The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - BY CAR­LOS OTTERY

There are a group of Chi­nese writers, or writers of Chi­nese her­itage, that make big­ger waves over­seas than they do in China. Some­times it’s be­cause they have be­come nat­u­ral­ized and of­fer more to the Western or im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties for which they write. Other times it is be­cause it is “scar” lit­er­a­ture, writ­ing about an era many Chi­nese pre­fer to for­get. On oc­ca­sion, it is sim­ply be­cause they en­gage in pol­i­tics or China-bash­ing that wears thin at home. Of­ten it is be­cause the books are sim­ply banned.

Ha Jin is a mix of all this. Hav­ing won the Pen/ Faulkner award twice, one of only four writers to do so, there is lit­tle doubt that Jin ranks as a fine nov­el­ist. Con­se­quently, his lat­est book The Boat Rocker comes as a dis­ap­point­ment, be­ing lit­tle more than an air­port novel with oc­ca­sional touches on themes of Chi­nese iden­tity and the role of the Chi­nese state act­ing as cen­sors of lit­er­a­ture and news.

The book’s prob­lem is not that it is a pot-boiler with­out much lit­er­ary merit, or that it dares to take on big, com­plex themes fac­ing mod­ern China. It’s that a flimsy book of this na­ture is ill-suited to take on Jin’s more se­ri­ous ideas, which are lazily clamped onto a dull, fan­ci­ful plot.

The book fol­lows Feng Dan­lin, a Chi­nese im­mi­grant to New York who works in the city as a jour­nal­ist. Feng sees him­self as a seeker of truth and a rocker of boats, as the ti­tle sug­gests—a jour­nal­ist try­ing to right wrongs. How­ever, it is hard to get be­hind Feng when for the bulk of the book he is on a one-man mis­sion to take revenge on his ex-wife, Yan Haili.

Os­ten­si­bly he wants to at­tack his ex-wife be­cause she is about to pub­lish her de­but novel Love and Death in Septem­ber, and he is hor­ri­fied by the great pre-pub­lish­ing no­tices the book is get­ting. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge. W. Bush is ru­mored to en­dorse the book, which is get­ting fan­tas­ti­cally hyped by for­eign and Chi­nese pub­lish­ers; there’s talk of a mil­lion-dollar Hol­ly­wood deal, and a book group sup­pos­edly wants Yan to get the No­bel Prize. Feng is miffed and sees some­thing fishy in what he be­lieves is fake pub­lic­ity—he is largely right—and sets out to “rock the boat”: to find out why his ex-wife, a dread­ful writer, is get­ting such good press

The book is mostly about Feng try­ing to ex­pose his ex. On page one he calls her a bitch. On page two he calls her a bitch; on page three, he says, “I couldn’t wait to get even with her.” The snip­ing through­out the book never ends. Yan at­tacks back, call­ing her for­mer hus­band, “a mega­lo­ma­niac and psy­chopath who is too big for his britches.” Sadly, much of the book comes off as a tit-for-tat fall­ing out be­tween two teenagers that have made it their busi­ness to un­der­mine each other in child­ish and of­ten un­der­hand fash­ions. At one point Yan tells Feng: “You ought to be ra­tio­nal about this, Dan­lin. What’s at stake here? It’s a ro­mance novel—it’s not worth the time you’ve been spend­ing on it.” Sim­i­lar words could be said for The Boat Rocker.

A com­mer­cial novella ex­am­in­ing the bit­ter fall­out of a di­vorce and all its at­ten­dant ob­ses­sions could make for a rip-roar­ing read if you are into that sort of thing, but it is hardly a solid can­vas for what you sus­pect are Ha Jin’s mo­tives. Per­haps he could have writ­ten a se­ri­ous novel to deal with his ac­tual aims, a stud­ied ex­am­i­na­tion of the fault lines within Chi­nese so­ci­ety. In­stead we are thrown a se­ries of—of­ten ham-fisted— off-cuts that feel like un­fin­ished ed­i­to­ri­als.

The pot-shots at China come thick and fast, and they rarely of­fer much in­sight. Well-worn is­sues are splashed on the page con­stantly and in brief. We hear about schol­ars be­ing banned from at­tend­ing con­fer­ences in China for hold­ing diver­gent view­points. We are told about the fail­ings of the Chi­nese pub­lish­ing in­dus­try: “You must have con­nec­tions and you must bribe those who re­view your books and bribe the of­fi­cials and bribe the pseudo-schol­ars who at­tend the book events.” Feng’s fa­ther tells his son, “This is a coun­try that de­vours its peo­ple. Go live else­where and don’t mix with the Chi­nese.” A lit­tle later most of Feng’s work is blocked in Chi­nese cy­berspace. He also has is­sues get­ting a visa to go back home af­ter get­ting his Amer­i­can pass­port. It’s a paint-by-num­bers list of gripes wo­ven in­ex­pertly into a novella, giv­ing the book a mi­nor iden­tity cri­sis.

Many read­ers will be keen to ea­ger to read this au­thor at the top of his game, but this is not it. Ha Jin’s boat rocker fails to rock any boats be­cause he is too in­ter­ested in hav­ing a public spat with his exwife in print—hardly the stuff of Pulitzer Prizes. Ha Jin’s novella fails to hit any real high notes be­cause it can­not find its foot­ing as to whether it is an en­gag­ing page-turner ex­am­in­ing a cou­ple in hate, or a sav­age cri­tique of the coun­try. When you have one foot on the boat and the other on the shore, you of­ten end up in the wa­ter, and The Boat Rocker does ex­actly that.

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