Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo have built large reputations by describing the Kafkaesque creepiness of life in the modern U.S., with its growing corporate bureaucracies and headless electronic media, its sense of someone-else-is-in-charge. But the paranoia-inducing reality suffusing those authors’ books must be nothing compared to everyday life in China. Ha Jin’s third story collection describes how normal Chinese people pick their way through a communist-bureaucratic tangle of sex rules, food quotas, official marriage-encouragements and worse. He writes, as usual, in plain simple prose, without games or tricks, as if he believes that describing his homeland for readers in careful English has a value and importance of its own. He is, of course, absolutely right.
The characters in “The Bridegroom” live in northeastern China, in and around Muji City, where Jin’s last novel, “Waiting,” is set; but the trajectory in this collection is toward the West. The first story, “Saboteur,” is immersed in provincial corruption; it follows an instructor at Harbin University who finds himself suddenly under arrest. The last three stories show the strain of American influence after market reforms in the 1980s. By following the stories in order, a reader can almost feel China liberalizing. But Ha Jin’s characters hardly notice, because what counts as freedom in the West looks to them like a bad idea.
In “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town,” an entrepreneur named Mr. Shapiro sets up a fast-food franchise in Muji City and instigates a series of cultural misunderstandings and misperceptions. First the business almost fails because the locals know American fried chicken is just imperialistic nonsense, “more batter than meat.” Then Mr. Shapiro tries an all-you-can-eat buffet. This concept is new in Muji City, and the restaurant fills with customers who eat “like starved wolves” and pocket pieces of chicken for their relatives. Shapiro loses money. Then a prominent local man wants to use Cowboy Chicken for his wedding feast: “He wanted something exotic for their wedding dinner.” The comedy culminates in an ill-conceived strike by the kitchen staff. The story is an amusing and maybe unintentional comment on globalization, which comes off as a laughable dream, even for Mr. Shapiro.
A less amusing story is “The Woman From New York.” The title character loses not just her job but also her reputation, her husband and her daughter for leaving Muji City to live in New York for several years:
Now she was back. She looked like a different woman, wearing a gold necklace, her lips rouged, her eyelashes blackened with ink, and even her toenails dyed red … In a way, her makeup and manners verified the hearsay that she had become the fifteenth concubine of a wealthy Chinese man in New York City.
What she actually did in New York isn’t clear. She seems to have worked in a restaurant with the hope of earning a lot of money. Maybe she wanted to improve her position in China by learning English; perhaps she planned to move her family to New York. But the dreams have collapsed, and now her husband and jealous in-laws can’t forgive her hubris. Even her daughter calls her a “bad woman” and refuses to see her.
Saying “The Woman From New York” is one of the weaker stories in the book is only a way of praising the rest. Jin’s focus wanders here more than it does, say, in the title story, which tells about a sensitive, handsome, clean-living bachelor, Huang Baowen, who surprises the narrator by proposing marriage to a homely young woman. Months after the wedding Baowen is arrested at a secret gay men’s club. Almost everyone in the story, including Baowen, displays a shocking, near-superstitious ignorance of homosexuality, and the narrator uses his modest influence to make sure the authorities give Baowen the mildest form of “lifestyle cure” — a program of electric baths:
Baowen was noiseless in the electrified water, with his eyes shut and his head resting on a black rubber pad at the end of the tub. He looked fine, rather relaxed … Then the nurse gave him more electricity. Baowen began writhing and moaning a little. Obviously he was suffering. This bath couldn’t be so soothing as he’d claimed. With a white towel Nurse Long wiped the sweat off Baowen’s face and whispered, “I’ll turn it down in a few minutes.”
Jin delivers all his stories in this modest documentary style, without surrealism or emotional heat. His everyday weirdnesses accumulate like coral. The writing is as restrained as the society he describes, where bureaucratic suppression becomes a medium, even a language. And every story here is cut like a stone. My favorite one is “Flame,” about an abortive romance between a military commisar and a nurse. The commisar sends a letter asking to see the nurse, years after she’s married another man. She turns quietly giddy, but on the big day he doesn’t show up. Instead, two soldiers arrive in a jeep, to deliver what’s either a sentimental tribute from the commissar or an ironic gesture of revenge. Jin’s characters always hope for special advantage, what you might call Party favors; and in this case the commisar has sent his old flame 60 pounds of fresh salmon and several gallons of soy oil. It’s a typical Ha Jinism, a finely wrought sublimation. In a society where certain feelings are illegal, passion as well as pettiness can be expressed though bureaucratic pull.