I’ve been avoiding A Good Fall, the short story collection by Ha Jin, because it makes me feel stupid. I don’t get it. I feel like I’m missing something, but try as I might, I can’t figure out what. Earlier I discussed “The Bane of the Internet,” “A Composer And His Parakeet” (which I enjoyed), and “The Beauty.” I’m not one to give up lightly, so onward.
“Choice” concerns a grad student, Dave Hong, who applies for a job tutoring high schooler Sami Min to get her SAT scores into college application shape. Dave’s father, a plastic surgeon, withdrew financial support for his Masters studies and does not see history, or a professorship, as worthy of his own son. Here I am intrigued by my own memory. My father was an immigrant, at a very young age, from Sweden. He made every effort to Americanize and by the time I happened on the scene, he’d sanitized our home of anything Scandinavian. Had it not been for a couple of my aunts, I would not have the four words of Swedish I know, nor would I know how to make Vetebrod. And my father once said of his sister’s oldest son: “He teaches classes at Harvard, and he wrote a book about cults, but I don’t really know what he does for a living.” (The cousin is, in fact, a Harvard sociology professor specializing in group behaviors, including cults). Had he sold shoes, or owned a coffee shop, my father would have understood what he did for a living. So I can understand how there is generational confusion about what constitutes a profession and what does not.
Back to the story. Dave works with Sami, and begins to join the family for meals. He becomes, in fact, part of the family, and finds himself drawn to Eileen Min, his tutee’s very recently widowed mother. All the while, it’s obvious Sami has a crush on him.
The story proceeds about how you’d expect from there. The situation is rich with the essence of humanity and short stories. Everyone has lost something: Sami, her father; Eileen, her husband and possibly her husband’s dream that Sami will go to college; Dave, his family’s support and respect. They all want something, sometimes several things. Dave starts out wanting to pay his bills and ends up wanting to be part of a family, then wanting to be part of Eileen’s life. And Sami, so recently defathered and in love with Dave herself, does not like that idea. Yet it all feels flat, cartoonish. In fact, I wondered if this was a spoof of some kind. If I read the opening paragraph in a workshop, my heart would sink and I’d think, “Oh, dear, how can I react to this honestly and painlessly?”
I don’t get it. Fortunately, the NYT book review also didn’t get it. Colm Toibin reviewed the collection on 12/31/09: at the same time he praises Jin’s “lack of color” and “quiet, careful, restrained prose” he admits “some of the early stories seem to have been weakened by this approach… runs the danger of being too obvious and predictable, and so the stories read more like sketches or fables. No one behaves out of character; each confrontation is inevitable and schematically rendered.” Whew. Maybe I’m not completely stupid. He also indicates that the stories proceed and become more complex, more unpredictable. Tick, tock.
In “Children as Enemies” the themes are heartbreaking, and true, and universal. Kids scorn what their parents treasure; kids innovate while grandparents conserve. My father hated “papercover” books, not realizing that the dime novels – Westerns, early pulp fiction – are not the paperbacks of today even when I waved copies of John Updike and Herman Wouk in his face. He was distraught that I moved into a “brownstone” when I moved away from home, a type of housing he considered synonymous with poverty and dissolution. He was never able to see that some things in the world had changed, and as a result, now that I’m an old fart I make every effort to keep an open mind – about Twitter, rap music, polygamy… well, you get the idea.
Again, back to the story. One thing in this saved it from spoofery: the parents came to the US from China, selling their candy store and apartment, to be with their children and grandchildren, and end up having to move out because they can’t accept that the grandchildren wish to change their names. This breaks my heart. In an effort to reunite the family, they destroy it. Their rigidity about names is not based on something abstract, but on a quasi-religious belief in Fate: a child with a name that means “amazing courage” can’t just change his name on a whim without losing something. And again, they are seeking to preserve their heritage, while the grandchildren view heritage as a burden (other kids make fun of their names). And the parents are caught in the middle. But the almost comical sparseness of the prose makes it unsatisfying to me.
I suppose it’s a matter of style and preference. I’ve read sparse stories that were moving, and there are elements of that here, especially in “Children as Enemies.” But the sparsity here detracts. I wish I were sophisticated enough to recognize the greatness of these stories. After all, Ha Jin has won many prestigious awards. And I don’t get it, which makes me feels stupid. If this was a memoir, nonfiction, I would find it more interesting, but it is fiction, and I don’t see the pull. Yet. I will read on, and see if I find the magic in later stories.