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A Free Lifeby Ha Jin
Synopses & Reviews
From Ha Jin, the widely-acclaimed, award-winning author of Waiting and War Trash, comes a novel that takes his fiction to a new setting: 1990s America. We follow the Wu family — father Nan, mother Pingping, and son Taotao — as they fully sever their ties with China in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and begin a new, free life in the United States.
At first, their future seems well-assured — Nan's graduate work in political science at Brandeis University would guarantee him a teaching position in China — but after the fallout from Tiananmen, Nan's disillusionment turns him towards his first love, poetry. Leaving his studies, he takes on a variety of menial jobs while Pingping works for a wealthy widow as a cook and housekeeper. As Nan struggles to adapt to a new language and culture, his love of poetry and literature sustains him through difficult, lean years.
Ha Jin creates a moving, realistic, but always hopeful narrative as Nan moves from Boston to New York to Atlanta, ever in search of financial stability and success, even in a culture that sometimes feels oppressive and hostile. As Pingping and Taotao slowly adjust to American life, Nan still feels a strange, paradoxical attachment to his homeland, though he violently disagrees with Communist policy. And severing all ties — including his love for a woman who rejected him in his youth — proves to be more difficult than he could have ever imagined.
Ha Jin's prodigious talents are evident in this powerful new book, which brilliantly brings to life the struggles and successes that characterize the contemporary immigrant experience. With its lyrical prose and confident grace, A Free Life is a luminous addition to the works of one of the preeminent writers in America today.
"Ha Jin's success in the United States has been an extraordinary rebuttal to Yeats' claim that 'no man can think or write with music and vigor except in his mother tongue.' An immigrant from China who survived the Cultural Revolution and almost six years in the People's Liberation Army, Jin had been writing in English less than a decade when he won a PEN/Hemingway Award in 1996 for his first story... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) collection, 'Ocean of Words.' The next year, his second collection, 'Under the Red Flag,' won the Flannery O'Connor Award; 'Waiting' took a National Book Award in 1999; and 'War Trash' was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. And yet despite this pile of literary laurels and a professorship at Boston University, Jin still seems troubled by Yeats' dictum. His enormous new novel, 'A Free Life,' his first to be set in the United States, is the most autobiographical of his works. It tells an archetypal tale of immigrant struggle and success, but its real focus is the author's battle to break into the language and the literary culture of his adopted country. The story begins in Boston soon after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Nan Wu is a political science student at Brandeis with a beautiful wife he does not love and a 6-year-old son. The changed political climate makes it impossible for Nan to go home, and it seems senseless now to finish his Ph.D. 'He had no idea what he was going to do,' the narrator writes. 'Such an independent condition was new to him. ... Now he would have to earn a living by himself and also support his family. He was free, free to choose his own way and to make something of himself. But what were the choices available to him? Could he survive in this land? The feeling of uncertainty overwhelmed him.' The problem of freedom has been central to all Jin's previous works, but how fascinatingly different that problem looks in a free country. Liberty raises the specter of failure, poverty and uselessness in a way unimaginable to Nan back in China, where he was 'provided a salary, shelter (usually a bed or at most a room), coupons for cloth and grain and cooking oil, medical care, and sometimes even free condoms.' Now, he and his wife are given asylum, but nothing else. 'I feel like a crippled man here,' he thinks. His fellow students switch to more marketable degrees in business and law, but Nan wants to write poetry, even though he knows there's no audience for Chinese poetry in America and no possibility of having his work published back home. Despondent about his career and still pining for a girlfriend who cast him off years before, he takes a series of low-paying jobs and presses on through a fog of depression and shame. Eventually, he and his wife, Pingping, manage to scrape together enough money to buy a small Chinese restaurant in Atlanta, where they build a successful business, buy a house and attain the trappings of the American dream. That dream is complicated, though, by the persistence of Nan's desire to write poetry in English, a desire Jin draws with aching sympathy. 