If you’re on X, everything and everyone is beautiful and sexy and warm. If your loved one dies, you see death and its metaphors everywhere. You always see the world through the lens of self-involvement and usually it’s something to do with whatever is most recent or important to you at the time. It’s like having the proverbial hammer or being the proverbial fan—everything is a nail or shit, as the case may be.
So after posting about how we make decisions, especially big ones (see decisions, decisions), I was worried I was falling into this trap: seeing what I wanted in The Crazed (Ha Jin) and not what was actually there. I let it sit awhile and I still think life decisions and the combination of events and internal struggle that leads up to them is one of the novel’s major themes, along with the purpose of life, problems in communist China, and the pros and cons of a life lived in academia.
Told in the first person and in Ha Jin’s characteristically spare, yet descriptive, prose, The Crazed is the story of Jian, a promising graduate student in poetics and literature at Shanning University in China, under the tutelage of one of the hardest-working professors at the university, Mr. Yang. Jian is preparing for his doctoral qualification exams, which he must pass; if he does he can study in Beijing and be with Meimei, his fiancé and Yang’s daughter, who is already in Beijing on her way to a career in medicine. When Yang has a major stroke—much to the surprise of everyone because of his seemingly boundless energy—Jian is assigned to spend half days taking care of Yang. This is a serious distraction from the exams, but the real issue is that Yang raves on and on many days; he seems to be reliving moments from his life and often appears unaware of who is actually in the room. Jian hears about an old love affair from before Yang’s marriage, a more current affair of Yang’s, other family issues, departmental politics, and more. Jian is not sure whether to believe what he hears; is it really Yang rehashing the past or is it delusional fantasies?
Then Yang starts questioning the worth of his life and work. He even tells Jian directly not to go on to become a professor and work in academia. Jian is torn and can’t understand what to do; his teacher has worked with him and encouraged in the past, but now he seems to be doing the opposite. Should he continue or go forward with his exams and the life laid out for him?
All this comes to a head when Yang dies:
His death shook me to the core. . . . As a human being, I should spend my life in such a way that at the final hour I could feel fulfillment and contentment, as if I had completed a task or a journey. One doesn’t have to be an accomplished scientist, or a consequential official, or a billionaire, or a great artist to feel that death is no more than a natural change like a sleep after a long day’s work. In short, death should be a comedy, not a tragedy.
Eventually, Jian makes his choices; however, the results of those choices are not revealed, for what matters most is making the choices and how we make them, not the consequences. Ha Jin does not make the decision process entirely clear either, yet he does do a good job of showing the reader many of the factors that contribute. And in the end, we are left wondering to whom the title refers: Yang, Jian, other characters in the book, the reader, Ha Jin, and/or, even, society as a whole.