Mo Yan: “Bull”

11/21/2012 § 2 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, November 26, 2012. (Translated, from the Chinese, by Howard Goldblatt.)

I’m told that this is an excerpt from the author’s upcoming Pow!, so I can forgive it for lacking punch in of itself, but even the windup is weak, and if this story is supposed to be darkly, absurdly funny, then something isn’t being translated properly. For instance, the narrator’s father, Luo Tong, is described by his son as a notorious wastrel (whom he nonetheless greatly admires, as is the tradition). In one sentence, he is “a dragon among men, and dragons have no interest in accumulating property”; in the next, he is now a tiger: “Tigers spend most of their time sleeping in their lairs, coming out only when hunger sends them hunting for prey.” Repetition doesn’t enhance the story or its rhythms either. In case the previous description/comparison wasn’t clear: “Similarly, my father spend most of his time holed up, eating, drinking, and having a good time, coming out only when hunger pangs sent him looking for income.” Then again, perhaps all the people of this village are scoundrels: Tong’s rival, Lao Lan, is renowned for inventing “the scientific method of forcing pressurized water into the pulmonary arteries of slaughtered animals,” which is to say, he dummies up the weight of an animal for sale at the butchers by cutting its meat with water. Though it’s clear that neither Lan nor Tong are geniuses, how well can we judge them for their unorthodox methods (Tong can “weigh” an animal on sight, the sort of genius that leads susceptible sons to assume their fathers are geniuses), or for frequenting and quarreling over the same local whore?

The frothy head of this story comes abruptly and, even in context, inexplicably. The cattle merchants — described as an odd, isolated lot — arrive in the middle of the night, and Luo Tong and the butchers meet up with them in the morning to make their deals. They are interrupted, however, by Lao Lan (who is working with the butchers), who steps over to Luo Tong and son, whips out his tool, and “let loose a stream of burned-yellow piss right in front of my father and me…. His piss landed on our feet and on our legs, some even spraying into our faces and our mouths.” It’s unclear why they stand there and take this rather vulnerable and exposed form of insult, especially in Luo Tong’s case: “My father remained silent, as if he were dead.” Oh, by the way, did Mo Yan forget to mention that Lao Lan had brought his white-faced (i.e., castrated) bull with him? Just as suddenly, the bull is breaking free and attacking his swaggering master, and basically no sooner had the son been disavowing his faceless father than the father has redeemed himself by taming the bull. We know that Luo Tong is a man who oscillates between extremes, and that he will soon cast aside his family life to live entirely with the whorish, pleasure-first Wild Mule, but it’s almost impossible to get a bead on his motivations here, particularly through the son’s somewhat confused narrative. Mo Yan’s plotting ends up feeling contrived and meaningless, and much of the interesting factual stuff — about these two men and their abilities to game the system — is sloughed off in the rush to make something happen in this excerpt. There are themes, sure: the son’s cycling respect for the father, and the passive father’s story-ending defense of his son (“How dare you say things like that in front of my son, you dog bastard!”), but they’re not supported by any real development. This isn’t to say that Mo Yan has an inability to do so: his depictions of these markets, his ability to conjure up a vivid (paragraph-long) pissing sequence, and his cultural touchstones are all solid things. But this piece has been cut, compressed, or decontextualized in the rush to get it into The New Yorker, and that has sapped it of much of its life and made it difficult to fully critique or analyze.

The most I can take away from Mo Yan’s work, then, is that there’s a splendid comedy in surprise metaphors: early on, while the son still respects his father, he describes the range of the things his father’s keen eye can weight as being the same as a master carpenter’s ability to “build a table but can also build a chair and, if he’s especially talented, a coffin.” The comparison alone is flat, but that inclusion of that third item — a coffin — is a surprise, the sort that elicits at least a grim chuckle, even when everything else is falling apart.

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§ 2 Responses to Mo Yan: “Bull”

  • RK says:

    Hi Aaron,

    I wanted to start off by saying that I like your blog, and I think there’s a lot of useful material here, especially for a person, like myself, who likes to read the New Yorker’s fiction section.

    Having said that, your reading of Mo Yan’s story feels a little rushed. I also thought it was a bit snarky (“In case the previous description wasn’t clear,” “contrived and meaningless,” “sapped it of much of its life”). For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts about the story.

    1) It’s important that the story is told by the son, in first person. I’m not quite sure what you mean when you say that the son’s narrative is “confused”, but it’s easy enough to see how this confusion can be ascribed to the fact that (a) the son admires his father through most of the story and, more crucially, (b) the events of the story occur in the son’s past, i.e., the story is a memory. Thus, we’re not necessarily meant to “draw a bead on the father’s motivations” so much as inhabit the son’s puzzlement, both in the present, as a child, as well as retrospectively. The fact that the past is important to the story is enhanced by the (admittedly somewhat artless) repetitions: “When I was young,” “youthful memories,” “years later,” etc, as well as by the mention, for instance, of “Pao Ding,” the chef of ancient times, and a sense, throughout the story, of a pervasive indebtedness to ancestry (“Old man in the sky, I was so scared,” the father yells, towards the end of the story). See also point 3 below.

