Book World: Marie Arana reviews 'A Good Fall: Stories' by Ha Jin

(Richard Mia)
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By Marie Arana
Wednesday, December 9, 2009



By Ha Jin


240 pp. $24.95

The novelist Ha Jin knows a thing or two about captivity. In "Waiting," which won the 1999 National Book Award for fiction, he described the 18-year anguish of a soldier in China's Revolutionary Army, longing to be free from an unhappy marriage, waiting to consummate his relationship with the woman he most desires. In "War Trash," which was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, he told of a Chinese prisoner of war in Korea, negotiating the political labyrinths of the camps, yearning to return to his homeland.

The characters who populate his books share a single scarring experience: They are hostages to circumstance, prisoners of faceless institutions, victims of tyrannies they are powerless to control. Now, in "A Good Fall," his most recent collection of stories, Ha Jin puts his captives in America and turns a new prism on the question of freedom.

Ha Jin is no stranger to America. Leaving China in 1985 to take up a scholarship at Brandeis University, he found himself witnessing the historic events of the Tiananmen massacre from the tranquil vantage of a small town in Massachusetts. The ferocity of that crackdown and the sudden sting of dislocation made an instant and deep impression. He decided to produce his future works in English so that there would be no doubt about what he intended to say.

What he has intended to say has blossomed into an array of English-language works that have won him considerable recognition: a volume of essays, three books of poetry, four collections of short stories and five truly probing novels. Among these, no work is like any other; each reaches into a new province of bondage. Whether his characters rail against industry or marriage or war or even a strange and bewildering culture, the subject at hand is our very human impulse for liberation.

In the title story of "A Good Fall," for instance, a young Buddhist monk who teaches martial arts in New York is unexpectedly fired by his unscrupulous master. Sick, penniless, threatened with forced repatriation and unable to utter a sentence in English, the ocher-robed alien wanders the streets of an affluent city, searching for deliverance. In "The Beauty," a young father is jealous of his beautiful wife, alarmed by their ugly baby and anxious to rid himself of the predations of cuckoldry. The tables turn -- as do his notions of betrayal -- when his wife makes an unexpected confession. A very different notion of freedom rules in "The House Behind a Weeping Cherry": In it, a hapless driver for a gaggle of prostitutes dreams of springing one of the women, running away with her and making a better life elsewhere.

Several of the stories reflect the American environment Ha Jin knows best: the unforgiving world of university academics. In "An English Professor," for instance, an expatriate scholar becomes a victim of his own ambush when he realizes that he signed his tenure request with the nonexistent word "Respectly." For days, he agonizes over the reaction that that simple typo will trigger: Why on Earth is a Chinese man teaching English here?

At the heart of this book is the alienation any immigrant feels in an unfamiliar land. No confinement, no prison, the author seems to say, can match the isolation of life in a foreign culture. America may be the mecca of opportunity, a dynamic agent for change, a place where hard work can redeem any beginner, but it is also a ruthless master. A newcomer may welcome that rare and precious second chance, but the attendant sacrifices can be brutal. America's gods -- ambition, success, the coveted green card, money -- can be as cruel as any jailer.

In short, the storyteller's art is richly on display here. Ha Jin has a singular talent for snaring a reader. His premises are gripping, his emotional bedrock hard and true. But in "A Good Fall" he doesn't always succeed in the delivery. Anyone who travels these pages is sure to stumble on inelegant locutions. To wit: "The two sides, somehow knowing most of the authors' real names despite the pseudonyms they used, argued furiously and dished out muck that should have remained undisturbed in the cellars of their opponents' past." Or: "I made myself busy to quench my miserable feelings." There's more than a whisper of awkwardness here. Perhaps more disturbingly, the very last sentences of every one of these stories is weak, lacking a sharply cut finish.

But there is no doubt that in "A Good Fall" Ha Jin captures a new, growing slice of America. It may not be as eye-blistering as the perspective he offers in his novels about China, but there's something arresting about the view. You might even call it: captivating.

Arana is a former editor of Book World and the author of the novels "Cellophane" and "Lima Nights." Ron Charles is on vacation.

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