THE BRIDEGROOM

FICTION BY HA JIN

Pantheon Books
ISBN: 0-375-42067-3
In one of the short stories that comprises The Bridegroom, a new collection by Ha Jin, a character refers to a Chinese proverb about sparrows. Although the sparrow is small, says the proverb, it possesses all the internal workings of any creature and is therefore the equal of any creature. The same could be said of the short story. Although brief, a good short story, like a good novel, is made up of richly drawn characters, compelling situations and powerful themes. But the smaller form can lend itself to intense moments of discovery on the part of the characters and the reader.  
      With The Bridegroom, Ha Jin returns to the short story after the success of his novel, Waiting. A native of mainland China, Ha Jin is currently a professor of English at Emory University. His life in China has given him a wealth of characters and stories upon which to draw. His studies of Western as well as Eastern literary traditions have provided him with an enviable set of writer’s tools. With his richly developed themes, narrative voice, and imagery, Ha Jin proves himself once again to be a master of the short story. And he leaves us with many memorable sparrows.  
      All of the stories in this collection are set in the city of Muji in modern-day China. The people of Muji City live on the cusp of a great cultural and economic change. The Communist system under which most of the characters grew up is still in place, but Capitalism is also staking a place of its own. The world of Mao, however, has defined most of the characters. In various ways each of these tales shows how the Communist system has actually created the people who live within it. In Muji City, not only are a person’s actions defined by the dictates of the system, but his or her hopes and dreams for the future are also circumscribed by that system.  
      In “Alive,” for example, a supervisor in a local cannery wants to be promoted, not because of a desire for personal gain but because one of the perks of a higher position is a larger apartment, which would allow his son to marry and move in with his new wife. Likewise, he calls upon his daughter to give up on her dream of becoming a veterinarian. The job that he could secure for her if he receives his promotion, he thinks, is far better than a job she might find elsewhere. In Muji City, marriage can only take place if the system can accommodate it. Likewise, one’s choice of professions is dictated, not by an individual’s desire, but by circumstances the system has imposed.  
      But in spite of the all the pressures to conform, the inhabitants of Muji City manage to defy the system, sometimes overtly but more often covertly, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  
      In “A Bad Joke,” a derogatory joke about a minor official is misconstrued as a joke about Deng Xiaoping, landing the teller in jail. In “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town,” local workers at an American-owned fast food restaurant react to unfair treatment by taking that most American of actions, going on strike.  
      Although all of the stories in The Bridegroom are set in modern times and explore contemporary themes, most echo old world storytelling traditions in some way. The layers of irony in “Saboteur” and “The Bridegroom” are reminiscent of folk tales. Likewise, at the end of “Alive,” a parable about a man who loses his memory in an earthquake and is matched with a new wife and family, the reader is left to weigh the implications of his fate as though the story were about a classical hero instead of a person of our own time.  
      Similarly, in “A Tiger-Fighter is Hard to Find,” Chinese mythology meets the modern media as a television production company films a series about the mythic tiger fighter, Wu Song. The actor playing Wu Song becomes so obsessed with the role that he comes to believe he is the mythic hero.  
      In this collection, Ha Jin demonstrates his ability to carefully choose visual images that speak beyond the words of his narrators. In “Saboteur,” workers nap in the middle of the afternoon at the feet of a statue of Mao. In “The Bridegroom,” a woman en route to visit her husband, who was been sent to a mental hospital for the “crime” of homosexuality, holds his duffel bag as though it were a baby.  
      Taken individually, these stories stand as superbly crafted works of short fiction. Ha Jin’s writing style is spare and direct. Often using the first person point of view, he allows his characters to speak for themselves and their situations to play themselves out in their own way.  
      As a whole, this collection provides a fascinating look at Eastern culture. At the same time, however, it shows the essence of humanity in a way that is readily recognizable to any reader, regardless of his or her cultural background. No matter our country of origin, we see ourselves in these stories. And no matter one’s locale, in The Bridegroom we have a selection of work from one of the best writers of short stories to arrive in recent years.