill are one thing. But those are practically ancillary to what’s at the heart of the story and that is Ellie Cooper’s humanity and essential goodness. She’s been to hell and back (in Iraq), only to be betrayed by her husband in China, and she’s in constant pain – her popping percocets becomes a kind of punctuation of her various circumstances. You have no choice but to admire her.

The book leaves several loose ends loose. The fate of some key characters remains unresolved, and we’re also left wondering whether certain characters are heroes or villains. But that’s okay; the ambiguousness keeps you wondering when the book is over, and maybe that’s partly why you can’t get these people out of your head.

I admit, I had trouble reading the first few chapters of Rock Paper Tiger. The main issue was that I know Lisa, and since the book is written in the first person I kept hearing Lisa’s actual voice doing the narration. Ellie Cooper often speaks in sentence fragments, and she constantly appends the phrase, “I guess” to just about any thought she has. That little voice in my head kept saying, “But Lisa doesn’t talk like this!” Then, after about four chapters Lisa disappeared, Ellie took over, and I succumbed.

I always try to find something to criticize in a book I rave about in order to show “balance.” But I can’t criticize much here. Sometimes I wondered whether readers who know nothing about China might not find some of the images confusing, like a reference to someone wearing a “Cui Jian t-shirt,” and they might get thrown when they see the word “fuwuyuan” (which soon gets defined by context).  And maybe a part of me wanted all of the mysteries explained. Maybe, but not much. (The final episode of Lost last night was far more frustrating in this regard.)

But those aren’t even criticisms. Rock Paper Tiger totally rocks in every way.  It is so intense and trippy, so full of exotic images and astonishing characters who aren’t what you first believe, I kept thinking, “This is perfect material for a movie.” I hope all of you get to read it, but I hope more than anything that some producer somewhere hears about this thriller on steroids and puts it on the screen where it ultimately belongs.

And this is her first novel. I can’t imagine  anyone reading it and not thirsting for the next one.

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