THE BRIDEGROOM By Ha Jin Pantheon 225 pp., $22
Characters so deftly drawn that they assume the three-dimensional reality of people we know. Situations so exquisitely simple and possible that we forget we're reading fiction and live them alongside the characters. These are the ingredients of Ha Jin's newest collection of 12 short stories
"The Bridegroom" is set in Muji City, China, the same contemporary place of his novel "Waiting," which won the National Book Award last year. These lean, delicate tales combine heartbreak, humor, irony, bitterness, even desperation, each one unique in its voice and tone, each one captivating, tugging at the memory long after the book is finished.
One thread runs consistently throughout the stories: All tell of common people struggling with various degrees of injustice. These inequities are often, though not always, the result of the political domination of Communism's constricted, impersonal regime, wherein minor functionaries and major bureaucracy complicate people's lives. The starkness of post-Cultural Revolution China beats just below the surface of every narrative. In each instance, the characters fight back, gaining revenge or suffering calamity.
Jin has introduced a rich diversity of personalities: the cannery vice director on a business trip who suffers amnesia in a massive earthquake and lives a contented existence as a simple worker until his memory returns, presenting him with an impossible dilemma; the kindergarten child who finds a way to register her displeasure with her selfish and dishonest teacher; the paragon of a husband who joins a men's literary club, only to be arrested for the "bourgeois crime" of homosexuality; the academic who damns his former teacher and mentor with faint praise in a tell-all letter of recommendation; the palpitating, middle-aged woman who had permitted her mother to ruin her life as a girl, jilting her true love and settling for a safe marriage until her former lover proposes they meet again; the feckless workers at Cowboy Chicken, an American fast food franchise, who wrestle with a string of comical catastrophes until they tragically misjudge their capitalistic boss.
These and many more people fill the pages of "The Bridegroom," each one somehow solitary and disconnected from the other characters, grappling to maintain control over his or her life.
Although several of the stories include sexual situations, and one in particular is extremely explicit, none of them has to do with anything other than desperate, lonely people seeking to connect somehow with fellow human beings.
One device that distinguishes Jin's surpassing storytelling style is his seamless narration. The voice of the stories told in third person is so inconspicuous that one feels they are being experienced firsthand.
As the amnesiac begins to regain his memory, images start flooding back: "He froze, then turned a little, gripping the handlebars of his bicycle with both hands while his left shoulder leaned against the bole of a dried mulberry tree killed by the earthquake. A gust of cold wind passed by and made him sneeze and cough. As though the coughing had been meant to precipitate his recollection, picture after picture of his family came back to him - Yaning's tic fits, the garlic eggplant Jian had pickled, the handsome shoes she had made out of pasted rags stitched together with jute threads, Liya's sweet voice and thin braids, the tropical fish he had kept, as large as bats."
The tales narrated in first person are wholly individual, each voice perfectly suited to its character. For instance, the academic, who has learned English from nonnative speakers and books, writes in a curiously formal way, occasionally using a delightful word or phrase not natural to colloquial English. "Before departing for the countryside, [my friend's younger sister] was so distraught that she had almost defenestrated herself, pulled back just in time by her parents."
"The Bridegroom" is an absorbing work by a deeply gifted writer, spare yet rich, witty yet heart-rending. Despite the pain these characters endure, Jin rejoices in the humanity he so aptly depicts.
Verity Ludgate-Fraser is chairman of the English department at the Berkeley Hall School in Los Angeles.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society