'A Good Fall': Ha Jin's stories of isolation and sacrifice
Ha Jin's new story collection "A Good Fall" portrays the American immigrant experience — its loneliness, dislocation and sacrifice.
Special to The Seattle Times
'A Good Fall'
by Ha Jin
Pantheon, 256 pp., $24.95
In simple, unadorned declarative sentences, "A Good Fall," Ha Jin's latest collection of short stories limns, once again, the Chinese immigrant experience in America. Ha Jin is the winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award for his books "Waiting" and "War Trash," author of poetry and short-story collections, and his work is shot through with a sense of isolation, melancholy and sacrifice: what it means — and costs — to be different.
If there is a recurring theme in these 13 stories, it is the anxiety of the stranger, the one who doesn't fit. There is a seriousness present in these stories that is heavy, ponderous; even ominous. And there is occasional humor, or at least irony. In the title story, "A Good Fall," a suicide attempt is made that does not kill the jumper, a disaffected monk whom the temple master has taken advantage of. He jumps from a five-story building in Flushing, N.Y., and ends up with a broken leg and a chance at a new life, one he hardly dared dream of.
In "The Bane of the Internet," a young woman in China coerces her sister, who is working in America, into loaning her $10,000 to buy a car. The Chinese woman's ploy is that she will put an ad on the Internet offering to sell her organs. The sister acquiesces because she is fearful that something might happen to her sister during the surgery and there would be no one to care for her parents. These convoluted plots are unimaginable outside of the immigrant experience, but perfectly logical within it.
Several stories turn on relations between children and parents and grandparents. In "Children as Enemies," a name change to something more "American" is contemplated by grandchildren trying to fit in. The grandparents can't understand this choice and it pains them deeply. In the story "In the Crossfire," tensions between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law escalate daily. Finally, to extricate himself, the son asks to be fired from his job, knowing that will make it impossible for him to support both his mother and his wife. The resulting monetary loss will force his mother to return to China.
Having made this decision and reflecting on it, the son's position is poignantly rendered: "He remembered that when he was taking the entrance exam ... his parents had stood in the rain under a shared umbrella, waiting for him with a lunch tin, sodas and tangerines wrapped in a handkerchief. They each had half a shoulder soaked through. Oh, never could he forget their anxious faces. A surge of gratitude drove him to the brink of tears."
In these stories, formerly simple relationships are made complicated by time and a new place. Changed circumstances make it nearly impossible to retain old ways and family traditions while embracing newfound socio-economic freedoms, complicating what immigrants go through to make the choices they deem necessary to live in the new world. Ha Jin left China in 1985 and now teaches at Boston University; he has lived and witnessed these stories.
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