For the past 15 years, Ha Jin has been bringing essential literary news about China to the West. A native of Harbin, Jin was a student in Boston at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. Remaining in the United States, he began publishing poetry, novels, and short-stories that chronicled the generation, and the China, he left behind. He also completed a PhD and launched a career teaching at universities.
Novels Waiting and Crazed, along with the story collection The Bridegroom, have made Ha Jin a much-admired contemporary writer. His fiction, in particular, written in English and grounded in a deep humanism, routinely wins awards. Stories in his latest collection, A Good Fall, first appeared in The New Yorker and Granta.
With these stories, plus the recent novel A Free Life, Jin has moved from tracking upheavals and changes inside China to marking the dislocations of emigrants in America. This is important news as well, telling of the otherwise too marginal, too other-language tales unfolding in various "new" Chinatowns and concerning a distinct new group: exiles from Communist China.
Specifically, A Free Life stays close to Flushing, the neighbourhood in the New York borough of Queens. An early Dutch settlement on Long Island, and once home to working-class Americans of the Archie Bunker variety, Flushing is presently being transformed by arrivals from Zhejiang Province and cities in northeast China.
A few of Jin's characters are academics and artists. But the majority work, often illegally, in stores and sweatshops, and brothels run out of unassuming boarding houses. Some speak English but many do not, including the young monk of the title story. Scammed by his master at the Flushing temple where he has taught martial arts for two years, the despairing Ganchin resolves to commit suicide.
"You can always change," he is told by a friend. "This is America, where it's never too late to turn over a new page." He jumps off a building instead.
Ganchin's desperation is typical of A Good Fall. Women who owe Snakeheads for passage are stuck working as prostitutes, mostly for other Asians. A son asks to be fired from a decent job in order to convince his poisonous mother to return to China, and so save his own marriage. "I feel I'm still in the yuan system," one exile says of his ongoing economic hardships, "even though I've lived and worked in the United States for more than two decades."
Stresses and disappointments abound. Ha Jin is a big-hearted writer who spares his creations neither honest attention nor compassion. The Chinese of Flushing - or anywhere else in the United States - certainly won't find these portraits idealized. Nor is it likely they will consider them exaggerated.
Equally evident is an underlying optimism about the larger cultural narrative. At the point where he engages them, Jin's Chinese are mostly still moving in the underground of a narrow, often incarcerating subculture. But the strongest stories in the book, The Beauty and The House Behind a Weeping Cherry, suggest upward momentum. These people will soon emerge into the larger nation, a place of harsh but clear light, and of the ultimate opportunity implied by the title of his previous fiction: to live freely.
A happy feeling about the United States sets Ha Jin apart from other chroniclers of this New World dynamic. Kiran Desai's acclaimed The Inheritance of Loss, for instance, puts Indians from the subcontinent on similar New York streets. Ambivalence about material lures and a sense of cultural loss inform her less-cheerful vision of the transformations under way.
A Good Fall may contain news of China that the West still needs, along with a reassuring message about the United States as the enduring land of promise, but it does so awkwardly. A dozen books into his career, Ha Jin remains a limited stylist with a faulty ear for dialogue. At best, his prose is plain. Too frequently, it is constructed upon the dead-language foundations of verbal cliché.
When a "Latino" takes a crowbar to a car windshield, he explains his motives in a cringing mash of failed street talk ("No cop's gonna save your ass") and cinematic hardboiled. ("Let me tell you, quit using a private dick.") Having the victim cry out, "You've got the wrong man," doesn't help.
Dialogue of poor pitch, or stretches of lifeless prose, can be more easily absorbed into novels. Stories, in contrast, are tonally fragile; a single wrong note throws off the entire melody. Jin's kitchen-sink realism suits his straightforward thematic intentions well. But the approach leaves many of the stories in A Good Fall sounding as curiously dated as the term "private dick."
Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's most recent book is Join the Revolution, Comrade.