four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Yiyun Li
user_rating: 
0

A-The VagrantsBorn in China, Yiyun Li currently lives in Oakland, California. This is her first novel, though she previously published a prize-winning book of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers ( 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006).

The Story: Following the death of Mao Zedong, many young Chinese who had eagerly embraced his Cultural Revolution became caught up in a dangerous game of denunciations. Some teenagers who were called on to participate in the revolution committed terrible acts and were later jailed, ironically, as counterrevolutionaries. One young woman, Gu Shan, faces death as a result this pattern. But she has no voice in this novel; indeed, before her public execution in the fictional town of Muddy River, her vocal chords have been severed. Instead, the book tells the stories of those who will witness her death: her parents; a girl whose life was severely altered by Gu’s actions; and Kai, a childhood friend whose life took a very different course. While each character is affected by the spectacular execution, it is the efforts of Kai to memorialize her friend that ultimately reconcile these stories with the overall trajectory of dissent in China.
Random House. 337 pages. $25. ISBN: 1400063132

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Every character is vivid, engaging and yet somehow indescribable outside the world of Muddy River, where even dusty sparrows hunched on the smoky rooftops seem inured to the possibility of flight. In this most amazing first novel, Yiyun Li has found a way to combine the jeweled precision of her short-story-writer’s gaze with a spellbinding vision of the power of the human spirit to not only survive near-annihilation, but to open up a space in the devastation for some kind of healing." Conan Putnam

Independent (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"With its controlled understatement and scrupulous and unsparing lucidity, The Vagrants is a work of great moral poise and dignity. … As a chronicle of political betrayal under a modern dictatorship, The Vagrants is a minor classic; I have not read such a compelling work in years." Ian Thomson

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Vagrants is a stunning debut novel, bleak in its clarity about life in the aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution. … It is the emotions of the characters—the grief of the parents for the child they lost long ago, Kai’s longing for something more important than her life, Nini’s and Bashi’s outcast loneliness, even Tong’s search for his lost dog—that make the story powerful." Robin Vidimos

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Li’s characters, with a few exceptions, are marginal people with little access to officialdom. The execution and its consequences are largely seen from their perspective—that of people for whom the state is something to be placated rather than discussed—and the novel concentrates on the unexpected ways in which the political and the personal intersect." Christopher Tayler

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Li presents a desolate yet fully transporting vision of China in the turmoil of the late 1970s, still reeling from the death of Mao Zedong and clinging to unclear measures of political rectitude and very clear methods of political corruption. She skillfully encapsulates this larger vision into the monstrous, Sino-Dickensian details of Muddy River’s dysfunctional family life." Janet Maslin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"A meditation on fate, causality and suffering, The Vagrants is not for the fainthearted." Joan Frank

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[Li] doesn’t condemn or condescend to a single soul here, just makes us see how nerve-racking and soul-killing it must be to live in a despotic nation run by a lot of very high-strung people. For readers who love complex novels about worlds we scarcely understand, The Vagrants will be a revelation." Carolyn See

Critical Summary

Reviewers were clearly impressed by The Vagrants, especially noteworthy because it is Li’s first novel. They valued its memorable and nuanced characters, its simultaneous severity and humor, and the way Li creates moral ambiguity without diminishing the bravery and sacrifice of Chinese dissidents. The only complaint was that Li’s portrayal of the misery of Muddy River can be somewhat overwhelming; readers "may grow numbed, or more strangely (and disturbingly), inured under its assault" (San Francisco Chronicle). But even that reviewer compared The Vagrants to some of the great Western works that explore the absurdity of rituals of persecution, suggesting that this novel has a power that easily transcends its particular time and place.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Gu Shan is a member of the generation that came of age during the Cultural Revolution. How do characters who are part of older generations–such as the Huas, Teacher and Mrs. Gu–act and react towards the Revolution and then the later counter revolution?

2. Among the many characters we meet in Muddy River, there are several distinct family groups, including Nini, with her parents and five sisters, Bashi and his grandmother, Kai, her husband, baby, and in-laws, and Teacher Gu and his wife and daughter. What do these different family units tell the reader about family life in China since the Revolution? What traditions have been upheld?

3. Teacher Gu reminds his wife of an ancient poem: “Seeing is not as good as staying blind” (103). What was he trying to tell her? What characters experience incidents or confront issues of sight versus blindness? How does the message of this line relate to The Vagrants as a whole?

4. What does this novel tell us about being an insider versus an outsider? How do characters who are clearly outsiders–such as Tong, who was raised in a village, and Bashi, who does not have a unit, fare in Muddy River? How are they viewed by regular workers and schoolchildren, and how do they interact with such characters?

5. Gu Shan’s denunciation brings together residents from all parts of Muddy River society, yet the reader does not know her as well as many other characters. What can you infer about her character, beliefs, and behavior from the other characters? Was she guilty? Was she innocent?

6. Certain characters, such as Kai, outwardly appear to be agents of the state, and disseminate state propaganda. In which instances do characters unwittingly act as agents of the state? What do these examples show us about oppressive governments and societies?

7. Ghosts, such as those of Gu Shan or Bashi’s grandmother, are invoked at different points throughout the novel. What role do ghosts play in the minds of the characters? In the larger story? What does the juxtaposition of modern government propaganda with traditional beliefs such as ghosts illustrate?

8. When Han fears a reversal of his good fortune, he reminds Kai of the saying that “the one who robs and succeeds will become the king, and the one who tries and fails will be called a criminal” (208). He clearly refers to his own political future, but to which other characters and situations in The Vagrants can this saying be applied? Do some of these situations recur in literature and history? Compare these external examples to the ones in the novel.

9. Though the events in the novel are complex, they represent only one relatively small, provincial city in the vastness of China. Stepping back, do you think that the circumstances in Muddy River were similar to, or differ from, circumstances in other cities in China? Beijing? How do the characters view Beijing?

10. The stark and vivid images in this novel are unique. Can you point out a few effective images that helped the novel come alive for you as a reader?

11. Discuss some of the most universal themes of The Vagrants. What makes them universal? In what ways do Yiyun Li’s distinctive style and use of language contribute to, or reinforce, these themes?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.