Librarians must hate me. I borrow books on the slightest whim, tattoo them indiscriminately with ink, hang onto them forever and refuse to use a book mark, favoring the “dog ear” method of place-keeping.
This latter tendency affords an interesting opportunity for observation, however. For instance, whilst reading Ha Jins collection of short stories A Good Fall, one can instantly discern my level of interest in a particular vignette, merely by examining the frequency of folded-over pages.
If whole sections go mostly unmarred, you can bet I was enthralled. But if every other page bares the tell-tale crease, then I was more likely lulled to sleep. And although this book had its moments, I think some poor librarian is going to spend a long time ironing out all of my bent corners.
The Immigrant Experience – All Of It
Set in the neighborhood of Flushing in Queens, New York, Ha Jin paints a microcosm of the Chinese immigrant experience; its peculiar circumstances, esoteric conventions and whimsical tragedy. From the lonely opera composer who befriends his absent lover’s parakeet, to the melancholy monk who must escape the influence of his manipulative employer, each of the stories resounds with common themes of living with isolation, escaping one’s past and overcoming the alienation of foreignness in a foreign land.
Jin’s cast of characters seem intentionally to span the economic and social ranges of Chinese immigrant population. Wealthy executives, sweatshop workers, scholars, prostitutes and every shade in between. In most cases, the things at stake are of enormous gravity to the characters (usually a good sign). Divorce, deportation, starvation and poverty (or a combination of all 4) loom over almost every one.
And yet these things are treated as ordinary, even mundane, taking a back seat to trite notions of filial honor and personal pride. Unfortunately this tends to mute out any kind of genuine excitement, rendering even sex scenes and street fights (yes, there are both) in gray monotones.
Jin’s language is often dissonant, even awkward, full of strange idioms that seem lost in translation.
Certainly I wouldn’t lend her the money because that might amount to hitting a dog with a meatball – nothing would come back. – Jin p. 5
This certainly puts the reader off guard and places him/her in the position of outsider, but it also makes for a jolting experience. If I counted the number of cringe-inducing lines, I would run out of fingers and toes before I ran out of pages. Nonetheless, there are some very striking moments of clarity. Lines that resonate with a sparse poetry:
His lean body cast a squat shadow at a slant. – Jin p. 150
Gems that must be carefully extracted and coveted; clever one-liners and emotionally charged descriptions that can evoke anything from nostalgia to misery.
Different Characters, Similar Stories
While many of the stories in A Good Fall tend to be on the quiet side, lacking in action, dynamic movement and… well… fun, Jin fixes his cross-hairs on the his points and – in literary terms – doesn’t stop shooting until he’s blown them to smithereens.
Out of 12 stories, 7 feature love complicated by traditional social constraints (especially family baggage), 9 involve loneliness or isolation and nearly all express the frustration of a language barrier. Upon finishing the book, I found it strange that the characters didn’t overlap more. After all, they live within the same small community and have largely identical problems… you’d think someone would have set up a support group or something.
Consider picking this book up if you enjoy cold, slate-gray Sunday mornings, infrequent moments of subtle beauty and mouthwatering descriptions of dumplings, curries and Ramen noodles.