The Boat Rocker
We've tangled with this Ha Jin a couple of times before. First there was Waiting. We wrote, "Oh, there are moments. The rape scene is a knock-out, if you are into rape scenes."
The author gets into the head of poor Manna Wu [and] her day-terrors and nightmares afterwards are real and grisly and fearsome. But outside this and outside of sugar red-bean paste pies, coptis powder (for diarrhea), and salted jellyfish --- it's dark days not only for the characters, but the reader.
"All of us are stuck out there on the steppes or plains or badlands of melancholia," we suggested: "Muji without a dose of coptis."
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Next came The Crazed. We reported that the book was dead in the water "until Jian Wan gets hungry."
He goes off to the Deli Bite to get some [yum] "noodles fried with slivers of lean pork and mung bean sprouts." He somehow ends up in a tussle with the cook with a bloody cleaver and shortly after, he runs off to Tiananmen and gets in that mess.
We concluded "Like the rape scene in Waiting, the action parts of The Crazed are quite dramatic. Ha Jin's ability to pull these off might bode well for his next book."
Instead of rattling on about students and doctors and whatnot struggling through the complexities of China in the 21st century, we would suggest a novel planted in the midst of the Tong wars. Give us what Ha Jin does best --- gore and decapitated prisoners, peasant slaughter and rape, smoking cleavers . . . and mushi pork and fried mung bean sprouts.
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So now here we are in a rocking boat, dead-in-the-water, with a hard-as-nails reporter for GNA - - - the Chinese news service in New York. Danlin Feng is his name, and he stumbles on a scandalous story of deceit, fake news, bribery, and malfeasance involving a devious author by the name of Yan Haili.
Her book, Love and Death in September, is to appear soon, and is said to have a million-dollar movie contract, incipient sales in the hundreds of thousands, and release in China, New York, and, in translation, in thirty other countries.
Danlin has an insider's slant on this scandal. Yan Haili is his ex-wife. He writes several columns for the news service about her perfidy, reveals that the purported translator has never even heard of the book, ditto for the movie studio.
He is especially incensed because one of the new releases from Haili's publicists claims that he, Danlin, wasn't all that hot in bed. "How could you satisfy your wife in just three or four minutes?" is the phrasing. The journalist, in a snit, immediately writes a column, soon published worldwide by GNA, asserting that he "couldn't bring himself to kiss her on the mouth, as though she were ill, her body fluids contagious."
Now I am proud to say that I am all right between the sheets. You may ask my girlfriend Katie Torney, a professor of sociology at NYU, how I do in bed if you are not convinced.
At this point we had to lay this one aside, wondering if Ha Jin is doing a number on us. Do the various news services of China indulge a columnist to write about his antics in bed with his wife, his ex-wife, and his current lady friends (whether or not they are professors of Sociology at New York University). Further on, this writer includes in his internationally distributed news column a vivid description of Yan Haili's passionate rendering of her new husband's derrière:
His backside, white like cream and perfect in size, dazzles me and makes my breathing flutter. I caress his skin, soft and smooth like silk, which reminds me of a baby's cheek. The marvelous feel turns me on, and I start showering kisses on his behind like mad, his skin wet with my tears.
This is, we suppose, an example of Ha Jin making an example of excruciatingly bad writing one of his characters, but the confusion comes with Ha Jin's equally wretched writing during the course of The Boat-Rocker.
Finally, there is the hysteric condemnation of his ex-wife's publishing activity. Does the narrator, supposedly as voice of the author, believe that books get sold merely on the basis of good writing? Or, even more surprising, on the basis of the author's virtue? Or on a literary derrière?
More, has Ha Jin himself, despite his many titles in print, somehow missed on all the goings-on in the book biz, the usual tricks of the trade: namely, publicity shuck and hustle?
Surely he's heard of the literary equivalent of the casting room couch, where authors, both male and female, sleep around with publishers, or editors, or various publicity hacks (and, if necessary, the corporate Chairman of the Board). All in the effort to boost printings, sales, and publicity of new titles.
He calls it scandal. The rest of us call it business know-how.
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Finally, there is the matter of sheer bad writing. We are supposed to see Haili, based on the basis of, for example, a fanny as a writer with an egregiously rotten style. Yet, by that measure, the author's descriptive passages in The Boat Rocker are scarcely any better. We are unsure if all this is supposed to be the hand of Danlin, or of Ha Jin.
Based on his previous works, we are likely to believe the latter. See if you can figure out such curious phrasings that pop up in the book like acne on the face of some juvenile delinquent: "two receding men," "swans . . . propelled by canceled impetus," "pigeons . . . swaying their diarrhea-soiled asses." And, most unfortunate of them all, "If the tide of lust waxed, I would masturbate over one of Haili's photos . . ."
This "tide of lust waxed" business not only put us out, it put us in mind of that riotous scene from Horse Feathers, with Groucho Marx playing Professor Wagstaff:
Receptionist: Oh, Professor, the Dean of Science wants to know how soon you can see him. He says he's tired of cooling his heels out here.
Professor Wagstaff: Tell him I'm cooling a couple of heels in here.
Receptionist: The Dean is furious! He's waxing wroth!
Professor Wagstaff: Is Roth out there, too? Tell Roth to wax the Dean for awhile.