Some contend that the term literary fiction is so overused and broad, it now amounts to little more than a name for a recent genre. And if you’re an illiterati like me, you might consider literary fiction to be like pornography — I can’t define it but “I know it when I see it.” Applying that standard to A Free Life, the most recent novel by award-winning Chinese-American author Ha Jin, erases any doubt it qualifies as literary fiction.
At its most simple, A Free Life traces the story of Nan and Pingping Wu, Chinese immigrants chasing the American dream. Yet while a tale of immigrants in modern America, it also reveals a core commonality. The Wus are dealing with the day to day events of work and life, events that so often seem routine and constant but which ultimately add up to goals realized and dreams unfulfilled. And like life, A Free Life unfolds and reveals itself slowly, consuming some 650 pages in its new trade paper edition. There are ups and downs but it isn’t a roller coaster ride.
A purposeful sameness is actually what the Wus want. “‘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,” Pingping tells Nan. Despite the fact we are observing ordinary lives — at least ordinary for modern immigrants — Jin’s style not only keeps us reading but generally wanting to press forward to see how the Wus will live and how their lives will turn out. To a certain extent, A Free Life seems almost an invitation to savor our own life experiences as much as we are induced to appreciate the Wus’. Still, even significant events, such as a miscarriage or a brief visit to China, are relayed in the same easy style, even though the reader may want more than a continually even keel.
Nan and Pingping aren’t the happiest couple. Even though Pingping loves Nan deeply, he still pines after his first love, something Pingping knows. As the novel opens, they are awaiting in the arrival of their six-year-old son Taotao. They left him with relatives in China when they first came to the U.S., where Nan was a graduate student in political science in Boston. The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 convince Nan to not only stay in the United States but to abandon his studies. Despite being college-educated and long dreaming of being a poet, Nan takes on a variety of low-paying jobs such as night watchman and dishwasher to provide food and shelter for his family.
Ultimately, the save enough money to make a down payment on a Chinese restaurant in the Atlanta suburbs. Working 14 hours a day, Nan and Pingping first make sure they have the business paid for so no one can take it from them. Then, each bank deposit goes toward paying for the house they’ve found. Even as their relationship grows stronger, Nan still desires to be a poet, a dream he defers because of the obligations of work and family, or so he tells himself.
Jin, an immigrant himself, explores the contradictions and ironies of the immigrant experience in a variety of ways. For example, shortly after his arrival Taotao is puzzled by a fortune cookie they receive with a Chinese meal. Born and raised in China, he’s never seen this American creation before. Years later, when Nan, now the accomplished owner and cook in a Chinese restaurant returns to China to visit his family, he finds the food wanting.
Even the title hints of contrasts. Nan and Pingping have more freedom to pursue their dreams than in China. Yet they are almost enslaved by their desire to make their business a success. Nan and Pingping have more freedom to control their lives than in China. Yet despite owning and running a successful business, they can’t afford health insurance and dental visits. Nan and Pingping are entirely free to pursue the American dream as they perceive it, although never being totally free of their upbringing. Yet perhaps the ultimate proof that they can become “Americanized” — at least Nan — comes as they are realizing their dream.
When a fellow Chinese immigrant frequently praises Nan for having everything — a beautiful and devoted wife, a son, a home and a business of his own — it doesn’t give Nan succor. Rather, the words leave him wondering why he “didn’t feel as content as he should.” Likewise, when the Wus finally pay off their home mortgage — in less than five years — “a kind of disappointment sank into his heart. …. He should feel successful. But somehow the success didn’t mean as much to him as he should.” Must the part of Nan that still desires to be a poet always succumb to the dream of success?
It does not take long for Jin’s concise language, short chapters and unhurried approach to prove that literary fiction need not be immersed in metaphor or allegory. Without you perhaps quite realizing it, A Free Life wraps you in how an immigrant’s history gives unique expression to the American dream and how that dream influences and affects their lives and relationships. Some may claim the book is too dry or too slow. Yet whether in terms of style or content, Jin still accomplishes much.
The notion of the American dream had bewildered him for a good decade; now he knew that to him, such a dream was not something to be realized but something to be pursued only.
Ha Jin, A Free Life