A GOOD FALL
By Ha Jin
Even when it’s done well – as it is, for example, by Alice Munro – the short story often seems like a form that doesn’t want to draw attention to itself. Not minimalist, but low-key, conventionally realistic in terms of voice and narrative structure, and with a focus on quieter, domestic details.
It is this slice-of-life approach that is adopted by Chinese-American author Ha Jin in his new collection. The title is taken from the last (and worst) story, a hokey tale of an unsuccessful suicide that turns into a Hollywood-ending fortunate fall. The biblical parallel doesn’t seem a coincidence, as all of the stories deal with characters trying to make it in a threatening new world that is nevertheless a land of opportunity, in this case Chinese immigrants living in Flushing, New York.
If the streets of Flushing aren’t quite paved with gold, there are at least expensive cars driving on them, and the air is thick with the smell of fatty foods. The stories all tend to revolve around the world of work, with characters obsessing over visas and green cards. We meet a professor, a laundry worker, a composer, a tutor, a cook, a homecare provider, an accountant, and a martial arts instructor. They muddle through while trying to deal with inflated family expectations, feelings of alienation, language barriers, and various legal hurdles. Despite these obstacles, however, they quickly come to learn what it takes to get ahead. “You mustn’t think of yourself as a stranger,” one character is told, “this country belongs to you if you live and work here.” “This is America, where we must learn self-reliance and mind our own business,” another story ends.
It’s hard to tell with just how straight a face these platitudes are being delivered. The stories themselves reinforce the simplistic message, with hard work and a bit of determination typically being rewarded with both love and material success. The writing, in turn, does little to instill confidence that anything more profound is going on. Characters say things like: “What we’ve done is wrong, and we ought to mend our ways, the sooner the better. Truth be told, I am fond of you, but I must take my heart back and tame it . . .”, and verbs like “snickering,” and “tittering” make odd appearances (when was the last time you heard anyone titter?). In terms of the descriptive prose, flatness is all.
As snapshots of the immigrant experience we do learn a bit, somewhat in the manner of a PBS documentary. Even here, however, the style is made to tell rather than show, with all of the subsequent awkwardness of explanation entering into the exposition. “She was an ‘ABC’ (Asian -born Chinese)” is how one character is introduced. And the couple in the story “Temporary Love” get the full treatment: “They had become ‘a wartime couple,’ a term referring to those men and women who, unable to bring their spouses to America, cohabit for the time being to comfort each other and also to reduce living expenses.” If I wanted to read a magazine article on the subject . . .
In the hands of a skilful practitioner, like Munro, the quiet style can be devastatingly effective. Here, however, it is just dull and, what’s worse, clichéd. There is no sense of a larger world opening up beyond the horizons of the page, but only the feeling that we are experiencing a writer bumping up against the confined limits of his art.
Review first published in the Toronto Star January 3, 2010.