I seem to be immersed (ahem) in a sort of fecal attraction of late. Some strange synchronicity has led me to a small eructation of Body narratives: teaching and re-reading (with enormous pleasure) Katherine Dunn's Geek Love
, with its carny carnality, its freak-show delight in the grotesqueries of human bodies, desires, behavior; watching with strange nervous delight as director Nicholas Refn and star Tom Hardy pull off the high-wire-balance of anarchy and aesthetics, of a brutal Punch-and-Judy-meet-the-Krays commedia dell'arte in Bronson
; watching with queasy wonder as Steve McQueen doesn't just envision but embodies (without romanticizing) the violent politics of the Troubles, Bobby Sands, dirty protests, IRA assassinations in Hunger
. And now this novel.
Bodies. Naked, fucking, shitting, dying, bleeding, eating, beating, dwindling, needing, farting, belching. The big-C Comic physicality of self and body politics. This is my kind of politics and my kind of aesthetics: materialist, tonally complex, derisive of Transcendent truths. (Dare I say?: Human.)
Yu's novel Brothers
is the carnival history of twentieth-century China, told via the story of two boys and one small town. Carnival not in the sense of whooping silly fun, but in the grand tradition of Mikhail Bakhtin's vision: all of life, horrid then hysterical, cultural blurred into individual and back again, Penal and penile, terribly terribly Serious Comedy. Or comic sobriety.
The first half begins with buttpeeper Baldy Li, yanked out of the outhouse where he spies on the town's maidens, innocently repeating his own father's behavior but avoiding dad's untimely demise (startled in the act, he falls into the muck, and drowns). Baldy Li, on the other hand, prospers. The book quickly shifts earlier in time, and the first 200-some pages follow his engagement with eventual step-brother Song Gang, his mother and stepfather's joyous romance, and the hysteria of the Cultural Revolution. The first part is wildly funny, then horrifying, then horrifyingly funny, then wildly sad, sweepingly Melodramatically Weepy, always prone to fart jokes and penis chatter, lots of slurping of noodles, lots of blood spilled. It is beautiful, and transporting--like the best serious comic art.
Part two is more picaresque, shifts from the tight time-frame following the boys in a specific locale and a specific historical period to a more sweeping, episodic rush through the rest of the 20th-c. It is often funny, and often sharp and challenging, and often repetitive, and rarely as moving or dazzling or horrifying as Part One. So my love faded, 'though I still liked the novel.
But I recommend this very, very highly--Part One is superb, and the rest fades primarily in comparison. A five-star novel and a three-star novel.