Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Using Judd Apatow to Analyze Gao Xingjian

The problem with criticizing a Nobel laureate is I don’t have a leg on which to stand.

So I can say that Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain frustrates me and that he mires his immense talent in selfish nihilism. I can say that he needs a stronger conclusion than, “I don’t know anything, but nature is nice.”

And he can say, “I’m a Nobel laureate, and you’re a book blogger for a suburban Ohio newspaper.”

And he wins.

I feel trepidation criticizing Xingjian because there are portions of Soul Mountain I admittedly did not follow.

When he says, “To exist and yet not to be perceived is the same as not to exist,” I want to say, “No, to not exist is the same as to not exist.”

In fact, that’s peek-a-boo logic. The baby doesn’t perceive something, so it must not exist.

But, then, I have a moment of uncertainty. Xingjian has the Nobel Prize for literature. Maybe I’m overreacting or missing the point. Maybe I'm stupid. Maybe to be unperceived is to not exist.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should introduce Xingjian and Soul Mountain before I criticize it.

Xingjian, as you may have heard, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. He enjoyed some popularity in China but ran afoul of the government. He eventually moved to France and criticized his homeland’s government. It responded by banning all of his work.

Before leaving for Europe, Xingjian was diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease that killed his father, and told he was going to die. He didn’t die. He didn’t even have cancer. The doctor misdiagnosed him.

With a new lease on life, Xingjian spent 10 months traveling along the Yangtze River. He, then, used that experience to write Soul Mountain.

If you want a pop-culture point of reference, Xingjian is Adam Sandler in Funny People.

Soul Mountain is an autobiography-novel-travel writing… actually, it would be easier to let Xingjian explain. In one chapter, he argues with himself over whether Soul Mountain is a novel.

“You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!” he shouts at himself.

And that’s a fair description of Soul Mountain. It doesn’t have a plot, per se, or characters, unless you count Xingjian. There is also a “you,” making this the rare novel that’s written partly in second person. Xingjian also writes about a “he” and “she,” but all the characters are shades of Xingjian.

So what is there? No plot, no characters. What’s left? Well, there’s a theme.

After Xingjian’s death sentence was annulled, he searches for a purpose. (The Adam Sandler/Funny People analogy still holds.) He goes on a mission to find life—real life, which is “not the same as manifestations of life.”

He does this by wandering and meeting people, recording conversations and listening to folk songs. He also spends a lot of time as far away from cities as possible. The farther from civilization he is, the better his writing.

“Lush white flowers are scattered beneath the bush… This is pristine natural beauty. It is irrepressible, seeks no reward, and is without goal, a beauty derived neither from symbolism nor metaphor and needing neither analogies nor associations.”

That last paragraph also describes most of Xingjian’s prose. Despite the 500-page count and its unconventionality, Xingjian is unpretentious. He wants to tell a story.
To paraphrase him, he is interested in “the superb purity of the story.”

But what is the story? I’ve already told you there’s no plot. At most, Soul Mountain is a series of connected vignettes, and some of the connections are tenuous.

If I had to guess (and this is a guess,) I’d say Soul Mountain is a story about a man who is told he must keep living. He must answer the question, “What next?”

Fall in love? Connect with old friends? Make amends for past wrongs? Travel the country? Write a masterpiece?

Well, he does most of those things but fails to derive any deeper truth from it. Having looked into the abyss, he’s concluded that most things are meaningless.

“I have long tired of the struggles of the human world,” he writes.

He rejects the notion that his stories have any moral responsibility:

You’re a writer.
So what if I am a writer?
You’re the conscience of society, you must speak for the people!
Stop joking, I say.

I realize that some stories are just stories. Twain even warned us that those looking for a moral in Huck Finn would be shot. But I would hope that Xingjian would have more to say after receiving a reprieve from death and traveling the country.

Instead, he only seems interested in language for the sake of language.

"You have only the desire to narrate, to use a language transcending cause and effect, or logic. People have spoken so much nonsense, so why shouldn’t you say more."

But even that mission eludes him.

“In the end all you can achieve are memories, hazy, intangible, dreamlike memories which are impossible to articulate. When you try to relate them, there are only sentences, the dregs left from the filter of linguistic structures.”

Despite Xingjian’s experiences and travels, at the end of Soul Mountain, he declares:

While pretending to understand, I still don’t understand.
The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing. I understand nothing.
This is how it is.

So I guess Xingjian is Adam Sandler from Funny People. He almost died and still didn’t learn anything.

Jason Lea,

P.S. Xingjian also finds time to weigh in on the relevance of poetry.

“I lost my poetic sensibility a long time ago and can’t write poetry. In any event I doubt that the present is an age for poetry. It seems that everything to be sung or shouted has already been sung or shouted.”

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