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A Good Fall
Pantheon: 246 pp., $24.95
Figuring out what to keep, what to adopt and what to discard: These are the challenges for immigrant and exile alike. In his collection of lectures, "The Writer as Migrant" (2008), novelist Ha Jin considered the special case of a writer's displacement from his native land: Should he switch linguistic communities as well? If he does write in a foreign tongue, will he impoverish his craft or enrich it, be tarred with disloyalty or win new readers?
For Jin, these are urgent questions. His twin decisions not to return to post-Tiananmen Square China and to embark on a literary career in English could not have been easy. But they have come to seem inspired. Evoking in spare, often dryly humorous prose the land he left behind, Jin, now a professor of English and creative writing at Boston University, has wowed the American literary establishment. He won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for "Waiting" (1999), a meditation on love and marriage that also offers a tantalizing glimpse of an evolving China, and the PEN/Faulkner Award for "War Trash" (2004), a faux-memoir about a Chinese soldier fighting for survival in a U.S. prisoner-of-war camp during the Korean War.
With "A Free Life" (2007), set in Boston, New York and Atlanta, Jin transmuted autobiographical incident into a resonant, if overstuffed, chronicle of an immigrant Everyman. His protagonist, an aspiring poet, struggles not only with the competing claims of romantic love and marriage, a common Jin theme, but also with mastering a new language and assimilating into a culture fixated on material success. Jin's choice of the contemporary United States, rather than a historical or quasi-mythical China, as a narrative backdrop signaled the writer's own increasing assimilation.
In his latest short-story collection, "A Good Fall," Jin continues his skillful and deeply felt exploration of immigrant conflicts. He focuses on a socioeconomically diverse cast of characters mostly living or working in the Queens, N.Y., neighborhood of Flushing. They include a healthcare aide trying to fend off advances from an old man with dementia without losing her job ("A Pension Plan"), a private SAT tutor embroiled in an inadvertent love triangle with his female student and her mother ("Choice") and a professor worried that a single misspelled word on his application will doom his tenure chances ("An English Professor"). A pervasive anxiety infects these lives. For these newcomers, both relationships and jobs seem precious, precarious things, often tied to one another, sometimes hanging by a thread.
The bonds between husband and wife, parent and child -- supposedly more solid in China -- are apt to fray in Queens. "Our grandchildren hate us," is how one tale of assimilation, "Children as Enemies," begins. (Jin is a master at pulling readers into his stories.) Largely shorn of traditional supports, Jin's characters confront their vulnerabilities in near-isolation. "This is America," gripes the grandfather-narrator, "where we must learn self-reliance and mind our own business" -- Emerson redux.
Success in Jin's exaggerated America is defined by cold, hard cash. As the English professor, anticipating dismissal, contemplates the alternative of selling encyclopedias, he echoes the disgruntled grandfather: "[T]his is America, where there's no high or low among all professions as long as you can draw a fat paycheck." This is, of course, not strictly true -- class and status do matter here -- but it is hard to gauge how strongly the author dissents from his protagonist's crude formulation.
Jin's characters muddle their way through irony and ambiguity. Surfaces are deceptive, hiding important secrets. In "The Beauty," a fable-like tale about a marriage plagued by misunderstanding, intimacy and truth are both elusive, but -- as in "Waiting," Jin's masterpiece -- a sudden shift in perspective, a revelatory moment, can change everything.
Jin depicts Flushing as an immigrant purgatory, a refuge bounded by danger. Here English is not yet the common language, deportation remains a threat and old-country obligations -- a smuggler's payoff, a sister's e-mailed demand for money to buy a high-priced foreign car -- can impede fragile economic progress.
Inevitably, traditions and needs collide, giving rise to newer traditions. Men and women separated from their spouses in China may form "wartime couples," offering mutual solace and sex. In "Temporary Love," Panbin, thrown over by his lover Lina when her husband finally reaches New York, tells her: "You simply couldn't pull your neck out of the yoke of the past." Later, she will respond: "Without the past how can we make sense of now?" In the title story, the last in the collection, a hapless monk and kung fu master is cheated of his salary and faced with deportation. In despair, he jumps from a building. But thanks to his martial-arts training, his suicide attempt turns into "a good fall," a phrase evoking the Miltonic notion of man's fortunate fall from innocence to experience. China is no paradise lost, and America has its problems too. But both this story and the collection as a whole celebrate immigrant resilience: the courage to embrace calamity, hit the pavement and keep walking toward a brighter future.
Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.