For my last book of the week in 2012, I’ve chosen Isham Cook’s recent novel, Lust & Philosophy (CreateSpace, 2012). While the title is self-explanatory, the story is complex and mainly set in Beijing, but also in Chicago, Edmonton, Amsterdam, and parts of England and Germany.
It’s obvious from the beginning that the protagonist, also named Isham Cook, is anything but the stereotypical North American in China. Interspersed between Cook’s determination to meet a mysterious Chinese woman on his university campus, he delves into the second part of the book’s title: philosophy.
He discusses all types of literature, from the Bible to Shakespeare to the Marquis de Sade and Yukio Mishima. He flashes back–or is it forward?–to a love triangle with two Chinese women. Luna is Chinese but born and raised in Africa. As self-assured as we find the protagonist Cook, Luna is even more free-spririted. There are no boundaries for Luna. Adalat, her friend, on the other hand, is Uighur with more traditional mores.
Cook breaks for a backstory flashback about halfway into the novel. His troubled childhood is punctuated by a crazy stepfather, not unlike Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield. Cook’s family moves to Germany for his stepfather’s sabbatical. Before the year is over, Joe the stepfather has kicked Cook out of their family, which sends the protagonist on a quest that lands him in Canada, and later Chicago.
As a Chicago native, I found his critique of the academic community to be spot on. At one point, Cook is in his favorite coffee shop, Intelligentsia, on the north side, and is amazed to see a professor walk in to the cafe and take a seat across from a homeless man. But as it turns out, the professor is so in his own world that he doesn’t realize his table companion is a bum. My father taught at DePaul, where the character Cook was an adjunct professor. The author Cook gets the environment there, but even better, the wackiness that is the University of Chicago (I worked there for a few years).
He returns to the Luna-Adalat-Cook relationship, including a climactic scene on a camping trip on the Great Wall. The almost-final scene, however, is amazing and brings together the different parts of the book in a Kafkan manner. At the end we learn more about the elusive woman on campus. Cook brilliantly brings that all together, too.
I couldn’t put this book down. The story never lulled, and the characters were all sympathetic, except for the stepfather, Joe. This book might not be for everyone, but if you can handle the two terms in the title, then I’d say go for it.