"Life and Death are Wearing Me Out" is a 2005 novel by Mo Yan, published in Chinese as "生死疲劳". It was translated into English by Howard Goldblatt in 2008. Although the Nobel Prize for Literature is not awarded to specific works, it was one of the novels that Mo Yan published before his 2012 prize, and was probably one of the works that earned him the prize. I coincidentally begin reading the book just a week before Mo Yan's prize was announced.

The book is about Ximen Nao, a moral and hardworking landlord who is executed by the Communist Party in 1950. Pleading his case to Lord Yama, the ruler of the underworld, he is allowed to be reincarnated back in his home village. However, Lord Yama decides to not send him back as a human, but rather as a series of animals: a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog, and a monkey, before he is reincarnated as a human 50 years later. In his animal forms, Ximen Nao witnesses the intertwined lives of his family and friends, as well as five decades of tumultuous Chinese history. His adventures as an animal are comic, and full of salty humor, while the encapsulation of Chinese history is tragicomic. This book is long, as befits a five decade saga, with my edition coming in at 500 pages.

Despite having a complex cast of characters, I found this book easy to read. Like other recent books I have read, I found it hard to decide what exactly the author was aiming for after having read it. The book takes a Buddhist cosmological framework as its central device, although I don't know if this is for spiritual reasons as much as for narrative convenience. It is a political and social history, with some very cutting satire of the Communist Party, although I don't know how to interpret that, since apparently Mo Yan has had a complex relationship with the Communist Party. It is a folktale of sorts, with intelligent animals engaging in trickery. And it is a sprawling, blue collar soap opera with generations of families engaging in feuds. Which is the "correct" reading? Like any good book, the fun is that all of them are.

As a last note, I have been disappointed in the past when reading books by Nobel Prize winning authors, because it sets my expectations so high. Since I started reading this book right before Mo Yan won the prize, I wasn't picking it apart as much as I might have if he had already won. But even besides that, in many ways Mo Yan is not typical of some recent prize winners, and this books shows it. While it is, indeed, "literary fiction", it is also meant to be a book read by anyone, not an experimental or avant-garde work.

Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out
Written by Mo Yan, Translated by Howard Goldblatt.
540 Pages
Arcade Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-55970-853-1
Library of Congress Catalog Number: PL2886.O1684S5413 2008
Dewey Decimal: 895.1352

The very atmosphere is thick with the sudden weeping of thousands of old trees, that were not ready to die. Add a killing frost and I was not able to save plants in window boxes or cracked clay pots, above ground. It took more energy than I had to keep my mother going as if all was fine. The last two weeks I realized how draining it is not to use inappropriate language, fuck and all variations being high on the list. That and praying so much.

It is different when I am at her house, Irish prayers in every room, on every wall, even the guest bathroom has God holding you in the palm of his hand.

Prayer works for her; it has all of her life. Me, it comes and goes, to be completely truthful.

I would make a terrible pastor although I once applied for the position, even planned to go back to a university for a Masters in Divinity, paid for by the Methodists. Too many people died that year, like the trees, that were not ready to die. Instead I applied for a job as a grief counselor at a funeral home. But the drive was too far and the people were too creepy.

I ended up driving even further and flying around the country doing clay workshops with Paul Soldner instead. All that halted with 9/11, my father's death, and the sudden death of Pete Voulkos during a workshop in Bowling Green, Ohio. Lived like he was dying.

Someone here messaged me once, " You whine a lot for a grown-up."

I don't whine, man. I tell it like it is, in my crazy world because that's all I've got. So fuck yeah, don't read my motherfucking writing if it makes you lose sleep.

I don't ask much from Life, a little compassion, a little amusement, things to cry about, people to care for and love, a glimpse of beauty in the midst of the madness and graffiti-covered bridges with new American flags, high above on wire fences, replaced after the storm, just in time for Veterans' Day. I say raise them higher. Make more graffiti. Live like you were dying.

I don't even ask much from Death, just a few more years, for my husband, for my mother, for my kids and grandkids...

Me, I'm going out naked in a mink coat, on an ice floe off Alaska or in a small tidy house on an island of rocks, sitting on the porch, sipping the darkest beer I can get, the darker the better. You can all visit or join me if it's your time, just bring snuggling material because it might be cold. All will be forgiven and we will be weary no more. Most likely, there will be singing or chanting or the reciting of old poems and stories from distant times and it won't matter if you forget a word or two. There will be no fighting about facts and if a helicopter arrives, we will put together a podcast of stuff and nonsense to send off into space for future travelers.

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