Monday, July 12, 2010

Perspectivism in "The Vagrants"

Yiyun Li’s novel The Vagrants is a staggering work of narrative perspectivism. By this I mean to describe how the novel moves fluidly between many different characters; over the course of three hundred pages, each character gradually yet steadily takes hold, and becomes an ‘eye’ through which the reader starts to assemble a Chinese town called Muddy River.

In The Genealogy of Morals Friedrich Nietzsche outlines this idea as such:
All seeing is essentially perspective, and so is all knowing. The more emotions we allow to speak in a given matter, the more different eyes we can put on in order to view a given spectacle, the more complete will be our conception of it, the greater our “objectivity.”

Nietzsche’s scare-quoted objectivity is no less than the (of course impossible) sum total of perspectives—an impossibility that balloons when one considers the vast and myriad scales of perspective possible in this world. Indeed, in The Vagrants, even weather patterns attain a valid perspective, one that merges with the political consciousness of the human characters:
“In this period of indecision and uncertainty, old winter-weary snow began to melt. The ground became less solid, the black dirt oozing with moisture in the sunshine.” (179)

The ground that becomes "less solid" is at once the physical earth and epistemological foundations—the mindsets of those who are increasingly aware of the power struggles taking place in Muddy River during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The Vagrants has at least eight main characters—but that number can slide up to ten, or twelve, easily. In a quite fascinating way, Yiyun Li does not obey the logic of ‘main’ characters: any character is likely to become an eye or a mind through which we see or understand (or not) the world of Muddy River. The novel, in other words, permeates a range of characters—major and minor, there almost is no difference in terms of serious treatment. Anyone—and one is almost tempted to say anything—is potentially a real, noteworthy perspective to inhabit…whether that be for a sentence, a paragraph, a page, or across one of the broader narrative arcs of the novel. At the same time, the novel ranges over the geography of Muddy River, such that the landscape features, seasonal shifts, and animals themselves become narrative material—character vantage points, as it were. The characters—all the possible perspectives of a place—are expanded and carried out beyond limitations of age, class status, or even sentience. At one point in the novel, “Han sank into his parents’ sofa; a new television set, on its beautifully crafted stand, watched him like a dark, unblinking eye” (264). Here the perspective is given a startling rotation in 180 degrees: the character Han goes from seeing to being seen, by a TV—even better, a TV turned off. Later, in a brief passing paragraph, we meet the carpenter and his apprentice who built the TV stand, and see inside their thoughts about the work they were commissioned to do “without more than the minimum compensation” (281). Yiyun Li thus uses perspectivism to swivel around from subjects to objects, exposing the dynamics and mechanics of the social system at hand.

The Vagrants is full of philosophical images and mind-benders, and these often make the reader pause to consider the perspectives available through the lens of narrative. Often, when the novel comments on the work of language and storytelling, these enunciations come across as the most enigmatic and unclear. Take, for instance, the character Teacher Gu, who on his way to deliver a letter to the mailbox, mumbles to someone else: “Don’t ever believe in what’s written down” (275). Yiyun Li asks readers to think simultaneously about an event and its record, about how many ways an event can be seen, and how the act of retelling creates innumerable new points of view. The Vagrants does not advocate perspectivism as any kind of simple formula or positive philosophy, but rather shows perspectivism to be an inescapable condition. This is a condition that, when acknowledged and embraced, can lead to what Nietszsche elsewhere calls "slow reading": a decelerated mode of interpretation that keeps doors of thought open, and does not rush to easy conclusions. Yiyun Li's The Vagrants provides all the pleasures—as well as all the demands—of perspectival slow reading.