As I have noted here before, I am a sucker for a well designed book. I will admit that I am often draw to a book by its size, shape, and cover design. This may be obvious and normal or it may be a sign of my shallowness. Of course I don’t generally read books unless the content backs up the initial attraction brought on by the design.
Why this long-winded discursion? It so happens I was first drawn to the work of Dai Sijie by the compact attractive design of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. That turned out to be a worthwhile find as I really enjoyed Sijie’s first novel.
Despite being the proprietor of a literary/book blog I was unaware that Sijie had a second novel forthcoming until I stumbled upon it in the bookstore. Given my enjoyment of Balzac I didn’t hesitate to pick up Mr. Muo’s Traveling Couch.
As you might have guessed from the title, the story centers around Mr. Muo a budding Freudian psychoanalyst returning to China after a decade in France. Mr. Muo views himself as an interpreter of dreams with Freud and Lacan as his mentors and inspiration. In order to save his imprisoned college sweetheart Muo must procure a virgin for the corrupt and sinister Judge Di. This quest takes him on a rambling journey through China where he plys his services and encounters the odd world of a country stuck awkwardly between a lingering totalitarian past and a not quite arrived capitalist future.
As many of the reviewers have noted, those looking for the tight and poignant story line of Balzac will be disappointed. Instead Mr. Muo offers a sort of rambling fanciful adventure. If you want to be high falutin’ I guess you could call it a picaresque novel with Mr. Muo as the “roguish hero” living by his wits as he travels through the “corrupt society” of China.
While Mr. Muo lacks the neatness and linear path of Balzac I found it an enjoyable read. Sijie has such a way with words that you easily forgive him the sometimes disjointed nature of the story. I think Elinor Lipman captured it well in her review in the Washington Post:
The set pieces and the slaying of symbolic dragons that line Muo’s path sometimes interrupt rather than drive the story, which may be Dai’s filmmaker’s eye lending action to his hero’s yearnings. But we keep reading Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch for its voice and wit, for the delicious turns of phrase and perfect characterizations of a naif with professional pretensions inside a “poor dreamy and dream-interpreting head.”
Anyone who enjoys quirky and imaginative storytelling, or appreciates a glimpse of modern China through the eyes of a fictional character, will enjoy Mr. Muo’s Traveling Couch. I know I did.