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Book Review: Yiyun Li's The Vagrants

Random House

Hardcover, 337 pp.

Henry James famously asked of War and Peace, "What do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?" Perhaps the question itself is a little queer applied to Yiyun Li's The Vagrants. Far from being large, at just over three hundred pages the novel is quite spare, and Li's prose is so precise and exacting that calling anything she writes "loose" or "baggy" can't be quite right. Still, The Vagrants has the scope and ambition of a door-stop novel like Tolstoy's—and perhaps some of such a novel's arbitrariness and accidentalness too.

Like War and Peace, The Vagrants is partly a novel about a time and place, and although the provincial Chinese city of Muddy River in 1979 is a somewhat smaller canvas than the Russian Empire during the Napoleonic Wars, Li's local concerns have clear national resonances. Muddy River, we learn, was established by government fiat shortly after the founding of the Communist state. Li's description of the place has the comprehensive and quietly authoritative quality on display throughout the book:

Built on a slice of land between a mountain in the north and the river in the south, the city assumed the shape of a spindle...The twenty-year-old city, a development planned to industrialize the rural area, relied on its many small factories to provide jobs and commodities for its residents. The housing was equally planned out, and apart from a few buildings of four or five stories around the city square, and a main street with a department store, a cinema, two marketplaces, and many small shops, the rest of the town was partitioned into twenty big blocks that in turn were divided into nine smaller blocks, each of which consisted of four rows of eight connected, one-storied houses.

With Mao having died in 1976, Muddy River is struggling along with the rest of China to determine what shape the People's Republic will take in a new era.

Or say, rather, that the city's elite are struggling to do so. Because, of course, Li's novel is also about people, and most of her characters are not strivers but sufferers. They're the inhabitants of Muddy River's identical rows of houses, their ambitions and obstacles as ugly, mundane, and humble as the streets they live on. One of them, Bashi, "was nineteen, had never seen a girl's private parts, and was unable to picture what they would be like. This, for Bashi, son of a Communist hero—the reddest of the red seeds—was an upsetting deficiency." Because of an annuity bestowed on him by the government after his father's death, Bashi is an aberration in Muddy River: a man with no job and no work group. As a result he's so unlikeable, so alienated and strange, that he's concluded his best hope for learning about women's "private parts" lies with young girls. Bashi is almost a sociopath, but not quite. His pedophiliac curiosity comes to seem nearly harmless once it leads him into conflict with a much worse pervert than himself, and his eventual elopement with Nini, a crippled twelve-year-old who serves almost as her parents' slave, reads more as a relief than as a calamity. Less sordid but equally miserable are the cases of Tong, a village boy recently arrived in the city who's excruciatingly aware that his rustic accent will interfere with his success in first grade, and old Mr. and Mrs. Hua, who, when they were wandering beggars, had the freedom to care for girls whose parents had abandoned them to die in infancy, but who have long since been forced by old age and poverty to sell their adopted daughters into marriage and take menial jobs in Muddy River.

Such a range of characters stretches the compass of Li's narration wide, but that's part of her program. She even broadens her telling a notch further, when, periodically, she pauses to inhabit points-of-view only tangentially related to her main story. Here Li moves almost without warning from Tong's morning to a description of someone else's:

The city came to life in the boy's baffled gaze, some people more prepared than others for this important day. A fourth grader found to her horror that her silk Young Pioneer's kerchief had been ripped by her little brother, who had bound it around his cat's paw and played tug of war with the cat...The girl cried until it became clear that her tears would only make her look worse for the day; for the first time in her life, she felt its immense worthlessness, when a cat's small paw could destroy the grandest dream.

Another writer might allow this girl to enter her story only so far as she obtruded on Tong's consciousness or on the novel's action, but not Li. Tong never meets or even sees the fourth-grader, and the torn scarf has no implications for what's to come. Li's expansive interest in the world of Muddy River simply permits her to jump freely from street to house, boy to girl, mind to mind. The effect is to make Muddy River meticulously and gratifyingly detailed—a street scene by Hogarth or Bruegel. But it's also a little disorienting. If the book can expand to accommodate this girl's story, why stop there? Why not provide another hundred pages and include another hundred such vignettes?

Rounding out Li's complement of central characters are Teacher Gu, a pre-Communist intellectual reduced to teaching elementary school under the present regime; his wife, Mrs. Gu; and Wu Kai, a beautiful radio announcer married to a rising local official. The book is set in motion by the execution of the Gus' daughter, Shan, who during the early stages of Mao's Cultural Revolution was a fanatical member of the violent Red Guards youth movement, but who subsequently received the death sentence for criticizing their revolutionary ideology. Kai, a dissident who hides her beliefs from her husband, convinces Mrs. Gu to become involved in a pro-reform protest centered on Shan, and Teacher Gu, having had a stroke on the day of his daughter's death, can only look on in increasingly incoherent anger and regret as Mrs. Gu acts in ways he considers unwifely and unwise.

Even Kai and Mrs. Gu, the most strongly motivated of the lot, are demolished by events rather than shaping them. Their protest disturbs the unstable equilibria of the other characters' lives, setting off a cascade of consequences that only concludes once they've all been ruined. The chains of cause and effect Li builds to bring these ruins to pass are in some cases a little tenuous, relying more than once on chance meetings in the street, as well as on an unforeseeable house-fire. Given the cruel fates Li's characters come to, each arbitrary element of the plot gives pause. If there isn't anything that says they have to be ground up in the mill of State reprisals, why couldn't Li have spared these people? But this, too, must be part of her program. If their fates weren't so accidental, so unfair, so easily avoided, we wouldn't feel their powerlessness so acutely.

In The Vagrants, Li has foregone the absolute unity of story that, for James, was the hallmark of literary art. Instead she's brought off something else, something cloudier and more worldly, but perhaps as important. Call it magnanimous imagination. Call it utter knowingness. Whatever you call it, whether the two things are mutually exclusive—whether Li can achieve unity along with the breadth and depth she displays here—is a question to be answered by her next novel. We should all look forward to it.