Ha Jin”s beautiful, stark prose brings to mind the pain-staking meticulousness of a master diamond cutter. His pen is like a scalpel, exacting, slicing, and penetrating, to reveal pardon the sentimentality a living, beating human heart. The short story is indeed an exact science, and Jin hovers above all the stories in his newest collection, “The Bridegroom,” peering over Muji City, the same place his much-admired novel “Waiting” was set in.
All of these stories are set in contemporary China, with a socialist structure as absurd as a Godzilla movie (a Japanese creation nonetheless), though far more frightening and illogical in its monstrous tyrannical irony than the lumbering lizard ever was. Here the Godzilla is real. If you ever find yourself interrogated for a petty crime (a constant in “The Bridegroom”), it might help to keep Jin”s villainous, vague officers in mind to put things in perspective. There is only so much exasperation and self-criticism a human being can take. Jin does a wonderful job in perusing just past this point, fusing the arbitrary Chinese legal system with intensely believable characters to form a face that might look something like the guy in Edvard Munch”s “The Scream” if only he had a sense of humor.
In post-Chairman Mao society, homosexuality is a contagious disease and a crime to be well educated is to graduate high school housing is assigned by the government cops throw hot tea at your feet and then arrest you for disrupting the civil order.
Normal, daily life is awash in a mess of bureaucratic hogwash and communist hot air. People greet each other as “Comrade!” and then sneak behind their comrades” backs to get them fired and land their wages.
Luckily, we have a wonderful tour guide in Jin, whose refreshingly plain style of writing is deceivingly unpretentious and marvelously constructed. When a joke can land you in prison for three years, and when this is not a joke but reality, following Jin as he weaves through the massive contradictions that constitute post-cultural revolution China is both an education and a shock. If anyone comes out clean after reading these stories, they”re either heartless or mindless. Jin”s stories manage to engage both, seemingly effortlessly and sometimes simultaneously.
In the disturbing title story, a married man convicted of homosexuality is subject to electric baths to purge his “condition.” “Homosexuality originated in Western capitalism and bourgeois lifestyle,” the Chief of the Investigation Department says. In one particularly unsettling scene, after a nurse offers to turn down the jarring electricity, the patient screams “No, give me more!” It is very upsetting to see this man buy into China”s hypocrisy, desperate to cure what he has sorrowfully misconstrued as his own sickness.
The hilarious last story in the collection, entitled “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town,” is worth the price of the book alone. In it, a hapless thirty year old employee relates his experience deep frying at “Cowboy Chicken,” an American company hazardously rooted in the code: “the customer is always right.” You cannot help but sympathize with this wretch, or feel guilty after laughing at his expense. In order to draw more customers, the owner, Mr. Shapiro, incorporates a buffet lunch, which backfires nastily. The restaurant then hosts a “wedding feast” for newlyweds bedazzled by the shiny counters, fries, biscuits and orange soda. The story is also a commentary on the confused culture of contemporary China, in essence a conflict between East and West, communism and capitalism. Neither side escapes unscathed.
Aside from one unsatisfying, bland story entitled “The Woman from New York,” “The Bridegroom” is a superb collection.