Sunday, February 26, 2006

Book Notes: "Waiting" by Ha Jin

There's a famous experiment where a person is told a happy story and then shown an image of a person with a completly blank expresion. The viewer is then asked to describe the emotions of the person in the photo. Generally viewers describe the face as happy.

Another group of viewers (or perhaps the same) are told a sad story. Then they are shown the exact same photo of a person with a blank expression. This group reports the person in the photo as sad.

The point of this experiment was to show that people will project emotions and interpret what they see based on those projections - as opposed to simply observing in a clinical, detached manner. Of course the subject of this projection has to be sufficiently blank if it is to support a wide range of projected emotions (as was the case with these photos of blank expressions). In other words if an emotion is clearly visible, it is much more difficult to interpret any way we like. A sad face that is actually sad and not just blank cannot easily be seen as happy.

"Waiting" is the literature equivalent of these blank expressions.

Ha Jin's "style" (the quotes indicate a bit of sarcasm on my part) attempts to evoke the restrictive environment of China during its cultural revolution. The rise of communism and the expected dedication to party philosophies create a stifling, restrained existence. Free thought, free expression, and even traditional notions of romance are all squashed (your female coworkers are your fellow comrades and should be treated as androgenous equal entities, but certainly not possible romantic companions).

Therefore the narration is restrained, sparse, and formal. Efficient and intentionally somewhat artless. As a storytelling device it succeeds in conveying the atmosphere of the time, but as a reading experience it quickly becomes dull, disengaging, and distancing.

Lin Kong, a mid-level doctor in a government hospital, is married to Shuyu, a backwoods villager who is an embarrassing symbol for old, backwards China. So Lin's attentions drift to a more modern woman of the city, Manna, whom he keeps as his woman-in-waiting for eighteen years.

In short summary Lin Kong, while married to Shuyu, desperately wants Manna instead (though his efforts to divorce Shuyu are half-hearted at best, like all things Lin Kong does). But as the story progresses, his long-sought divorce is finally granted and he marries Manna. In short order he wearies of life with her and finds himself wishing to be back with Shuyu. Thinking Manna unhealthy after a trying childbirth, he even asks Shuyu to wait for him, to wait for Manna to die to release him from his second unhappy marriage. The end.

Lin Kong is a timid, indecisive man who never progresses past the "grass is always greener on the other side" stage of maturity. His ineffectual life is infuriating and his eventual desire to return to Shuyu is, for me, the unforgiveable final straw.

Perhaps the communist society and its cultural revolution created a situation in which Lin Kong could not progress as a person, but really Lin Kong has his opportunities to discover true happiness. But he's just too blind to appreciate what's in front of his eyes. Society didn't do him any favors, but the fault is entirely his own.

This is Death of a Salesman without the death part, unfortunately.

Some people read this novel and see such pain and confusion hidden between the lines of the pages. They feel Lin Kong's struggle and sorrow. But this is completely unwarranted. As I said, this novel is a blank emotional slate that the reader may project his or her emotions onto, but the novel itself does not actually contain or produce these emotions. Lin Kong is so dumb to his own internal machinations that he is a blank slate. If he has a moment of stunned silence, people project deep contemplation but in fact it is merely dumb stunned silence.

Lin Kong is deeply dumb and ignorant of his own desires and needs. And his inability to grow beyond his own limitations makes this novel an infuriating waste of time. There are plenty of people - in communist societies or living in our own households - who are hemmed in by their own weaknesses yet too blind to see them for themselves. We don't need Ha Jin to provide us with another.

As a technician, Ha Jin is only a modestly talented writer. His weakest moment is the hugely disappointing epiphany at the end of the novel. The stone dumb Lin Kong has an internal dialogue with himself - a mysterious insightful part of himself starts "talking" with Lin Kong, debating with him about what really makes him happy. This storytelling device is a terrible cheat and an ineffective one. A more talented writer would convincingly develop Lin Kong to the point where he can begin asking himself these questions rather than rely on the magical voice from nowhere in Lin Kong's head.

By the way, the ending is not a happy realization of what will finally make him happy. It's just more of the same "grass is greener" thinking that has plagued him his entire life.

Not an enjoyable read nor a satisfying one. It's easy to dismiss such criticism as simplistic, that I didn't like it simply because I didn't like Lin Kong or didn't like the ending. Excercises in futility can be held in high regard (Waiting for Godot, though not the best example since I dismissed that play as well). But "Waiting" is not an artful enough rendering of that futility.


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