Monday, May 23, 2005

Almost Great

The Crazed, by Ha Jin, Read by Norm Lee, Recorded Books LLC, 2002

The Sophomore Slump is the hardest artistic curse to throw off. After one’s first successful novel/album/film/whatever, there is an enormous pressure both to prove that the first work wasn’t a fluke and that the second work isn’t simply a retread of the first. This is the hardest to overcome because it is the most common and it strikes when the artist is relatively new to his or her craft, when the expectation game meets talent and celebrity hype.

Ha Jin faced down that curse with his National Book Award for Fiction winning novel, Waiting, the follow up to his novella In the Pond, but he fell victim to the second hardest artistic curse to bear, What Comes After the Prize. Where Waiting was a deceptively simple tale about the human heart that began almost as a fairy tale (“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu” is its opening sentence, a perfectly absurd sentence steeped in the logic of fairy tales), and used its framework allegorically to discuss politics, The Crazed is a political novel with a pair of doomed romances included. While that may sound like a recipe for both Sophomore Slump and What Comes After combined, there is a significant difference between the two approaches. Readers of the first novel will come away thinking of the romance and how our lives are a reflection of our times. Readers of the second novel will see how a corrupt society destroys everyone and everything, including romance.

Ha uses the build up to the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 as the backdrop for his story, but that is only an undercurrent that really gathers steam in the novel’s closing chapters. The bulk of the book instead focuses on literature graduate student Jian Wen as he cares for his dementia-stricken literature professor at a bedside vigil. What’s most curious about the ravings of Professor Yang is that, as someone who was considered a reactionary threat once upon a time, he is suddenly verbose in his spouting of revolutionary Maoist slogans and songs. Interspersed with that are mysterious references to an affair Yang had with one of his graduate assistants and denunciations of someone, Yang never makes clear to whom he’s speaking, who betrayed him.

This book is a slowly moving story, constantly backtracking into Jian’s reflections and his romance and long-standing engagement to marry Yang’s daughter, Meimei. When Yang goes off on long screaming fits the book becomes almost frighteningly compelling, but only at first. These quickly become tiresome rants, and Jian’s life is not interesting enough at first to fill that gap. Not until unseen forces begin to move against him, orchestrated by the Party secretary of the literature department who holds some vicious and incomprehensible grudge. It is how one measures oneself in a crisis that makes for an interesting character study, and Jian fails in this regard being neither sufficiently active against the attack on him nor even all that moved by it. As avenue upon avenue close to him after he decides to withdraw from the literature department, we are given a frighteningly all-encompassing glimpse at how quickly a totalitarian society can trap one. And yet Jian remains stuck, a bug on a pin, almost unfeeling toward the enormity of his situation.

While on some small elements, The Crazed holds our interest, as a novel it is crippled by several weaknesses that no novel could overcome. Part of what makes the revelations of Professor Yang unmoving is that we never meet his character prior to his dementia and he is therefore never made sympathetic to us. The first instant we meet him, he is deranged. It’s perhaps a noble challenge to try to paint a character that engages our emotions and to paint him after the fact, through speculative theorizing by his student based on his disjointed ramblings, but Ha Jin never pulls it off. Whether any writer could have pulled this off in such a short space, all the while balancing other plot lines like incipient student revolution and the dissolution of Jian’s engagement, is an open question that I’d incline towards no on. Ha Jin has simply bit off more than he could chew.

In the book’s concluding chapters, after having been dumped by Meimei, Jian accompanies several students to Tiananmen Square partly as a protest against the literature chair and partly to prove to his ex-fiancee that he is capable of some kind of stand. The quick turn to violence, the sudden chaos, the panic among those who were previously shouting angry slogans, is all presented in wrenching detail. Jian proves himself in this time of crisis, finally coming to self-understanding, though he remains perplexed by the forces against him.

This is the moment the book has been building toward, and this is where Ha Jin’s novel really comes to life. It’s a shame he didn’t precede it with a more engaging tale. Had he written solely a political book without trying to shoehorn in the romance elements that made his first novel so moving, Ha Jin could have managed to write an important book about the massacre, which would have proven a spectacular triumph over the What Comes After curse. Many authors, blinded by the prestige of their prize, try the Important Novel route only to fail as Ha Jin has done here. And yet, he didn’t have to fail. Inside The Crazed is a novel, important, though submerged, buried and never given a full chance to flower.

Norm Lee is an adequate reader given a tough row to hoe. We are expected to feel a great deal toward Professor Yang in his weakened and crazed state, yet too often his speeches are shouted catch phrases and songs or denunciations. This keeps Lee’s voice in its upper range, not the most sympathetic one, and it forces us away from the character Ha Jin is trying to draw us into. Lee is also hampered by not making any attempt to thoroughly inhabit any of the other characters, as if he poured himself into Yang and had nothing left over, a flaw that turns dialogue into aural monologue, a non-specific blandness, further eroding the novel’s striving for consequence.

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