Review of Ha
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/23/06
Late in Ha Jin’s 1999 National Book Award winning Politically Correct novel Waiting the main character Doctor Lin Kong bemoans the fact that he is a ‘superfluous man’. This recapitulates the fact that the tale, itself, is superfluous; mainly because of its PC nature. One of the worst things that PC does is that it one dimensionalizes stories and characters by focusing on exoticism over depth and substituting clichés for insight. Waiting is a prime example of this, as the story is literally about mundane people in mundane marriages, and written in a very mundane style. Yet, the book was published only because of its author’s exotic name and the story’s exotic setting. Had the mundane people and marriages portrayed Italians or Poles from Chicago the question of ‘why does the writer feel I should know about these people?’ would not be muted. Of course, mundanity is mundanity, be it in Maoist China or Chicago.
The book also fails to take advantage of its exoticism- another hallmark of PC. It does not, as example, explore life under Maoism. It simply uses it as window dressing to make the tale seem as if it has depth, yet any good writer would have included some real flavor of what life was rally like in that place and time. Instead, we get a book on dull lives whose only selling point is its exotic locale, and even that is not what it seems.
The tale follows the life of Lin Kong- a military doctor, from the country, who has lived his life in Muji City, working at an Army hospital, apart from his wife from an arranged loveless marriage, Shuyu. It takes him eighteen years before his government will allow him the divorce Shuyu has always refused him. He wants to marry Manna Wu, a spinster nurse who was once raped, years earlier, and whom he romanced after caring for her blistered feet on a long Army march. After finally being able to divorce Shuyu, and getting the daughter they had together, Hua, to come with her mother to Muji City, Lin marries Manna, and she turns into a sex fiend, surprising him, since her only prior sexual experience was the rape. She gets pregnant, and has twins, who almost die, until Hua helps save them. Lin eventually regrets his second marriage after Manna falls apart psychologically, and, guess what?, ends up returning to his first family, after Manna becomes terminal, because he realizes he never really loved her, just the freedom from his arranged marriage that she represented- an outcome that was telegraphed early on in the novel’s 308 pages. Along the way there are few actual events that occur. While waiting for Lin to be able to divorce Shuyu, Manna goes looking for a photograph of Shuyu, to no avail. This could have been a very symbolic moment, but in Jin’s hands it is merely an incident that serves no purpose. His writing is very straightforward and unadorned, yet I no sense is it ‘spare’- that buzzword that bad critics use to try to impute poeticism on what Truman Capote once called mere ‘typing’. Nothing is made with Manna’s past- her rape is merely used as a plot device that goes nowhere. The rapist, Geng Yang, years later, turns out to be a powerful and rich man, and this upsets Manna. Boy, this tells us alot. A minor digression that explores her first love, Mai Dong, similarly dead ends, as does a potentially more interesting digression with a Commisar that gives her a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, which Manna delusively believes shows he has a sexual interest in her. The lives of Shuyu and Hua are basically that of long suffering wife and good daughter.
Here’s an example of how workshoppily Jin handles characterization:
Both of them were in their mid-twenties and had never taken a lover. Soon they began to write each other a few times a week. Within two months they started their rendezvous on weekends at movie theaters, parks, and the riverbank. Mai Dong hated Muji, which was a city with a population of about a quarter of a million. He dreaded its severe winters and the north winds that came from Siberia with clouds of snow dust. The smog, which always curtained the sky when the weather was cold, aggravated his chronic sore throat. His work, transcribing and transmitting telegrams, impaired his eyesight. He was unhappy and complained a great deal.
Manna tried to comfort him with kind words. By nature he was weak and gentle. Sometimes she felt he was like a small boy who needed the care of an elder sister or a mother.
Notice how simple the writing is, yet void of poesy, for it needs to tell the most obvious things in banal ways.
Yet, the most disappointing character is Lin Kong. What passes for insight into him are comments from Manna that state he’s the sort of man who likes to take the easy way out, or the fact that it’s not until after he marries Manna that he has his first wet dream. Literally that’s it. There is a whole chapter devoted to Manna’s being grumpy after marriage, but why this is deemed important is only known to Jin. While not a bad book, necessarily, it is not a good book, as it is excruciatingly dry and empty. This book is a testament to the PC dogma that everyone has a story. This is doubtlessly true, but the real point is not if everyone has a story, but whether every story is worth telling. This story is not, or if it is, Ha Jin is not the writer capable of telling it, for a great writer can, by dint of his technical mastery of words, make the most banal of lives seem interesting by the choice and deployment of words. Ha Jin makes his readers wait for 300 pages of banality, then fails to deliver a single thing that is not foreseeable. About the only time Jin employs any duplicity in the book comes with the title, which by book’s end we realize refers far more cogently to the waiting of Shuyu and Hua, rather than Lin and Manna. The missed opportunities and potential lost abound- the best example is that Shuyu’s underdevelopment as a character denies any chance for allegory, such as her as an example of traditional Chinese virtues (for she starts out looking older than she is, but barely ages) vs. Manna (who dies young, soon after marrying Lin) as the modern Communist ideal. Instead, the moralizing is heavy-handed, and utterly devoid of any hints of poesy; such as this from after Lin realizes he has wasted his life waiting for a woman he has even less in common with than his first wife:
Let me tell you what really happened, the voice said. All those years you waited torpidly, like a sleepwalker, pulled and pushed about by others' opinions, by external pressure, by your illusions, by the official rules you internalized. You were misled by your own frustration and passivity, believing that what you were not allowed to have was what your heart was destined to embrace.
Jin has been called a ‘realist’ by less perceptive critics, but ‘realism’ is not to be equated with dullness. A great writer knows how to highlight those ‘realistic’ moments that catch a snippet of the transcendent, and juxtapose them with other elements to create a poetry of the real. Jin, however, writes dully on dull events and people, content to let the PC trappings of the exotic do the heavy lifting a strong narrative should accomplish. Much of his prose seems to bear out the fact that English is not his native tongue. How this book could win many prestigious awards is a testament to the power of PC over excellence.
The characters are cardboard cutouts, and there is not a single defining ‘event’. Not that a plot-driven tale is necessary for excellence, yet this novel is not merely a ‘slice of life’, ala A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, or The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. Worst of all, though, is that the book begins with a prologue that removes any surprise this dull tale might reveal. Right away we definitely know all that will occur, save for the very end, where Lin regrets his waiting for Manna, which any astute reader could see coming anyway. And, despite the claims, this is not a love story, since none of the characters really loves, nor knows how to love. As Jin banally tells us of Manna, ‘the long waiting had dissolved her gentle nature, worn away her hopes, ruined her health, poisoned her heart and doomed her.’ Yes, this is very like most marriages around the world, but it’s not the crux to build a compelling work of art around. At least a novice writer like Jin cannot do so. Waiting, despite its Political Correctness, is not a terrible book, merely yet another bad book that should never have been published. But, when did that ever stop PC from giving out laurels?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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