Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, and This Book Is Driving Me Crazy: The Five Stages of Reading Mo Yan
by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
For some time now, Mo Yan’s works have hovered on the long list of works I feel I should read, but just can’t seem to get around to diving into. I’ve long intended to acquaint myself with one or two of the novels written by this controversial Nobel Laureate*; after all, I’m someone who lives in and studies China, so I think I should have something to say about his writing. The rub is that more attractive books have constantly come along to catch my eye, meaning Mo Yan’s never quite made it onto my nightstand.
I finally cracked open my first Mo Yan — Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006) — a couple of weeks ago, prompted not by an overwhelming desire to read the 540-page novel, but the fact that my book club had selected it for our next meeting, and I had agreed to lead the discussion. Life and Death recounts the many rebirths of Ximen Nao, a Shandong Province landlord who was executed during the Communist takeover in 1949. Ximen Nao goes down to hell, but refuses to admit his guilt, and the king of the underworld finally allows him to return to earth — as a donkey. Over the next fifty years, Ximen Nao’s donkey life will be followed by turns as an ox, a pig, a dog, a monkey, and eventually, human again, a hemophiliac boy with an unusually large head. Much of the book is narrated by Ximen Nao in his various animal identities, but Mo Yan regularly switches things up and unexpectedly shifts to narration by another character, including one called, well, “Mo Yan.” Throughout the book, when “Mo Yan” isn’t narrating the action, other narrators complain about an annoying child and later aspiring writer named “Mo Yan,” who is fond of interfering in people’s lives.
Does that sound confusing? It is. The Nobel Prize committee lauded Mo Yan’s “hallucinatory realism,” which is on full display in Life and Death, as outrageous happenings take place against the backdrop of Mao-era and then Reform-period China. After finally making it through Life and Death — a battle as hard-fought as the one between humans and pigs in the middle of the novel — I’m not able to say that I enjoyed the book, though parts of it kept me engaged enough to consider picking up another of Mo Yan’s works…someday. Maybe. This first encounter with Mo Yan has sparked an internal struggle over what I think I “should” read to consider myself a well-rounded China specialist, and what I’d actually like to spend my time reading.
After I finished, I realized I could break down my Life and Death experience into distinct phases, presented here as “The Five Stages of Reading Mo Yan”:
1. Optimism: I have a week! I read fast! I’ve heard this book is good! The early chapters are short, and I fly through 50 pages. Chapter 1 is extraordinarily violent and gross, but I get past it. Hallucinatory realism doesn’t seem so intimidating.
2. Confusion: Wait, why is the narrator talking about Ximen Nao in the third person? I thought Ximen Nao was the narrator. Did the narrator change? (I re-read several pages.) I guess the narrator changed. All right, I’ll go with it. Mo Yan’s an experimental writer, so this structure must be an example of that.
3. Agony: How long is this book?? The pig life is boring. I can’t keep track of all the characters. Allegedly, Mo Yan wrote Life and Death in 42 days. He couldn’t take another week to edit it down a little? How much do I have to read to lead a credible discussion at the book club meeting?
4. Bargaining/Goals: I’ll read three chapters before I go to sleep. As soon as I finish the pig life, I’ll get ice cream. If I finish the dog life before dinner, I can watch two episodes of Scandal tonight.
5. Relief: 60 pages to go. Oh, good, the monkey life only lasts two years. 30 pages to go. Even Mo Yan is bored; Ximen Nao’s lives are getting shorter and shorter. Monkey’s dead! 10 pages left. Ximen Nao is human again, so I’m almost done. FINISHED.
Maybe Mo Yan isn’t my cup of tea, but I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling. Actually, I know I’m not. Reading Life and Death reminded me of something I’d heard Beijing-based writer and translator Brendan O’Kane say on a March episode of the Sinica Podcast devoted to Mo Yan’s works:
I don’t think he’s a bad writer. I think he’s a very accomplished writer and a very hard-working writer and he has a lot of skill and a lot of experience writing books that I don’t like.
I think I might be on O’Kane’s side, at least after finishing one Mo Yan novel. But if anyone else would like to give Mo Yan and his hallucinatory realism a try, I have a lightly used copy of Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out that I’d be happy to sell at a reasonable price.
* Some Western commentators and Chinese dissidents have criticized Mo Yan for not being “political” (meaning explicitly critical of China’s government), though he has also had defenders, who see subversive elements in his fiction, argue that too great a burden to be political has been placed on him, or both. After he won the Nobel Prize last year, a number of leading Western literary scholars debated his career and oeuvre. For a range of contrasting stances, see Perry Link, “Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?” and “Politics and the Chinese Language”; Charles Laughlin, “What Mo Yan’s Detractors Get Wrong”; Anna Sun, “The Diseased Language of Mo Yan”; the Sinica Podcast linked to above; and Sabina Knight’s comments in this publication.
Really funny to see inside the reader’s valiant inner monologue as she accounts her experience reading the book.