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Waiting by Ha Jin

April 7, 2010

What an odd story.

Throughout these 300 pages, I just kept thinking that everything about this novel is bizarre: the plot, the characters, the setting, the writing style.  Let me elaborate:

The Plot

Lin Kong is an army hospital doctor who has a wife from an arranged marriage, but she lives outside of the city and he only sees her once a year.  Lin has never loved her, but the couple has one daughter.  While working at the army hospital, Lin meets Manna, a nurse.  Divorce is fairly uncommon at this time, but Lin longs to divorce his wife and marry Manna.  Each year, he travels to the countryside to see his wife Shuyu and convince her to agree to the divorce and each year he fails.  Army law dictates that after 18 years a couple can divorce without mutual consent, so Lin and Manna wait.

The Characters

For a love story, which is what Waiting ultimately is, I didn’t think any of the characters actually loved each other at all.

Lin Kong – an army doctor who is introspective and gentle, but is kind of just bumbling through life

Shuyu – Lin’s old-fashioned and meek wife who doesn’t have a clue what is going on

Manna Wu – a nurse at the army hospital who was jilted by her first love and falls hard for Lin, making her, in my opinion, seem quite desperate and pathetic

The Setting

The majority of the novel is set in the city at the army hospital, but Lin also visits the countryside occasionally.  What made the setting so bizarre to me were all the weird army rules: men and women can’t be seen walking alone together and the doctors have to share apartments with their coworkers.

The Writing Style

Jin’s writing is weird.  I don’t know how else to say it.  Sentences are quick and short, almost elementary, but can also be very descriptive.  His diction is bizarre.  I found myself wondering why he would describe something a particular way or why he had chosen certain phrases because they seemed out of place.  At first, I actually thought that the book may have been written in Chinese and translated into English because I found it so choppy.

Waiting is pretty unique and I’m not in love with it, but I’m glad I read it.  It’s always interesting to read a passage and be struck by cultural differences.  In one scene, a crowd forms and where in America the author may have written that when the crowd dispersed there were coffee cups or paper or popcorn or something on the ground, but in Jin’s novel there are cucumber peels.  That struck me as hilarious: eating a cucumber just walking down the street.  Just a tiny part of the novel, but to me a major cultural difference that stood out and amused me.

There is an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine was having a lot of success and George was falling apart, but then Elaine’s world began to crumble and George was having all sorts of luck – it was as though they switched places.  All the while, Jerry was remaining Even Steven: he’d get a parking ticket, then find $20 in his pocket.  The characters in  Waiting reminded me of that episode.  Someone’s moving up, someone’s heading down and someone is breaking even.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 7, 2010 10:06 pm

    Ha Jin is an interesting writer. He was born in China, moved to American in the mid-1980’s and decided to stay after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. His view of life in China is incredibly bleak, even if there are some brief shimmers of hope and optimism. His writing style stems from the fact that he does all of his writing in English which is not his native language. And, while it’s simple and direct, there’s quite a bit packed into each sentence. It’s similar to the Chinese language in this regard. In Chinese, a simple sentence of three or four characters might require pages and pages of explanation.
    Personally, I am a big fan of his. Waiting is probably the critical darling in his body of work, but I thought that War Trash and The Crazed were a bit better. There’s a review of The Crazed on my blot if you want to have a look.
    Anyway, great review and give another of Ha Jin’s books a try, you might like them a bit more.

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