Ha Jin must write the plainest, quietest declarative sentences of any significant present-day American writer. “My sister Yuchin and I used to write each other letters.” “The flyer said, 'The applicant must be able to teach various subjects, including the preparation for the SAT.'” “Our grandchildren hate us.” “The employees could tell that the company was floundering and that some of them would lose their jobs soon.” Occasionally, he throws in a hook: “Before departing for Thailand with her film crew, Supriya left in Fanlin's care the parakeet she had inherited from a friend.”
These are the opening sentences of stories in Ha Jin's fine third collection, A Good Fall. Jin, who has lived in the United States and written in English for twenty-five years—nearly half his life—is a master of the straightforward line; he makes the most of his spareness. As in Chekhov's late work, his writing (which is mostly stripped of adjectives and adverbs) covers a lot of ground quickly—no-frills sentences about Chinese immigrants who lead no-frills lives in New York.
Jin's forte is to begin with a cliché of “the immigrant experience” and then, with a light touch, to upend it, or stretch it to the breaking point, or chuckle over it, or recover the sweetness in it. His dominant tones are wistfulness and affection: beiges, tans, and grays. His writing is modest and unobtrusive, not brutalist, not sardonic, not choked with the knowingness that is all the rage in the wilderness of fiction today. He doesn't crash his way into a reader's consciousness, or pirouette. His sentences read like sentences held at a distance.
Jin, who is old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution, decided to leave China for the United States after the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989. He began by writing in English about China, where he remains controversial. (A few years ago, I met an American Studies professor, himself an unrepentant veteran of the Cultural Revolution, who dismissed Jin's plangent and much acclaimed novel Waiting as too anti-communist.) If anything, Jin's time in the United States not only freed him from Chinese censorship but made his spare sentences even leaner: he has learned to travel light. The more spare, the more American—influenced by Hemingway, an early love.
Jin started writing about the United States in his novel A Free Life, which appeared in 2007. He now makes his way around the working Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans of Queens, where Asians—as it might surprise a certain recent vice-presidential candidate to learn—outnumber the residents of all the cities populated by one thousand or more souls in the state of Alaska. Jin's stories are not about marginal people, but about ordinary people at home in American restlessness, estranged among strangers, remade but not melted down by the immensity they try to inhabit.
Jin's characters find themselves in little dramas of estrangement, rescue, and hard-won hope. They are mired in debt. They have visa problems. They willingly pay the high psychic and financial costs of fitting in, and yet they often fail to do so. The natives sometimes treat them harshly. A cook who repatriates his dollars to his family in China says he's “so desperate for cash that I feel like mugging someone.” Other Chinese and Chinese-Americans treat them harshly, too. The head of a Chinese temple goes to great lengths to deprive a young monk of his promised salary. (But a lawyer says: “This is America, a land ruled by law, and nobody is entitled to abuse others with impunity.”)
Their families wear them down. Coastal, cosmopolitan glamour wears them down. They are lonely—they seem to rattle around in small apartments in Queens, looking for connections or giving up on them. “This is America,” one concludes, “where we must learn self-reliance and mind our own business.” Another, American-born: “This is America, where it's never too late to turn over a new page.”And: “Except for the Indians, nobody's really a native in the United States.You mustn't think of yourself as a stranger—this country belongs to you if you live and work here."To Jin, this is innocence, not stupidity. He is bemused by the innocence of some of his characters, but appreciates the seriousness of their moral groping. They are sincere about what lies on both sides of the Chinese-American hyphen.
Jin's people have all the ordinary troubles of Americans and the extra ones of outsiders. A Chinese professor of American literature defects, and finds a job washing dishes. Two young people practice “temporary love” in New York while their spouses in China save up for a reunion. As in classics of immigrant literature from a century ago or more, America is a land of relative virtues and estrangements—a compromised land. Jin's characters live at odd angles to an America that is, across the board, somehow weightless—yet, in its own way, liberating.
Even if these characters feel uprooted, they don't regret their passage from China, for they have few if any illusions about the quality of life they left behind. Often, in fact, they wish they could uproot even more definitively. A smaller world, for example, traps a young woman with a troubled sister back home. E-mail enables her to keep up family ties, but communicative proximity blows up in her face. “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. But the Internet has spoiled everything—my family is able to get hold of me whenever they like.” The story is called “The Bane of the Internet.” The “Good Fall” of the title must refer to a plunge downward—into an alien America—yet a plunge which is still, on balance, worth undertaking.
Ha Jin's light touch is deceptive. He is no stranger to the casual harshness of American life, nor does he apologize for it. He does not single out America for barbarism, nor does he hold himself, or his people, superior to it. Harshness—and compensations—are everywhere. Homelessness is, increasingly, the human condition. It was not inadvertently that I called Jin a significant American writer. To be hyphenated, as he is, is one of the most common and formidable ways to be American.
Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, has published two novels among his twelve books. A third, Undying, will be published by Counterpoint.