Equanimity: Dan Noyes on Robert Masterson’s Artificial Rats and Electric Cats

Artificial Rats and Electric Cats: Communications from Transitional China, 1985-1986, Robert Masterson, Camber Press, 2009

Robert Masterson lived in a unique time and place-Xian, China in 1985-1986. He was there to teach English. That year Xian had a kind of Wild West flavor to it. Maoism, with its commissars, cadres, informants, military might and policemen was crumbling and a kind of vacuum opened up that hustlers and black market profiteers filled. Add to this a population of Han Chinese, Chinese Muslims, ordinary city dwellers, foreigners, Chinese army patrols, condemned prisoners and earnest Chinese college students and you get the rich mix that Masterson evokes in this book. Foreign tourists in China in this era were rare.

He writes of making friends in this passage:

We began to make friends among the other foreigners at other schools and also among the Chinese themselves, those bold enough, foolish enough, or desperate enough to risk association with Westerners. We spent our evenings inside the city walls within the fetal Xian nightlife at clubs called Art Salon or Peace Cafe or Friendship Gardens.

In the book the participants find themselves in settings where their dialogue reveals uncertainty, miscommunication, and the gaps between cultures as in this passage:

The relative high ground of a village somewhere to the northwest of Xian seemed a good place to rest. We leaned our bicycles, wheels heavy and caked with plastic mire, against a loess-block wall and stretched out in the warm sun, rubber boots heavy and caked, a crazy pattern of corn webbed above us.
Soon, as we knew they would, they came. First, an old man in a ragged blue Mao suit, he was wearing agate sunglasses and smoking a thimble-bowled pipe. He stood before us, puffed twice on the pipe, and rocked on his heels.

“Ni hau, laodz [Hi, old guy],” somebody said and his lucky, bushy eyebrows rose behind his stone lenses in surprise to hear us speak human-being speech.

He raised his right hand in a gesture much like a royal or beauty-queen wave.

“Hhh,” he glottalled at us. “Hhh.”

The conversation with the old man continues and the old man says the same ‘Hhh’ to every question. The effect is humorous, touching and illustrative of the culture gap between the visiting teachers and the locals. And the passage, like everything in the book, summons the place, the people, the landscape, and the feel of that place in that transitional time. Indeed the soul of the place is captured.

Masterson’s eye for detail, deftness with language and sense of capturing the instant in all of its complexities is revealed here in A Long, Slow Ride Through Town on the Way to the River to Get Her Brains Blown Out:
For a moment much longer than a mere instant, I felt the bonds of eye contact with one of the convicted. She looked young, certainly no older than mid-twenties. A roly-poly criminal, a moon-faced dumpling-girl in a pink quilted jacket with unraveling pigtails. Her acne was a red mask down her forehead and beneath her eye… The truck carrying the convicted slowed to lurch through deep potholes at the intersection. The placard around her neck announced her crimes: excessive fascination with foreign videos, prostitution…
Our eyes clicked together, she with her wrists bound and riding in the back of one the People’s Liberation Army trucks under machine gun-armed escort to her execution and I enjoying a lukewarm Xian Beer with my one-eighth kilo bowl of noodles at the roadside shack the foreigners called Jiaozi Hut. She seemed to hold herself only vaguely erect, but I saw her still register some surprise when she saw me. It was as if somewhere still inside her, some country-girl, pre-western video, pre-prostitution part of herself was still able to exclaim, “Oh, look! A foreigner! A yangguizi!”
Masterson is a great writer who describes as a journalist and writes with the rich nuances of a poet. In an interview with Red River Writers Masterson stated ‘I want to give a voice to the voiceless.’ He was speaking of his work as a journalist but he does that in this book as well. The ordinary person–the bureaucrat trying to get his wife pregnant, the condemned prostitute, the café owner and others–are masterfully and richly presented and ,often, with a delicate humor.

The most dramatic event in the book-the vicious and unprovoked beating of the author by a xenophobic mob closes the book. Masterson does not write it either—it is the AP story reproduced here as reported in 1986. The beating has drama, violence, and the miracle of survival. Yet Masterson does not elaborate on this terrible event—he lets the AP story explain it. The structure of the book that alternates prose and poetic passages with footnotes is compelling indeed and creates a kind of cinematic flavor for the book.

Robert Masterson has been writing for more than twenty years. He has had his work published in an array of publications and knows a great deal about technique. Yet he writes with a kind of innocence and clarity and the book has a freshness to it. Simultaneously he writes about the subject matter, the mind of the narrator, the craft of the story, and the myriad themes of life and survival in transitional China. He gets out of the way of all of this too. Don’t ask me how he does that.

The book’s effect is one of equanimity. He sees all, tells all and celebrates all with a journalist’s eye and a poet’s heart. His writing in the genres of journalism, horror, poetry, essay and humor all combine into a rich experience. This is a hip Asian stew with lots of flavor, surprises and soul that leaves the reader grateful and enriched. I picked up the book and could not put it down. Do yourself a favor and check it out.


Dan Noyes currently lives in New Mexico after being chased out of Nevada. He is an artist and you can see his work at http://newgroundsprintshop.com/members/active/noyes/noyes.htm. His writing has also appeared in ‘Printmakers Remember 9/11’ and ‘Vietnam Mandala’.