A Book Review by David Chau
The characters in Ha Jin’s latest collection of short stories, A Good Fall, are suspended between desire and obligation, their personal freedoms often impaired by a debt from the past. Entering the stories through memory, or the arrival of family members, or encounters with fellow countrymen, China is an invisible force that interrupts the lives of many of these characters who have immigrated to America. Thousands of miles from their native land, the men and women who inhabit these deceptively simple narratives navigate life in New York, pursuing freedom, love, fortune, and success in the midst of some kind of uncertainty or dissatisfaction. They may have crossed the ocean to America, but the tentacles of personal history are far reaching. “I used to believe that in the United States you could always reshape your relationships with the people back home—you could restart your life on your own terms,” one character opines. “But the internet has spoiled everything—my family is able to get hold of me whenever they like. They might as well live nearby.”
Here, familial ties are often a source of friction which leads to the dissolution of relationships, to defection, or to attempted suicide. Jin presents sensitive yet uneven portraits of people whose problems stem not only from external forces but also from their own individual sense of duty. Frequently, they are helpless to remedy their situations because to do so would have negative consequences on their families or loved ones. A husband questions the fidelity of his wife and the paternity of their daughter when he sees her feeding nuts to another man in the bar of a hotel. A graduate student becomes embroiled in a love triangle involving a mother and daughter. A monk leaps from a five-storey building after his income is withheld, ashamed of the financial burden that it will bring his parents.
As one of the most acclaimed writers of Asian American literature, Jin has received numerous accolades including the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Asian American Literary Award, and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. His writing is notable for the simplicity of its language, the way he can convey, vividly, the worlds of his characters without resorting to literary pyrotechnics. He has a cinematographic ability to set a scene, utilizing detail to sharpen the image in the mind’s eye, thereby absorbing the reader into the physical and emotional interiors of his imagination.
These gifts are on full display in titles like the National Book Award winning novel, Waiting, and the short story collections Ocean of Words and The Bridegroom. The moderate tempo of these works compliments the languor and high-definition imagery of Jin’s prose. These sensitive examinations of love and marriage, patriotism and duty, government and injustice, are excellent introductions to the author’s body of work. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about A Good Fall. The characters and their scenarios in this latest volume of short fiction do not linger in the reader’s memory. Very few, in fact, make much of an impression beyond the finale of their respective stories. Composed predominantly of previously published material, the twelve pieces in this collection do not do justice to the author’s narrative power.
In this volume, Jin’s characteristically intricate landscapes are underdeveloped, the sensory dimensions no longer palpable. His storytelling is flushed with delicate psychological observations that enrich the reader’s experience, yet in A Good Fall these details seldom convey the kind of texture that informed his prior books and made them luminous.
A Good Fall opens with the original story, “The Bane of the Internet.” In it, a sushi waitress in Brooklyn finds herself blackmailed by her sister in Sichuan who has “caught the national auto mania” and has resorted to delusional measures in order to buy a car. “If she messed up her life,” the narrator thinks, “there would be nobody to care for our old parents. If I was living near them, I might have called her bluff, but now there was no way out.”
Family conflict extends across generations in the scathing “Children as Enemies.” An elderly couple bitterly regrets migrating from Dalian City as they witness their grandchildren’s rejection of “everything Chinese except for some food they like.” The resentment they feel towards their son and his clan, towards elementary education and morality in America, leads to a family divided. America in A Good Fall is provider of both opportunity and corruption. The characters have arrived to better their lives but with new terrains come new struggles.
Turmoil ranges from ordinary — like the disconnect among relatives in “Children as Enemies” and “In the Crossfire,” and the uncertainty of landing a coveted job as described in “An English Professor” — to epic, as superbly illustrated in “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry.”