Any reviewer would be justified in calling Ha Jin's latest 672 page
novel plodding, the prose laborious, the observations and reflections banal, the
dialogue awkward and wooden. So why didn't I stop reading it? Perhaps because
Jin is a sly writer, whether he means to be or not. His bare, stilted prose
sneaks up on the reader, hiding its emotional and intellectual impact in formal
robes, until after 400 pages, one single turning point reveals the sum of their
hidden parts. Nan and Pingping Wu have brought their young son to America,
worked hard at menial jobs, opened a restaurant, bought and paid off a house in
only a handful of rather unremarkable years. Their business is thriving, they
have money in the bank, and their son is still in grammar school. Their marriage
is weary, but it began that way. As a reader, I'm more than a little perplexed
by how little has happened up to this point, how meticulously detailed that
"nothing" is, and more than a little suspicious I'm missing something. After
all, Ha Jin is a Pulitzer Prize winner something's got to give, right?
Lulled and soothed by the day-to-day ins-and-outs of Nan and Pingping's life, I'm feebly happy for them when their business thrives, vaguely regretful when their marriage falters, mildly reassured when it slides back on track. Turning the pages is a form of meditation, the five pages describing, say, Nan's frustration with the bird feeder is somehow readable, but confusing for that very reason. All in all, I'm numb contentedly so, but numb nevertheless, and wondering if it's worth reading on. Then, all of a sudden, on page 418, I realize that's exactly how I'm supposed to feel. Stunned after receiving the title to his house, Nan Wu realizes that in just a few years he's accomplished what typically takes most immigrants a lifetime. The goal that was supposed to sustain him into old age -- the struggle that should have staved off Nan's own dreams for a larger intellectual and creative life, sacrificing so his child might entertain real dreams and ambitions has been met too early. Finding ownership and monetary success far more acceptable and easily obtained than his more nebulous ambitions, Nan becomes placated by the rhythm of the minor successes and setbacks, a monotone of "success" in process, gradually distanced from his desire to be a poet, and from the memory of his first, passionate love. The jolt of dissatisfaction rekindles Nan's deeper ambitions, and at this point I hope it might do the same for the novel. Unfortunately, it doesn't. Nan remains wishy-washy and lost, and the novel peters out evenly, ending in the same flatline as it began.
What worked marvelously in Jin's earlier novel, Waiting, doesn't work as well in A Free Life, twice as long and half as exotic. Waiting's achingly slow-moving plot serves to mirror the main character's dutiful 18-year wait in communist China for his forbidden true love, and in just over 300 pages, that device works. The prose is similarly deliberate and seemingly mundane, but the otherwise banal details are made more seductive by the fact of their foreign locale.
Clearly, readers will fall into separate camps over A Free Life. Something about Jin's detached, yet obsessively attentive prose is ultimately readable, and produces a style that some will read as refreshingly spare and realist, while others find stunted and astoundingly boring. The bottom line: If you've never read anything by Ha Jin, definitely read Waiting first. If you're one of many who read Waiting and loved it, then try out A Free Life. Already attuned to his stripped prose styling, you'll be interested to see what happens when he removes the layer of exoticism and lays bare the classic immigrant story with his meticulous rendering and trademark reserve.
This review was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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