Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ha Jin & the Enigmatic in "The Crazed"

To begin as if I were writing a high school book report: Ha Jin is an author from China. He writes in English, or at least he also writes in English. I know he does / did write in Chinese, as well. I loved Jin's 2005 PEN/Faulkner award winning novel, "War Trash" -- the story of a Chinese soldier interned in a UN coalition prison camp during the Korean War. Once again, a great example of the beautifully executed conflation of history and fiction.

Another I've read is his National Book Award winner, "Waiting," telling the tale of a military doctor who was forced into an arranged marriage by his parents and is unable to secure the divorce he would like because of a traditionalist law requiring the consent of both individuals for its granting, or until a term of 20 years has passed, when one party can petition without the other's consent -- hence, Waiting.

Most recently, I finished Jin's novel "The Crazed." It's the story of Jian Wan, a graduate student at a Chinese university, charged with the task of attending to his ailing professor, who has recently suffered a devastating stroke. From his hospital bed, professor Shenmin Yang begins to utter ludicrous speeches, declares his love for communism and the party effusively, recites poems, and begins to recall various recent life happenings aloud in his dreams, much to the confusion of Jian. No matter the professor's state of mind, his words begin to have a visible effect on Jian's opinions and actions, and dramatically change his world view and jeopardize his future plans, one of which being his engagement to the professor's daughter, Meimei. The time period is the late 1980s, amid the chaos of the unfolding Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent massacre.

One thing I've always liked about Jin's style is his cadence, a kind of natural staccato rhythm that brings to mind the speech patterns of various east Asian non-native English speakers. Not surprisingly, it works very well in describing and depicting the elements of cultural life in China, in a weird way making the traditionalist norms of the Far East seem oddly accessible, if not entirely easy to empathize with. I definitely get the impression Jin is in part putting on display some of the backwards tendencies of a country in flux, be they normative behaviors that don't seem to add up or normative behaviors artificially put in place by the wrongheaded party government. He nicely renders the odd dichotomy of abject poverty in the lives of the peasantry and the -- in effect -- gentrified powers of the communist party elite, living in the more affluent and tech-savvy urban environs.

Jin also does a good job of conveying the stultifying effects of power and the lust for it, which seems to define China's officials in each of his stories I've read, in one form or another. The corrupt behaviors of Secretary Ying Peng showcase this in "The Crazed." Jin in rendering the power of such unscrupulous individuals in "The Crazed," demonstrates at the same time how such power can be confused with pursuit of the good. Jian starts to feel, as a result of his professor's ramblings, that the job of an academic is pointless in Chinese society, merely a pusher of paper with no real ability to ruminate and discourse with absolute freedom. Instead, it is a life no different from any other in the swollen bureaucracy but with the added kick-in-the-teeth of producing nothing of worth, for all its meaningless hoops and games.

As Professor Wang rambles in his stupor, "I tell you, it's no use studying books. Nothing is serious in the academic game, just a play of words and sophistries. There are no original ideas, only platitudes. All depends on how cleverly you can toss out the jargon." Of course this is coming from the standpoint of a Chinese academic, but it just as surely can be applied to every culture, more or less. There must be at all times a fear of saying what's said ad nauseam and to no real effect. I realize I'm modifying the idea slightly by saying this, but what Wang appears to be hitting on, if he's hitting on anything -- a question his deranged state post-stroke requires you to ask -- is there is a party line to be found in any pursuit, in any discipline, and so often we march over those who fail to toe it.

Clannishness abounds, everywhere, a presumable effect of our primitive needs, but to revert to it with out awareness is to reduce thought to merely another kind of instinctual behavior, reactive and reductive, like the base needs of food and water consumption. In other words, it's probably for the greater good that we not be automatons. To Jian, there is no avoiding this fate in academia -- at least as goes the Chinese model. And he rejects it, accordingly. Which, for someone who might want a certain kind of comfortable life, not to get all Matrix-ey, his decision would compromise that desire greatly. So is revealed the coming conflict between Jian and Meimei, who only aspires to live as a doctor and raise a family in Beijing.

In his crazed state, Professor Wang in some ways becomes his most lucid, and implores Jian -- like the ghost of Jacob Marley -- not to make the same mistakes that he did. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, Jian is in effect scared straight.

Still, for all its positive qualities, and its dramatic and engaging conclusion, I found myself a little more annoyed by Jian than I felt was probably intentional on the part of Ha Jin. His constant internal monologue debating the nature of the professor's various expletives and their meaning or whether they had any relevance whatsoever became grating after a while. Certainly incertitude was central to Jian's character but I felt beaten over the head by his over-analysis and his almost naive tendency of missing-the-forest-for-the-trees. It did make his finally seeing the big picture much more epiphanic at the story's finale, but still I didn't think he needed to have belabored the issue of the meaning behind the professor's speaking lines from Dante or in a dream recalling the physical act of an affair, even though in the latter case it ultimately proved relevant to the narrative, leading in turn to another structural problem which was a bit of foreshadowing overkill.

I did not enjoy "The Crazed" with the same enthusiasm I felt for "War Trash." It did not seem to have the same emotional pull of "Waiting," either. It was a far more than competent novel, yes, and succeeded to the extent that you wanted Jian to find his meaning, whatever it be. And there was a synthesis of its ideas and motifs that felt good and logical. But this was far more a meat and potatoes, workman effort by Jin -- good but not great, enjoyable but not especially memorable or interesting. Yes, we want to have original thoughts and a life of meaning, but if we are thinking that thought, don't we already know that? Just come of age, already, Jian, for cry-eye; you're a graduate student / no spring chicken.

OTHER NOTES: I found a really awesomely funny short story by Patrick Somerville at Knee-Jerk, readable by clicking all these words that are not like the others.

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