Most teachers of writing encourage students to avoid using clichés, largely on the basis that they have become so familiar that they have lost any power to grab the reader’s attention. At times, however, a cliché can be appropriate; in the case of novelist Ha Jin, the idea that “necessity is the mother of invention” seems most apt to describe his meteoric rise to prominence in American letters and to suggest something about the power that underlies his second novel, The Crazed.
Although the novel is not strictly autobiographical, understanding something of the novelist’s life may help illuminate both the story and theme of this work. When Xuefei Jin was fourteen, he joined the Chinese Army. When he was twenty, he left the service to take up a career as an educator. In 1985, after earning his master’s degree in China, he obtained a fellowship to Brandeis University in Massachusetts to pursue a doctorate in literature. His plans, as he told John Thomas in a 1998 interview for Emory Magazine, were to earn his degree and return to teach in his native country. In 1989, however, events there changed his plans. He and his wife watched on television as the Chinese army quashed the student rebellion in Tiananmen Square. Xuefei Jin realized then that Thomas Wolfe was probably right in his case: He could not go home again.
The necessity to earn a living for his family drove Xuefei Jin to writing and, to risk another cliché, the rest has become literary history. Writing under the pen name Ha Jin, within a little more than a decade the Chinese expatriate produced several collections of short stories and two novels, all of which generated significant praise from reviewers and critics in America. His 1999 novel Waiting won the PEN/Faulkner prize and his short story collections were recognized by literary associations for their compelling analysis of human nature. Ha Jin would say they are compelling because they emerge from the blend of experience and imagination that produces fiction which has the ring of authenticity.
The Crazed is such a novel. Set in Shanning, a provincial city, the novel chronicles the struggles of a young graduate student, Jian Wan, who is assigned by the university to care for his adviser, Professor Yang, the victim of a stroke. Jian finds that he must divide time between studying for qualifying examinations that would allow him to be admitted to doctoral study in Beijing and caring for Yang at the local hospital.
What makes Jian Wan’s job difficult is that his mentor seems to have been affected in a strange way by his stroke. From time to time Yang launches into strange ravings that include commentary on religion, literary criticism, political statements about communism and the Chinese Communist Party, and descriptions of sexual exploits. At times he seems jocular, at others deadly serious, and a large portion of his commentary is simply cryptic. The graduate student is not sure how to respond to his teacher’s behavior. For example, Jian Wan is confused by Yang’s creative restatement of the story of Genesis, the professor’s version of which is a fable about how the donkey (a beast of burden) and a monkey (a playful free spirit) both gave up years of their life span to the acquisitive “man”; in this way Yang explains how humankind has been cursed with long life so that people can suffer the infirmities of old age. Yang cries out, too, about the virtues of reading Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802, 3 vols.), telling Jian Wan that it is the one work that can comfort humankind. Both stories leave the young scholar perplexed, since the ideology of both the Christian Bible and Dante’s poem are at odds with the pronouncements of communism, which Professor Yang has always seemed to support.
In fact, on more than one occasion Yang launches into long speeches denouncing those who oppose Chairman Mao Zedong and the party, calling for punishment of those who stand in the way of a communist utopia. On the other hand, shortly before he dies, Yang confides to his pupil that he believes his life has been wasted because scholars in China are merely clerks carrying out the commands of a totalitarian government interested more in indoctrinating its people than in promoting real scholarship.
The professor’s rantings about his sexual exploits form the...
(The entire section is 1793 words.)