It's no great wonder that Dai Sijie's novels wheel around the clashing and blending of cultures—a Chinese writer-director based in Paris, Sijie writes in French about the impact of European writing on Chinese provincials. His life, like his work, is a rich cultural torte, and the translation of his books into English just adds another layer. But while Sijie's new novel, Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch, follows some of the same themes as his bestselling debut, 2001's Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress, it loses much of the simple, fable-like quality that made Seamstress so potent. Sijie's debut was about ideas and emotions that cross national and even chronological boundaries; the follow-up demotes that concept to just another element in a disorganized jumble.
Seamstress follows a pair of young Chinese men whose lives, placed on hold by the Cultural Revolution, are rekindled by a cache of forbidden Western novels; Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch varies the formula by moving the action closer to the present-day, and centering the protagonist's obsessions around academia rather than literature. The titular Muo, a shy, fumbling 40-year-old returning home to China after more than a decade studying psychoanalysis in Paris, is more devoted to spreading Freud's teachings than to furthering his own experience—he readily dissects the sexual content of strangers' dreams, but he's a virgin himself, and even the prospect of sex seems to unnerve him. So long as he's psychoanalyzing (or fantasizing about) women, he's on solid ground, but once an interaction turns personal, he panics and loses his way, even questioning Freud's efficacy in the face of Chinese attitudes toward sex, gender, and the yin/yang rift.
Mr. Muo eventually develops a plot, as Muo attempts to procure a virgin for a corrupt local judge, in payment for the release of a political dissident whom Muo adores from afar. But like so much about the novel, that plotline never finds resolution or focus. Sijie illustrates his dry, loosely connected comic riffs in expansive, flowery prose; at least in the English translation, it can be hard to burrow between sentences and find meaning and motive. Muo himself is a mystery—his idol Freud would doubtless trace his dysfunctions to childhood, but Sijie never explains why Muo is an ineffectual mess, and barely touches on his history or even his present feelings, beyond hapless confusion. Which leaves the book dense, busy, and unsatisfying. Sijie certainly predicates some humor on the idea that China's first Freudian is more in need of analysis than anyone he runs across, but like the rest of the book, it's a joke with no form, and no punchline.