The CrazedHa JinPantheon, $24, 323 pp.
Ha Jin, who immigrated to the United States from China in 1985, has already published an impressive body of fiction and poetry in English. His short stories, which often appear in annual prize volumes, are odd and arresting compressions of Chinese life: a gay man takes an unattractive bride but is revealed and punished; the American Cowboy Chicken franchise opens a branch in a provincial city, and its workers become consumed with capitalist envy; a little girl observes her miserable kindergarten teacher and learns her first lessons in deceit. Ha Jin’s first novel, Waiting, which won the National Book Award, is a beautiful and mysterious meditation on the meaning of inaction as well as an allegory of post-Cultural Revolution China. The fiction is realistic—the settings are rendered meticulously—but the plots seesaw between political absurdity on a grand scale and individual suffering in its smallest detail. In an age when so many critics have declared the death of literary realism, Ha Jin’s depiction of real absurdity and absurd reality is a good argument against realism’s premature burial.
The Crazed, his new novel, is also a compelling read, more directly political than Waiting, more focused on an inevitable plot march that will end in Tiananmen Square. The narrator, Jian Wan, is a graduate student studying for his Ph.D. entrance exams, which he hopes will propel him to Beijing University and marriage to his beloved professor’s daughter. As the novel opens, however, his professor has suffered a stroke and is hospitalized, slipping in and out of hallucinations and fantasies. Jian Wan and another student are assigned to care for him while his wife makes her way back from a veterinary mission to Tibet and the hospital nurses busy themselves with their embroidery. The wife’s presence in Tibet and the nurses’ leisurely approach to medical crisis are typical of the novel’s opening, with its matter-of-fact portrayal of a China populated by cynics and fanatics, "a paradise for idiots."
The straightforward narrative gives way to the dramatic—at times, to the operatic—as Jian’s professor rants. His speeches recreate his sufferings during the Cultural Revolution, when he was declared a Demon Monster and made to wear signs and carry buckets of water designed to bend his body and his spirit. He recalls visualizing The Inferno during his torture sessions: "I’d imagine that the crazed people below and around me were like the blustering evil-doers, devils, and monsters cast into hell.... While reciting The Divine Comedy in my heart, I felt that my suffering was meant to help me enter purgatory. I had hope. Suffering can refine the soul." Jian wonders, naturally, if this means his professor sees himself in Christian terms, but the older man denies that he is religious. He intersperses memories of his sexual liaisons and his own ambitions with his talk of the spirit, and Jian is alternately revolted and moved to pity. Many of the professor’s monologues and spoken dreams, which are designed to unveil his biography as well as to move the plot along, are ridiculously contrived in dramatic terms, yet their language is so direct that they remain strangely compelling. The patient is in a death struggle and declares that he must save his soul but admits, "I’m afraid I’m not worthy of my suffering." Jian is most perplexed by his professor’s disavowal of the scholar’s life, which he declares has reduced him to the role of a clerk.
Gradually, however, Jian begins to believe his professor’s warnings about the scorn heaped on true intellectuals, and decides to abandon his exams and to seek instead a position in the Policy Office. The irony is typical Ha Jin and would be delicious if the novel were not already moving so relentlessly toward the massacre in Beijing. Thwarted by a Communist Party official, Jian ultimately joins the student demonstrations—not because of his political beliefs but, as he says, for personal reasons. His professor is dead, his fiancée has abandoned him, and he is now a young man without a career. His journey to Beijing grants him a classical moment of epiphany. As the army attacks the gathering students, he aids a wounded woman but then abandons her. Horrified by his own cowardice, he undertakes the rescue of a little boy, as if he is redeeming his own youthful mistakes. The novel’s climax is utterly realistic and utterly involving—its movement out of the sickroom and into the streets of Beijing provides just the right change of perception and scale.
Before this busy action takes the novel off into the satisfying territory of plot consummation, the pages of The Crazed are also filled with satisfying meditations on language itself, on the connections or lack of connections between language and action. Jian and his professor quote Rilke, Pound, Li Po. Jian sees language as romantic (and in a funny aside says that women who study foreign languages are more romantic than their peers). His own language is direct and often emotional in a nineteenth-century way: "My heart was shaking, filled with pity, dismay, and disgust." Overwrought adverbs such as "desperately" make frequent appearances—and why not? This is a novel about finding one’s soul, about wanting to live, as Jian finally says, "actively and meaningfully."
The direct expression of emotion complements the subtle wit and irony that inform the narrative. The crazed themselves are a graceful motif woven through the minds of the characters. Stark images—a boy stung by a scorpion cries for hours on the hillside—alternate with Jian’s straightforward interior monologue. He, too, is crazed as he watches his country come to crisis. He, too, struggles to find purpose in his life. And his very particular crisis, in the midst of his country’s very particular crisis, becomes universal by virtue of its precise and passionate telling. Like all of us, Jian must act or lose his soul. [end]