From the remarkable Ha Jin, winner of the National Book Award for his celebrated novel Waiting, a collection of comical and deeply moving tales of contemporary China that are as warm and human as they are surprising, disturbing, and delightful.
In the title story, the head of security at a factory is shocked, first when the hansomest worker on the floor proposes marriage to his homely adopted daughter, and again when his new son-in-law is arrested for the "crime" of homosexuality. In "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town," the workers at an American-style fast food franchise receive a hilarious crash course in marketing, deep frying, and that frustrating capitalist dictum, "the customer is always right."Ha Jin has triumphed again with his unforgettable storytelling in The Bridegroom.
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It's the little things that kill us, as that master of the miniature Ha Jin well knows. Not oppression in general, but the tea thrown at us by railroad policemen; not failure, but the old flame who fails to visit; not grief, but the peanuts our kindergarten teacher stole from our pockets. In The Bridegroom, such moments run surprisingly deep, as if they traced the grooves history has left on individual hearts. The book's 12 tales capture a China in transition, en route from Maoism to market-friendly socialism, from isolation to increasing contact with the West. "I never thought money could make so much difference," says the narrator of "An Entrepreneur's Story," who's been transformed from black-market lowlife to new-economy hero. He wins respect and gets the girl, but it all feels too easy somehow, and he revenges himself by lighting his kerosene stove with bank notes.
Other characters navigate this sea change with similar bewilderment. The professor mistaken for "The Saboteur" thinks news articles about the end of the cultural revolution mean he can reason with the police (wrong!), while the bridegroom of the title story is hauled off to jail for so-called hooliganism rooted in "Western capitalism and bourgeois lifestyle"--that is, loving other men. "What a wonderful husband he could have been if he were not sick," his father-in-law thinks. In the story that deals most explicitly with the conflict between East and West, an American chain named Cowboy Chicken sets up shop in Muji City. The new order isn't that different from the old one, thinks one of the Chinese workers: "We nicknamed Mr. Shapiro 'Party Secretary,' because just like a Party boss anywhere he didn't do any work. The only difference was that he didn't organize political studies or demand we report to him our inner thoughts." In the end, as often happens, greed begets revolution--but whose greed? When the workers at Cowboy Chicken go on strike, jealous of one of their coworker's paychecks, they're replaced by an African American woman who teaches English at a nearby college and her students, who sing "We Shall Overcome" while they wipe tables.
But as in Jin's National Book Award-winning novel, Waiting, even the broadest political and cultural ironies are painted with an extraordinarily light-handed brush. Despite their apparent simplicity, these stories run deep; it's as if some 19th century master had wandered into our midst, writing prose whose unruffled surface recalls the virtues of the very long view. Like Chekhov, another great miniaturist and the writer he most resembles, Jin understands that humor is compassion, that a well-honed appreciation for the absurd is sometimes the best and most honest way to honor failed lives. While his characters attempt to balance the needs of the self and the demands of the state, we see less what is foreign to us than what is native to the human heart. --Mary ParkAbout the Author:
Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. He is the author of the internationally bestselling novel Waiting, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award, and War Trash, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize; the story collections The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award; the novels The Crazed and In the Pond; and three books of poetry. His latest novel, A Free Life is his first novel set in the United States. He lives in the Boston area and is a professor of English at Boston University.War Trash, The Crazed, The Bridegroom, Waiting, In the Pond, and Ocean of Words are available in paperback from Vintage Books.
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