The Vagrants--Yiyun Li

It was not until I had finished the book and allowed it to rest overnight that I realized one of the major triumphs of this skillful first novel by Yiyun Li--she managed to allow the reader to forget, for a moment, fact and history as we knew them--until she was ready to slap us in the face with them at the end of the novel--reminding us of what happened in the real world.

The novel is wonderfully constructed and centers around the aftermath of the arrest and trial of a counterrevolutionary "criminal."  To say much more than this would give away too much of the main line of the story.  But it isn't in the main contours that this novel has its greatest interest.  The real interest lies in the careful development and revelation of the characters, in their transformation, and in their interactions. In fact, there are so many characters, so fully developed, following so many different story lines and fates, that you might term this an "ensemble novel."  It's difficult to determine who the "main" characters are.  It is hard to identify a protagonist among all the characters.  Not because there are no characters with the qualifications, but because there are so many possibilities--teacher and Mrs. Gu, whose daughter precipitates the actions; Kai, the young lady who once went to school with Shan Gu; Old Hua and Mrs. Hua (the almost literal "vagrants" of the title); Baishi and Nini, two innocents each in their own way. Yiyun Li presents us with the array of humanity, noble, repulsive, cynical, diabolical, loving, gentle, nurturing, manipulative--there is no aspect of the human condition that does not have some play here, and with her knack of character development, there are few who come off as completely unlikeable and reprehensible and few who come off spotless, without flaw. 

Sometimes the novel is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  You see where the actions of the characters is leading and you want to reach out and stop what is happening.  A prime example of this occurs when Little Tong signs a name to a petition. Sometimes, you think you are going to get a train wreck and what you end up with is a pastoral--broad, open and beautiful fields, flowers, sunlight, and willow.   However, one does well to warn the reader that Li stays close the verifiable reality of the events in China at the edge of democratization.  Endings are not entirely unexpected and one reads, as it were, through one's fingers, occasionally cringing, occasionally wanting to cry at the personal disaster that is recorded as impersonal history.

Li showed herself to be master of the epiphany in her short stories, and that skill shines out in the novel as well.  She showed herself a master of the gentle arts, of the art of transformation--and again that skill is borne out.  Li showed herself to be knowledgeable about the state of the human heart and the need that makes us all the eponymous vagrants of the title, as amply demonstrated by this selection:

from The Vagrants
Yiyun Li

The moment would come when, in gentle, yet firm words Mrs. Gu and Teacher Gu would forbid her to hurt herself again.  She was not ugly at all, they would tell her, embracing her when she did not resist. They loved her, they would say, and in their eyes she was as precious as a jewel. She would not believe their words, but they would tell her again and again, until she softened and cried. Nini had learned to make her stories longer each time until she could not stand the wait for the final moment when her loneliness and hunger were soothed by the two people who cherished her as dearly as their own lives. When the moment came--it could arrive anytime, on the way to the marketplace or the train station, or when she was putting the baby to sleep or cooking supper--Nini held her breath until she was on the edge of suffocation. Her heart would pump heard afterward, and her limbs would remain weak with a pleasnat numbness.

Often a master of a short story fails in longer form--the compression required to make a short story right is not so easily expanded to make a novel-length work correct.  And there are a few places where we seem to be promised more and it never materializes.  There are flaws.  But it is a first novel, and it is a luminous one--drawing us in and making us care for the ordinary people of a village that we can hardly imagine.  The hardships, the difficult lives, the surroundings are all alien, but the pulse, the heart that beats at the center and drives us on--that belongs to all of us and moves us from a story trapped in a time and a place, to a story that says something to each person, regardless of where or when they live.  It transcends the historical moment and makes its own moment.

*****--A superb first novel, highest recommendation.


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