How do you convey the splendor of a novel when the first adjectives that spring to mind are among the deadliest in a critic’s repertoire? Ha Jin’s new book is ”long,” ”earnest,” and ”slow-moving.” His prose is ”plain” and ”quaint,” his settings ”drab,” and his characters ”humble” and ”melancholy.” Yet A Free Life is one of the most powerful novels of the year, a richly textured and quietly engrossing portrait of the artist as a Chinese immigrant marooned in suburban Atlanta.
Following the Tiananmen Square massacre, graduate student Nan Wu decides to settle permanently in the United States (as did Jin) with his wife, Pingping, and their young son, Taotao. ”I hope we just live a life similar to others’ here, making some money and having our own home, so that every day will be the same as the previous one,” says Pingping. Nan, by nature an impractical, incorrigible dreamer, does not share her mundane aspirations. He still pines for an old girlfriend back in China, and he desperately wants to write poetry. But art is a luxury he doesn’t believe he can afford, and he resigns himself to becoming ”the draft horse pulling the cart of this family.” In short chapters covering roughly a decade, Jin records Nan’s journey, from peeling scallions in a tiny dumpling house to ownership of his own modest restaurant and, eventually, the partial realization of his literary ambitions. The plot is built not on momentous upheavals, but on the low-key drama of everyday life: Pingping and Nan argue about money, and their restaurant is robbed. They buy a house and complain about Taotao spending too much time online (”He was flirting with a girl while we work ourselves half to death here”). Nan lusts after redheads, admires the UPS delivery woman (”so hardy and so independent!”), reads Faulkner, and starts a journal. Change comes, but only with the very gradual piling-up of insights, experiences, and years.
And so we are left with the list of dreary adjectives that make this novel sound like a bore, when it is anything but. Lyrical interludes, flashy bits of writing, and sexy plot twists would only break the spell that Jin casts with his grave prose and unhurried observations of his characters’ unglamorous reality. Late in the novel, Nan indulges in his favorite hobby, refining his ever-evolving philosophy of art: ”He imagined a kind of poetry that could speak directly to the readers’ hearts regardless of their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Above all, his work should possess more strength than beauty, which he believed often belied truth.” Nan could be describing the marvelous book that Jin has written. A