A Chef’s Oeuvre

A Free Life: A Novel BY Ha Jin. Pantheon. Hardcover, 672 pages. $26.

The cover of A Free Life: A Novel

In a 2000 interview, Ha Jin made it clear that he did not want to write his own story. But while A Free Life is indeed a novel, Jin is now working close to autobiography. Like Nan Gin Wu, the aspiring poet who’s the protagonist of the book, his first novel to be set in America, Jin is a Chinese writer who lives in the States and writes in English—he studied English literature at Brandeis and teaches at Boston University. His earlier fiction, set in China, had the lure of new news and the power of revelation informed by the historical record. War Trash, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2005, includes a bibliography and is dedicated to the author’s father, a Korean War veteran.

War Trash is written as the memoir of a soldier, Yu Yuan, who, after being sent to Korea and imprisoned by the Americans, returns to Mao’s China, where he and his former POWs are dishonored. Like many of Jin’s central figures, Yu is at heart apolitical. His sins are more of reluctance than of commission: not throwing himself on the sword, never joining the Communist Party, respecting duty to family, loss of self. His memories are the honorable shards of his afterlife. War Trash is a historical novel, and that’s also true of Waiting, a dark myth of obedience to authority that won a 1999 National Book Award and the 2000 PEN/Faulkner.

The opening pages of A Free Life also make note of the historical moment. Taotao, a little boy in a sailor suit, arrives in San Francisco to join his parents. He’s been billeted with grandparents in China for three years: “‘Mama, there was a big fight in Beijing, do you know? Hundred of uncles in the People’s Liberation Army were killed.’ ‘It was the soldiers who shot a great many civilians,’ his father corrected him.” This exchange is intentionally disingenuous, the reader put in the child’s position of being schooled as well as informed. Perhaps Taotao is a version of baby tuckoo, the storytelling child who launches Joyce’s linguistic play in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Perhaps these opening chapters are meant to call to mind baby tuckoo’s skewed view of politics and family. Jin may be referencing, as we say in class, Joyce’s work, but then I’m guessing, as I’m also often guessing about tone in Jin’s novel—when to detect the satiric touch, when to succumb to a good cry.

Taotao’s father, Nan, is a graduate student in political science at Brandeis, though poetry is his true calling. He does not love Pingping, his dutiful and adoring wife, and yearns for his lost love back in China, who could have been his muse. Events come about with the turn of a page: Nan gives up the academic life as less inspiring than his dream of becoming a poet and as insufficient—it won’t support family, either. He is stuck in menial jobs, as is Pingping. Reading, always reading, he works his way up to chef in a restaurant. Turn the page: He hears of a Chinese restaurant for sale in Atlanta. The novel of the Wus’ life in America is less plotted than recorded as the ongoing journey of their days. Nan has precious little time for the writing of poetry, a yearning that surfaces now and then. When speaking with Americans, Jin’s main man, so in command of Chinese and so nicely schooled in English, comes off fluent as Mr. Dooley but screwy as Borat, sank you. The story of the misuse and mastery of words, spoken and written, runs through the novel: Taotao’s embarrassment at his mother’s malapropisms, Nan’s verses never written, the fluent jargon of poets and artists. Yet the family saga is straightforward in Jin’s quotidian report: Coached by Pingping, Taotao makes progress in reading; a Balzacian account is rendered of the Wus’ savings, the wages earned, and the price of lunch at the Gold Wok, the restaurant they come to own with pride.

The pursuit of Nan’s writing career runs as a counterplot to his domestic concerns. With all the daily sweat and tears, he attempts to return to his dream. Early on, he takes off for New York to work for a Chinese poetry quarterly, where he meets a literary set. Their dialogue is high-minded, often expository. Positions are staked out on the political uses of poetry. He moves on to the Gold Wok, and the despairing story of his writing life is overshadowed. The novel becomes a log: Taotao’s SAT scores; the removal of one of Nan’s wisdom teeth; the passing lives of their neighbors; Pingping’s miscarriage; Nan’s tour of the landscape of literary honors, writing classes, and colonies. Omnium-gatherum: I am bewildered, or perhaps embarrassed, by a chapter that opens with an accounting of a National Book Critics Circle Award. Its prestige and purse impress Nan, nose to that candy-shop window.

