A Novel
Ha Jin
There are some books that refuse to leave you alone. I don't mean the ones that are so good that you don't want to stop for a minute --- the ones where you keep on reading until your eyes are hanging out, ripe cherries on the bush.

No --- I'm speaking of one that gets lodged with you somehow, and (you, a word junkie) when you need something to read, there it is, and all the others you should have around are back in the study, or under the bed, or lost in the computer room.

Waiting is just such a millstone. It got lodged between front and back seat of my car, and during the course of a week --- a week in which I seemed to spend too much time waiting at bridges and waiting at the laundry and waiting in freeway pile-ups --- there was Waiting. Reluctantly, I would pick it up, and army on, cursing myself that I forgot to travel with something more hefty and satisfying from the pile of other books rising up Gargantua on my bedtable, Karakatoa in the bathroom, King Kong about the computer.

I was thus saddled for what seemed a month of stalled cars and carbon monoxide not with, unfortunately, King Kong --- but doctor Lin Kong, the star of Waiting, and his honey of eighteen years, nurse Manna Wu. Kong can woo Wu but no marry because of a previously arranged marriage with the home-bound, ugly, foot-bound (only in China!) Shuyu. Much of the tale takes place shortly after the Great Leap forward, in a medical facility in the wilds of Muji, China. That's Muji as in moo-gee. We might think of it as a post-Maoist (or post-partum) version of General Hospital, but it's not as sprightly. Nor as interesting.

Oh, there are moments. The rape scene is a knock-out --- if you are into rape scenes --- for the author gets into the head of poor Manna Wu. Her day-terrors and nightmares afterwards are real and grisly and fearsome. But outside this and outside of the sugar red-bean paste pies, coptis powder (for diarrhea), and salted jellyfish --- it's dark days not only for the characters, but the reader --- stuck out there on the steppes or plains or badlands of melancholic Muji without a dose of coptis.

I suspect it is the style. It's consciously flat, on all sides --- like a chopstick. And some of the literary bridges make you want to scream:

    Dark clouds were gathering in the distance, blocking out the city's sky-line; now and then a flashing fork zigzagged across the heavy nimbuses...a peal of thunder rumbled in the south; then raindrops began pitter-pattering on the roofs and the aspen leaves....


    As they strolled along the path between the turnip and eggplant fields behind the mess hall, they began talking about recent events in the hospital. After the Cultural Revolution had broken out the year before, the medical staff here had divided into two factions. They would argue and quarrel...

This kind of writing wants to make you yell "chop" --- as in cut --- or even "Chop-Suey," as in bad Chinese cooking.

Word is now that Oprah barely nosed out Waiting for this year's National Book Awards. What in god's name is going on in the incestuous charnel pits of the East Coast literary stew-pot? Have they no taste --- outside of noisy television ladies, sugar red-bean paste pies, and salted jellyfish?

--- C Q Wang
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