Ha Jin’s latest short-story collection continues developing one of his favorite themes: the plight of Chinese immigrants in the United States. Even the children of immigrants, or those who immigrated long ago, still feel the chains tying them to the homeland, whether they parted with it peacefully or feel they escaped a cruel, unfair nation. Jin sets the tone in the six-page leadoff story, “The Bane Of The Internet,” where a young woman who immigrated to America finds that e-mail ties her too closely to home, and to a sister who makes increasing demands of her. It’s that way for all of Jin’s protagonists, who wind up trapped by their ancestry and unable to start anew in the land of opportunity they thought they were moving to.
Jin sets all of the stories in A Good Fall in and around Flushing, New York, home to enough Chinese immigrants that his characters can go weeks without having to speak English. Some prefer it that way, but others who hoped to form a more forceful break with China find the place an insufficient breath of fresh air.
The book’s centerpiece, and one of its longest stories, “In The Crossfire,” may be the biggest example of what Jin is getting at. Told from the point of view of Tian, a mild-mannered accountant whose mother is visiting from China for six months, and is pitched against Tian’s wife, Connie, a thoroughly modern American who holds onto none of the old-fashioned conventions Tian’s mother holds dear. The story, like many of Jin’s, is slyly funny and surprisingly revelatory, turning Tian into a fulcrum between old and new, a man who can’t bear the way his home has become a battleground in a culture war he barely understands.
The collection’s best story, “An English Professor,” also works well within Jin’s thesis. Told almost entirely via the internal monologue of the titular professor, a man who left China to teach American literature to Americans, the story works through a variety of moods, playing like a combination of comedy of manners and conspiracy thriller. The professor has made a typo on his submission to the English department to obtain tenure, and the more he thinks about it, the more he becomes convinced the error will cause the department to see him for an unconfident English speaker who should be denied tenure. While the story makes no unexpected turns, Jin so thoroughly internalizes the professor’s anxieties that the story simultaneously makes him sympathetic and deftly sends him up.
Like all Jin’s story collections, A Good Fall is stilted at times, as Jin tries to capture the English-as-a-second-language nature of his narrators’ voices. The stories also vary in quality, with some never making the leap up from bare sketch. A handful are also slightly dry, and too driven by interior monologue. But by and large, this is a successful collection, an excellent examination of how hard it is to leave what was your home behind.