For all their meticulous attention to the immigrant experience, Ha Jin’s books leave little to the imagination. The narrators and characters in A Good Fall, his new story collection featuring a cast of Chinese immigrants, express their feelings and the reasons for them bluntly. “I’d had two girlfriends before, but each had left me,” states the young man narrating the story “Choice,” and then adds: “The memories of those breakups stung me whenever I attempted to get close to another woman.” In “Children as Enemies,” an ill-treated grandfather laments: “If only I’d had second thoughts about leaving China. It’s impossible to go back anymore, and we’ll have to spend our remaining years in this place where even your grandchildren can act like your enemies.”
Jin operates almost exclusively in this single register, a plain-voiced realism that describes his characters’ emotional states but doesn’t probe deeply into their interior lives. His protagonists are typically men with a passion for the humanities (as in his novel A Free Life, which followed a struggling poet) who nonetheless have trouble expressing themselves. The stories themselves feel restrained: Some of these are narrated in the third person, others in the first, but there is hardly any variation of tone.
Jin's strength lies in illustrating the subtle nuances and conflicts of relationships between family members, lovers, and spouses. At his best, his blunt, straightforward style captures his characters’ myriad frustrations and difficulties. In the vividly rendered “Shame,” a young man tries to help a professor from China who has gone AWOL in New York, sheltering him in his apartment from Chinese officials. The aging professor takes a job as a busboy in a restaurant, but is eventually forced to flee to the South to avoid deportation. He entrusts his life's work to his former student, who comes to the sad realization that it is unpublishable.
Moments like this are emotionally resonant, but Jin’s directness frequently comes across as awkward or amateurish. In “The Beauty,” a woman admits to her husband that she has achieved her good looks through plastic surgery. He tells her, “You can’t go on deceiving others. In fact, you’ve deceived yourself.” She replies, “No, I love my beauty. It’s the best thing America gave me. Finally I have a face that matches my figure and skin.” Exchanges like this sound like bad Hollywood dialogue, and tip Jin's prose from honesty into banality.
Andrew Martin in an editorial assistant at the New York Review of Books and a regular contributor to interviewmagazine.com and openlettersmonthly.com.