It is a relief from Jin’s commentary when the novelist works in close to Nan’s view. On a snowy day in Georgia, the wistful poet watches his wife and son play, noting that “icicles still hung on the sweet gums at the waterside, having expanded and thickened the shadows cast by the trees on the lake. The waterfowl were all out of view and nestled in the bushes on the other shore to keep warm. From time to time they let out lethargic cries.” Here Nan puts it together: “He had just finished reading A House for Mr. Biswas and still vividly remembered the struggle the protagonist waged for having his own shelter in his own corner of land.” This contemplation links to the untarnished dream of “making money, a lot of money, so that his family could live in peace and security.” I longed for these interpretive stops among the many incidents— Nan, experiencing a moment of small fortune, feels “a good life should be uneventful, having few dramatic moments; instead, it should be filled with small delights, each of which should be appreciated and enjoyed like a gift.” Yes, the small delights. Nan’s pleasure in monitoring his bird feeder.

A Free Life accrues by entries. There are intimate moments (Pingping scraping Nan’s feet) and evocations of the natural world (spring with pollen, birdsong). And yet another backyard scene—the Wus pry a fishhook out of a drake’s tongue. More is revealed in these carefully observed scenes than in the clocking of their financial fortunes, their many achievements and mishaps. In the end run of Nan’s story, his rejection of the daily struggle is flamboyant. After his return from a discouraging trip to China, where he passes out cash to his parents and is praised, he finally turns to his poetry. The Gold Wok will be sold. Last seen, he is working the night shift at a motel. In peaceful withdrawal, he reads Frost’s “The Oven Bird”:

The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

The novelist’s pick is inspired, but what am I to make of Nan not singing? “Finally, he had to be brave enough to devote himself not to making money but to writing poetry, willing to face failure.” He does write a poem, “Belated Love,” to Pingping. It’s been long, too long coming. A Free Life has been tracking the family Wu post-Tiananmen, for twelve years. In impatience or plain exhaustion, I accept the novel’s happy ending.

But then turn the page: “Epilogue: Extracts from Nan Wu’s Poetry Journal,” in which our late hero confronts being scolded for writing poetry in English. A parody, but of which writer’s life, Nan’s or Jin’s? The few pages from this journal seem to be merely personal complaints about the poetry business. Then turn the page: “Poems by Nan Wu.” Often, the poems directly recount scenes from the novel. It’s startling to revisit the injured drake, the loss of their child, the old argument about writing in English:

You have been misled by your folly,
determined to follow the footsteps of Conrad
and Nabokov. You have forgotten
they were white Europeans.
Remember your yellow face
and your puny talent—unlikely
to make you a late bloomer.
Why believe you can write verse in English,
whose music is not natural to you?

At the end of A Free Life, I turned back to Stephen Dedalus’s diary and his many passes at the villanelle he’s writing. Is it successful? Well, touching, cleverly composed according to the rules of that game; the poem marked the beginning of play with old forms as Joyce passed on from the autobiographical novel. Nan Gin/Ha Jin dedicates a poem to his American friend with the lines “Day and night flowers fall from the sky shaded / by nets of gold, silver, and pearls,” recalling the line Stephen has been misquoting: “Brightness falls from the air.” Quoting, poets so often quoting, a trick or gift of their writing trade. A Free Life is not free of Jin’s own life as a survivor. If it lacks the urgency of his historical fiction, amuses or annoys with its meandering account of the record, its apologia and alternate endings, it’s a novel, that blowsy late bloomer of storytelling, after all.

Maureen Howard is the author, most recently, of The Silver Screen (Viking, 2004).