The Crazed is narrated by Jian Wan, a literature grad student whose transformation is at the center of the novel. Rational to the point of detachment, yet endowed with the seeds of a turbulent inner life, he's an ideal if slightly tiresome mouthpiece for Jin's realist voice. When his mentor, Professor Yang, suffers an "unsettling" stroke, Jian dutifully cares for him but worries that the job will interfere with his upcoming exams. Unlike his passionate professor, who suffered in the Cultural Revolution for declaring that Goethe was a great poet, Jian barely cares for literature, studying only so he can secure a place at Beijing University and join his fiancé, Meimei, who is Yang's daughter. His eyes are shut—and it's Yang's job to open them.
Yet in Yang's madness, Jian begins to find clarity of mind. Yang's caustic torments terrorize his mild student—and gradually cause Jian to question the career that has been set before him, the mentor he thought he knew and the world in which he lives. He's not the only one. While Jian sinks into depression, wondering whether he should bother sitting for his exams and doom himself to a barren life "as a clerk in a workshop", news of a student gathering in Beijing arrives through BBC radio broadcasts and Meimei's letters from the restive capital. Jian wants to stay out of it, but in the spring of 1989 that's impossible.
Jin nails the claustrophobic, poisonous atmosphere of academia, but the recounting of life in the bamboo tower quickly grows didactic and stale. The reader tires of it faster than Jian does. It doesn't help that Jian is an affecting character but too often a lifeless narrator; like a typical grad student, he often misses the greater point for the stubborn detail. He watches his future father-in-law ignited by a Lear-like madness and wonders obtusely, "Perhaps he should be treated by a psychiatrist; acupuncture or acupressure might help him too."
Don't bet on it. As the novel and Jian roll closer to June 4, it becomes clear, almost too clear, that the pent-up anguish of Yang, his student and all of seething China will break open in Beijing, "the sick heart of this country." Jin's description of the massacre is vivid, short and sorrowful, suffused with the Inferno-like imagery he evokes throughout the novel. Frenzy overtakes first the soldiers, "unstoppable like a crazed dragon," and then their victims, consumed by grief, cursing the government even as they fall. It's at Tiananmen that Jin's scrupulous realism, which can prove a drag, pays off with bitter authenticity. His clean and lucid sentences contrast effectively with the insanity of soldiers executing unarmed students in the streets. Jian, an accidental protester, is left as devastated as the rest; he can only repeat numbly to himself, "They killed lots of people, lots."
The Crazed has elements that Waiting lacked: a recognizable plot with a recognizable, powerful climax. But whereas Waiting gained passion from the slow-burn love of its main characters, The Crazed is forced to rely on too-familiar history. This time around, Jin aims for more but achieves less.
The dark vision of China in The Crazed is that "of an old hag so decrepit and brainsick that she would devour her children to sustain herself." As Jin sees it, the Chinese are walled in on all sides: the intellectuals by a culture of falsehood, the students by tanks and troops, the peasants by their relentless poverty and everyone by paralyzing fear. In Waiting, Jin explored the emotional cost of enduring within those walls, but in The Crazed the pressure is simply too much. The dream of so many can be deferred no longer. Like a stroke, the only way out is to explode, and suffer the hemorrhage.