    2) The carpenter simile isn’t “flat”; it exists instead on a plateau of other such artisanal similes: “like giant pieces of glazed pottery,” “like a kung-fu master,”like radio-play actors,” “like a blacksmith’s ruddy face,” “like those of a farmer.” While I agree that none of these similes are particularly “literary” or imagistic, they succeed at evoking the reality into which the story is born. Besides, they are of a piece with the voice that the rest of the story is told in, and—rightly, in my opinion—mimic the limited world-view of their narrator.

    3) The story has an essentially symbolic strategy. The word “blood” recurs eight times, a recurrence in keeping with the fact that the story is, at least on the surface, about a son and his father. Moreover, blood plays a more immediate role; the bull fails, for whatever reason (perhaps because it is castrated, and cannot sire any more children) to smell the blood on Lao Lan, leading to his eventual goring and downfall in the eyes of the villagers; the bull’s failure to smell blood leads to the repair and preservation of “blood”, i.e., the son no longer disowns his father, and Lao Lan, who threatens their relationship, fails in his late attempt at adoption. This may be where the remembered nature of the story becomes important; the son continues to be enamoured with the father, while we continue to be dubious of him—-not only does he sleep around and cause his wife no end of trouble, he’s also a lazy man who needs the son, and the story, to come to his defence: “my father spent most of his time holed up [..].” etc. We begin to see through the narrator’s unreliability, and thus begin to feel the wrongheadedness of the story’s raison d etre, as presented by Lao Lan: ““Dragons beget dragons, phoenixes beget phoenixes, and a mouse is born only to dig holes.” Read this way, the story is pessimistic: it seems to say that, at least in this village, in this setting, bids to transcend one’s origins are always doomed to failure. This reading also makes Lan’s appearance more ambiguous than at first sight; is he a negative figure, pissing on the village and its people and exuding arrogance, or does he, ahistorical character that he is, promise to rescue them from history? The last word of the story, “bastard”, may be more descriptive than pejorative; its pejorativeness may call into question the principles of the people who use it.

    4) I do agree with you about the “contrived” nature of the plot. The problem seems to be the extended scene at the very end. First, Lao Lan urinates before the father and son. Next, the bull gores Lao Lan. Neither of these happenings emerge “naturally” from character; instead, they are contingent events, occurring by authorial decree (though perhaps one could argue that it is Lao Lan’s character that causes him to urinate). The story is set off balance by these events not just because they’re contingent (or appear so), but because they happen consecutively and are meant to be central to the “meaning” of the story. It’s not clear how the story itself could have solved this problem. One obvious solution would be to have placed the events further apart; another one is to have tweaked the setting to include many other, perhaps smaller contingencies. I’m also interested in what might have happened had Yan decided not to present the villagers’ post-micturitional incredulity, but instead continued simply to show what happened. This Ishiguro/Kafkaesque-type defamiliarization might have, paradoxically enough, worked to make the scenes a little more acceptable in the reader’s eye; at the very least, its acceptability would cease to be the point. But then the entire story would have to be rewritten in the same way, for consistency, and the son’s wide-eyedness would have perhaps proven a little harder to dramatise.

    Anyway, thanks for your blog, and keep up the good work. I especially liked your reading of Tsypkin’s story.

  • Aaron Riccio says:

    RK, your comments are worth a lot, and I thank you for sounding out such a reasonable response (and for calling me out on issues that may have been overly dismissive to Yan’s work). I especially enjoyed your reading of the use of “blood” — in fact, you could go a step further there, in that while it’s about a father/son, it’s also as much about the strains and artificialities in their relationship, much like Lao Lan’s swapping of blood for formaldehyde (which brings to mind both dead things and facades and might better explain the conflict between him and his rivals).

    I still stand by much of what I said, and if there’s snark, it’s unintentional, created (ironically) by my attempts to shield Yan from the brunt of my criticisms by acknowledging that this is an excerpt and may have been comprised or rushed in of itself, in the sense that perhaps these events *do* have more space between them, more development, in the novel proper.

    As for points 1 and 2, they somewhat collide for me: yes, the son’s narrative is from a future point, but are we then to assume, given the limited metaphors, that the son is still more or less stuck in this village? If so, why tell this story at all? It’s for this reason that I call the voice confused, and maybe my problem isn’t so much with the choice of narrator but with the tense itself. We open with a detailed and scientific series of terms, which imply education, but we also get the son parroting the terms and professions that he’s heard about, so perhaps he’s simply repeating what he’s heard (not read). There’s also the way in which he describes his father: in the present tense, literal confusion about his father’s actions would make sense, and his disgust and shame would be more active, more motivating. But looking back on this man? This man who abandoned him? Speaking as if he still respects him, only to reveal that he doesn’t, only to then prove that he does . . . wouldn’t his feelings be less fluid in the future? Again, without the entirety of Yan’s novel, it’s impossible to really assess the validity and efficacy of these choices (when stacked up against the character as a whole), which is why I spend so much of my own comments somewhat second-guessing myself.

    I will say this, though, having read your notes and some others on the Interweb (check out the Mookse and Gripes comment thread), I find that even if I don’t enjoy a story, I love reading the sorts of interpretations that pop up when so much ambiguity is left in a tale’s rough wake.

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