'He knew that in this land the language was like a body of water in which he had to learn how to swim and breathe, even though he'd feel out of his element whenever he used it. If he didn't try hard to adapt himself, developing new 'lungs and gills' for this alien water, his life would be confined and atrophied, and eventually wither away.' Over the years, even when working in menial jobs, Nan remains within the Chinese literary community, which introduces him to a broader circle of successful writers. Throughout the novel, Jin uses these encounters to present an odd series of cautionary tales about how not to live as an artist. Most of the names here are fictional, and maybe the writers he punctures are too vain to recognize themselves, but even in Nan's humble voice, there's no mistaking Jin's disdain: the pompous literary lion fawned over by a parasitic graduate student; a writer who manipulates his reputation by recycling positive reviews of his work through different journals; another who dissipates his talent with overexposure; all of them falling 'prey to moneygrubbing instead of aspiring to a higher order of artistic achievement.' A brief trip to the Iowa Writers' Workshop gives Nan a chance to look down on the next crop of American poets: They're smart enough, but he finds them 'quite fragile,' writing 'mainly for themselves. ... Poetry had become an esoteric art here, somewhat deprived of its vitality and earnestness.' And earnestness, Jin makes clear over these 600 irony-free pages, is pretty much the pinnacle of his artistic expression. In 'War Trash,' Jin's restrained, unadorned voice rendered the horrors of a Korean prison camp all the more harrowing, but when used at this exhaustive length to describe the details of suburban Georgia, the story grows dull. And the structure of the novel — scores of short chapters, each just a few pages long — puts enormous emphasis on episodes that are frequently not very significant. That's a shame, not only because it buries some truly lovely sections involving Nan's wife, but also because the novel's corpulence smothers the poetic sensibility Nan keeps trying to develop. The plot's lack of momentum is exacerbated by the number of potentially exciting events that rise up but come to naught. It's a pattern established right in the novel's opening when Nan's son is lost during the trans-Pacific flight to America. Don't worry: The boy was just dawdling on the plane. Soon afterward, Nan plots to kidnap the children of Chinese officials studying in America, but he quickly abandons that violent plan. Later, a lawyer swindles them out of their business, but, no, Nan was just being paranoid. A tornado approaches ... and then blows over. A runaway teenager shows up on their doorstep, but then goes home to her mother. An armed man bursts into the restaurant, but police arrive before he does any harm. A neighbor asks Nan's wife to be a surrogate mother, but she decides not to. By the time their friends' daughter gets leukemia, I had no worries about the girl's future at all. This isn't so much a free life as a charmed one. And yet throughout, we have to endure Nan's childish outbursts, his melodramatic self-denunciations, his obvious, tardy epiphanies. 'Besides dreams, what else can I have?' he whines toward the end. How about a devoted wife, a successful business, a healthy son? But push on (or skip) to the end: You'll find an epilogue that contains 25 moving, startling 'Poems by Nan Wu.' These verses roughly chronicle the events in the novel, but they vibrate with the precision and intensity the long preceding narrative lacks: I prefer to crawl around at my own pace in the salt water of English. As for the great ghosts in the temple, why should I bother about their acceptance? The light of dawn does not discriminate. A tree, or butterfly, or stream (unlike the dog corrupted by humans) does not notice the color of your skin. To write in this language is to be alone, to live on the margin where loneliness ripens into solitude. There's no question that Jin's language has ripened into something extraordinary. And taken as a whole, 'A Free Life' is a striking demonstration of the poetic success he craved. But how many readers will endure till its convincing finish? Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Capacious, pointillistic, empathic, and tender, Ha Jin's tale of one immigrant family's odyssey in America affirms humankind's essential mission, to honor life." Booklist
"Jin takes his writing to a new level as he skillfully crafts an ambitiously angst-filled yet masterly tale of assimilation overflowing with both heart and culture. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Jin's descriptions of Nan's journey back to the page are amusing, with enough veiled references to well-known poets and writers to keep a literary sleuth busy." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"There are times one wishes Jin had been more selective and taken an editor's pencil to his manuscript. But there is also something apt about a book that is as vast and unbounded as the brave and overwhelming new world it describes." Boston Globe
"It is not a lyrical novel, but it is beautifully written, and Nan's Chinese-English dictionary becomes the icon of an outsider's quest to remove the borders from around human personality." Oregonian
"If likened to an American novelist, Ha Jin may bear the closest resemblance to John Steinbeck, both in his relatively simple, straightforward prose and in his novelistic eye." Chicago Tribune
"Jin describes every joy and sorrow in a plain-spoken prose style that moves along with the fluidity of water." Seattle Times
"Unlike many other Asian-American novels that emphasize the American-born child's estrangement from Chinese-born parents, Ha Jin's novel focuses on the young men and women who arrived in America already assuming the responsibilities of adulthood as they learned a new language and developed their work ethic." Denver Post
From the acclaimed, award-winning author of Waiting and War Trash comes a new novel that eloquently re-imagines the American immigrant saga. Jin tells the story of the Wu family, that sets out on a journey through contemporary America in search of a sense of belonging.
About the Author
Ha Jin was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Waiting and War Trash; Waiting also won the National Book Award. His other books include the novel The Crazed; three short story collections: The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award; and three books of poetry. He is a professor of English at Boston University and lives in the Boston area.
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