The Lonely Language

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, November 11, 2007


By Ha Jin

Pantheon. 660 pp. $26

Ha Jin's success in the United States has been an extraordinary rebuttal to Yeats's claim that "no man can think or write with music and vigor except in his mother tongue." An immigrant from China who survived the Cultural Revolution and almost six years in the People's Liberation Army, Jin had been writing in English less than a decade when he won a PEN/Hemingway Award in 1996 for his first story collection, Ocean of Words. The next year, his second collection, Under the Red Flag, won the Flannery O'Connor Award; Waiting took a National Book Award in 1999; and War Trash was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. And yet despite this pile of literary laurels and a professorship at Boston University, Jin still seems troubled by Yeats's dictum.

His enormous new novel, A Free Life, his first to be set in the United States, is the most autobiographical of his works. It tells an archetypal tale of immigrant struggle and success, but its real focus is the author's battle to break into the language and the literary culture of his adopted country. The story begins in Boston soon after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Nan Wu is a political science student at Brandeis with a beautiful wife he does not love and a 6-year-old son. The changed political climate makes it impossible for Nan to go home, and it seems senseless now to finish his PhD. "He had no idea what he was going to do," the narrator writes. "Such an independent condition was new to him. . . . Now he would have to earn a living by himself and also support his family. He was free, free to choose his own way and to make something of himself. But what were the choices available to him? Could he survive in this land? The feeling of uncertainty overwhelmed him."

The problem of freedom has been central to all Jin's previous works, but how fascinatingly different that problem looks in a free country. Liberty raises the specter of failure, poverty and uselessness in a way unimaginable to Nan back in China, where he was "provided a salary, shelter (usually a bed or at most a room), coupons for cloth and grain and cooking oil, medical care, and sometimes even free condoms." Now, he and his wife are given asylum, but nothing else. "I feel like a crippled man here," he thinks.

His fellow students switch to more marketable degrees in business and law, but Nan wants to write poetry, even though he knows there's no audience for Chinese poetry in America and no possibility of having his work published back home. Despondent about his career and still pining for a girlfriend who cast him off years before, he takes a series of low-paying jobs and presses on through a fog of depression and shame. Eventually, he and his wife, Pingping, manage to scrape together enough money to buy a small Chinese restaurant in Atlanta, where they build a successful business, buy a house and attain the trappings of the American dream.

That dream is complicated, though, by the persistence of Nan's desire to write poetry in English, a desire Jin draws with aching sympathy. "He knew that in this land the language was like a body of water in which he had to learn how to swim and breathe, even though he'd feel out of his element whenever he used it. If he didn't try hard to adapt himself, developing new 'lungs and gills' for this alien water, his life would be confined and atrophied, and eventually wither away."

Over the years, even when working in menial jobs, Nan remains within the Chinese literary community, which introduces him to a broader circle of successful writers. Throughout the novel, Jin uses these encounters to present an odd series of cautionary tales about how not to live as an artist. Most of the names here are fictional, and maybe the writers he punctures are too vain to recognize themselves, but even in Nan's humble voice, there's no mistaking Jin's disdain: the pompous literary lion fawned over by a parasitic graduate student; a writer who manipulates his reputation by recycling positive reviews of his work through different journals; another who dissipates his talent with overexposure; all of them falling "prey to moneygrubbing instead of aspiring to a higher order of artistic achievement." A brief trip to the Iowa Writers' Workshop gives Nan a chance to look down on the next crop of American poets: They're smart enough, but he finds them "quite fragile," writing "mainly for themselves. . . . Poetry had become an esoteric art here, somewhat deprived of its vitality and earnestness."

And earnestness, Jin makes clear over these 600 irony-free pages, is pretty much the pinnacle of his artistic expression. In War Trash, Jin's restrained, unadorned voice rendered the horrors of a Korean prison camp all the more harrowing, but when used at this exhaustive length to describe the details of suburban Georgia, the story grows dull. And the structure of the novel -- scores of short chapters, each just a few pages long -- puts enormous emphasis on episodes that are frequently not very significant. That's a shame, not only because it buries some truly lovely sections involving Nan's wife, but also because the novel's corpulence smothers the poetic sensibility Nan keeps trying to develop.

The plot's lack of momentum is exacerbated by the number of potentially exciting events that rise up but come to naught. It's a pattern established right in the novel's opening when Nan's son is lost during the trans-Pacific flight to America. Don't worry: The boy was just dawdling on the plane. Soon afterward, Nan plots to kidnap the children of Chinese officials studying in America, but he quickly abandons that violent plan. Later, a lawyer swindles them out of their business, but, no, Nan was just being paranoid. A tornado approaches . . . and then blows over. A runaway teenager shows up on their doorstep, but then goes home to her mother. An armed man bursts into the restaurant, but police arrive before he does any harm. A neighbor asks Nan's wife to be a surrogate mother, but she decides not to. By the time their friends' daughter gets leukemia, I had no worries about the girl's future at all. This isn't so much a free life as a charmed one.

And yet throughout, we have to endure Nan's childish outbursts, his melodramatic self-denunciations, his obvious, tardy epiphanies. "Besides dreams, what else can I have?" he whines toward the end. How about a devoted wife, a successful business, a healthy son?

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