A Free Life

Over the course of his seven prior works of fiction, Ha Jin has provided his Western readers with a window into the contradictions of Communist China. In A Free Life, he has at last offered up his own contribution to the annals of the immigrant experience in American literature. Jin tracks the personal odyssey of the Wu family as they make their way from the Chinese province of Harbin to Boston, New York, and, ultimately, the Atlanta suburbs. It is at once a tale that follows a recognizable template — that arc of alienation, assimilation, and generational conflict that accompanies any cultural diaspora — and a singular recounting of one family’s effort to navigate these challenges.

Jin’s point of fascination — most notably in the illuminating stories of Under the Red Flag — has long been the strange collision of old-world China with the dictates of the Communist Party. The saga of the Wu family adds yet another layer to Jin’s account of a transitioning China, and the shift to this larger global canvas serves him well. His eye for the human face behind the sweep of history feeds off of the new surfeit of detail that American life provides, from the suburban strip mall where Nan Wu and his steadfast wife, Pingping, start a Chinese restaurant to the immigrant neighborhoods of Brooklyn. (Perhaps it is this sensory overabundance that leads Jin to nearly triple his usual page count.) With a backyard “flanked by two steel fences, and a flock of Canada geese perched on the edge of the lake,” the Wus’ house outside Atlanta is an idyllic counterpoint to the regimented chaos of life in provincial China that is the author’s customary subject.

Readers of Jin’s work will find in Nan Wu, the novel’s protagonist and moral anchor, a recognizable prototype. Like Lin Kong, hero of Jin’s National Book Award-winning novel Waiting, Nan is a character gripped by stasis. Where Lin Kong spent nearly two decades in an unconsummated romance with a co-worker, Nan Wu struggles with a similarly unconsummated, if more abstract, relationship to his unrealized dreams of becoming a poet. What separates A Free Life from the conventional immigrant narrative is precisely this undercurrent of artistic longing. From the outset, Nan’s self-image is wrapped up in his writerly ambition and its attendant failures. “I wish I had more anger so that I could write genuine poetry,” he announces to a friend early in the novel. Unlike his nationality, which he dismissively purports to wear “like a coat,” Nan’s desire to write poetry provides the cornerstone of his identity.

Nan’s quest for creative fulfillment amplifies the inevitable questions of identity and nationality, his status as an immigrant underscoring that timeless quandary of art’s relationship to class. “How could it be possible for an unfettered genius to rise from a tribe of coolies who were frightened, exhausted, mistreated, wretched, and possessed by the instinct for survival?” Nan exclaims in frustration. “Without leisure, how can art thrive?” Meanwhile, As Nan’s son Taotao become increasingly Americanized, he grows “simmering, angry” about the “awkward English” of his parents, the generational divide enforcing the fact that even as Nan refuses to fully identify himself as Chinese, neither can he truly claim his adopted nation as his own. This familiar rendering of immigrant frustration would feel more tired if it weren’t so unquestionably true.

Yet a novel that advances a theory of art, or, at the very least, takes the struggle of the artist as its centerpiece, must know that it invites especially scrupulous attention to its own aesthetic, and it is in its execution, rather than in its vision, that Jin’s novel begins to falter. At moments, Jin’s prose is elegant in its simplicity, but more frequently this simplicity takes on a discomfiting naivet?. For instance, consider the following passage, in which Nan grapples with his failure to muster a genuine love for his wife, whom he married to escape from the specter of an earlier romance: “How he wished he could work up more emotion to reciprocate her love. If only he weren’t so exhausted and so sick at heart. If only he hadn’t been wounded so deeply by that fox Beina.” While a certain amount of the overbearing earnestness in the language on display here may fall within the bounds of the character — Nan is, after all, meant to embody a sort of uprightness in the face of hardship-it seems to indicate a hesitation of the part of Jin to truly inhabit the consciousness of his subjects. Such declamatory constructions, which Jin employs unfailingly when attempting to inhabit Nan’s perspective, appear with an anaphoral insistence that can grow grating.

To some degree, this lapse is forgivable: there is an inherent linguistic slippage in trying to convey in English the internal workings of a character whose thoughts are unfolding in Chinese. With the new geography of A Free Life comes a new set of questions about how best to confront this narrative bind, and the ways in which Nan’s language systematically fails to capture the depth of his feelings may well represent Jin’s stab at exposing the scope of Nan’s alienation. Jin’s language has always relied on a certain understated spareness to access his subjects with honesty, unadorned by the frills of stylistic excess; however, his decision to let Nan’s expressive limitations inflect the very cadence of his prose (if that is in fact the logic governing his often stilted sentence structure) sells his readers short. It is well-conceived theoretical exercise gone practically awry.

This misstep would be less apparent were the novel not so visibly preoccupied with language’s natural imprint on the emotive range of the mind, but because Jin constantly draws the issue of language to the fore, it is hard not to notice when the language is what founders. Nan’s decision to attempt poetry in English is what finally frees him from the paralysis that has marked his experience of America. “The truth,” Jin reveals, “was that he had been frightened by the overwhelming odds against writing in English artistically, against claiming his existence in this new land, and against becoming a truly independent man who followed nothing but his own heart.” For Jin, coming into language and coming into identity are, to some extent, one and the same-fitting, perhaps, for a writer who is himself writing in an adopted tongue.

It is interesting, then, that in the novel’s epilogue, when we are finally given Nan’s unmediated voice, Jin’s prose seems to find its stride. The extracts from Nan’s journal that mark the final pages (along with some specimens of his decidedly mediocre poetry) capture the rhythms of his consciousness with a depth of feeling previously withheld. “I don’t believe in the ‘art’ of poetry,” Nan writes. “For me it’s just a craft?a kind of work that can keep me emotionally balanced and functioning better as a human being. So I write only because I have to.” This notion of art as an existential act of survival helps to bury the issue of Jin’s often muted style beneath the urgency of Nan’s having claimed a language at all. As an editor who has rejected Nan’s work advises, “the main function of prose is to tell a story. But poets should have a different kind of ambition, i.e. to enter into the language they use.” It seems safe to say that Jin, perhaps unconsciously, shares this sentiment. Only in these ruminations on poetry does his prose truly come to life.