The Boat Rocker, by Ha Jin

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One star, read in February 2017.

I hated every page of this book.

I started hopefully, because I was intrigued by Waiting and have been wanting to read Ha Jin’s other books for a long time. But my hackles went up on the first page—in the second paragraph—and I only got more and more suspicious until finally it was confirmed. I finished the book, because when I hate something like this I need to know that nothing changes toward the end that might have influenced my opinion. It didn’t.

There are minor issues with the book, like the fact that despite being written in English, it has the sound of an awkward translation. But the most significant problem is that the premise is a lie. (I can’t write this post without spoilers, so be aware of that from now on.)

The jacket blurb and online descriptions call it “a lone journalist’s dogged quest for truth,” describing the protagonist as “fiercely principled.” I am at an absolute loss to see how anyone could take this view. Rather than a journalist whose integrity and courage compel him to report truth even in the face of outside pressure, Feng Danlin is, by his own admission, a man getting revenge on his ex-wife. That is literally how he introduces the subject when his boss gives him the news, and the assignment to write on it.

The bitch will never change, I realized. I wouldn’t let her get away with it this time. I’d figure out a way to expose all her chicaneries and vanity. Even if she begged me on her knees, I wouldn’t relent . . . [My boss] knew how much I hated my ex-wife—that our marriage had lasted only three years before she’d found someone else, and that I couldn’t wait to get even with her.

The most frustrating thing is that aside from the flagrant conflict of interest in his taking this assignment, he doesn’t even have a convincing case. Haili, the ex-wife, is publishing a novel that’s getting a lot of hype. Danlin, the clearly objective ex-husband, thinks there’s no way it could be any good, and his boss, Kaiming, tells him—with absolutely no substantiating information—that the publisher and editor, both of whom he met for the first time within the past month, are “crooks.” It is wholly on the basis of this information that they decide they must “expose this scam,” believing the Communist Party must be supporting the book. They discuss the conflict of interest for approximately four seconds, concluding that the “scumbags” they’re “dealing with” don’t play by the rules, so they shouldn’t either. By this point, on page two, the protagonist has called his ex a bitch twice.

As Danlin and his boss see more promotions for the book, other issues arise, like the fact that it claims to be an autobiographical novel, which Danlin knows it isn’t—but then, it is fiction. (Haili does interviews claiming it’s based on her life, which she says is “part of the conceit”—but again, the book is fiction.) The publisher also claims that it’s being translated by the most famous Chinese translator, which it isn’t, and that there’s a movie deal, which turns out to be true, although it’s not finalized at the time of the announcement. But again, Danlin and Kaiming knew none of these things when they embarked on this campaign, and both declare at different times that if the book were good, they wouldn’t care about how it was promoted. So the entire justification for their vendetta is that, without having read the book, they don’t think it’s any good.

I wonder, sincerely, if there is an element I’m missing to do with the politics of publishing between China and the United States. But Ha Jin does address that in the book, and it never seemed like a good enough explanation for this level of response. In the first place, as far as I can tell, the stakes are . . . very low. What’s the worst that happens if she publishes this book? People read it and are disappointed? They’re out $15 and a few hours of their time? The critics who promoted it are discredited? How is the book not being good a problem worth this level of concern? Are we supposed to believe this is the first time the Communist Party has influenced the publishing of a book by a Chinese author?

But in the second and more important place, regardless of the significance of the issue—none of this is about Danlin’s principles. From page one, he is motivated entirely by hatred of his ex-wife (a hatred which, for the record, goes far beyond her mistreatment of him and into a misogyny that is reflected on the other female characters in the book as well). Later on, as the issue gets more complicated, there are plenty of exchanges about the integrity of journalism, the corruption behind governmental involvement in the arts, etc. But that is not why he embarked on this campaign, or continued it. A person engaged in a principled pursuit of journalistic integrity does not write something like this, intending to publish it:

Before knowing my current girlfriend, sometimes I did have difficulties with women like my ex-wife, who simply turned me off and made me feel not only henpecked but also emasculated. I couldn’t bring myself to kiss her on the mouth, as though she were ill, her body fluids contagious (including her tears). 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.

Thankfully, Danlin’s newspaper does not approve this for publication (though only because they think it would make him too vulnerable by putting him on the defensive), and he muses later that it might be inappropriate to discuss his sex life with his girlfriend, mentioning her full name and place of employment, without even asking her.

Finally, after writing one of his many articles denouncing Haili, Danlin is frustrated that the prep school where she works might never hear about this “scandal” if someone didn’t “alert” them—I suppose because tanking her book and humiliating her publicly won’t be sufficient if she does not also lose her day job.

I’d been debating whether, once the article was out, to pop a copy into the mail to her employer with a letter enclosed, but that would amount to career assassination. So what? I was fighting a war, in which no scruples should apply.

And yet “scruples,” somehow, are exactly what everyone thinks the book is about.

This seems so obvious to me, and I am utterly bewildered by the reception I’ve seen elsewhere. Reviews from The New York TimesThe Washington PostPublisher’s WeeklyKirkus, and BookPage are all positive, and only the latter two are even remotely critical of the protagonist’s reliability. I do not understand how I’m supposed to read this book and come away thinking it’s about journalistic integrity. If anything, it is about misogyny with a variety of cultural and literary layers, both inside the book and out. It had a good premise, engaged a lot of important and timely issues about journalism and government. It could have been a really great book, if it had been the book it claimed to be.

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5 thoughts on “The Boat Rocker, by Ha Jin

  1. I hadn’t heard of this book, but your review compelled me to look it up to see what the reviews you mention made of it. The publisher’s splash page claims it’s a satire http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/235409/the-boat-rocker-by-ha-jin/9780307911629/. I often go into books cold, because I don’t like to be too influenced by a reviewer’s opinion, and occasionally miss the point of a book’s premise. Which might suggest that the book isn’t very well executed. Perhaps Danlin is so misogynist because Ha Lin is satirising male Chinese behaviour. Satire’s a strange thing. I think it requires knowledge of cultural norms to work effectively, and the acceptance of the reader/listener/viewer that the writer/performer’s angle is morally sound. Otherwise it can easily tip into prejudice. Bitch is one of the more violent pejoratives employed against women for me. It’s such an ugly, vicious word in that context. The publisher’s splash page makes it sound intriguing, but I don’t think I’ll read it!

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    1. I have definitely done that, because I also often go into books cold, so maybe that is what I’m doing here. But I saw that the reviews call it satire, and I don’t think it’s Danlin’s behavior that’s being satirized. When the reviews talk about “Kafkaesque absurdity,” they seem to be taking the perspective of the protagonist, who has a sort of “I can’t believe this is happening to me” attitude throughout the book—it always seems to be the Chinese government’s behavior they’re referring to, not Danlin’s. If Ha Jin is satirizing male behavior, Poe’s law must be hard at work, because I cannot tell.

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      1. So Danlin is set up as the hero with the correct moral viewpoint? Ugh. Kafkaesque is used too much, isn’t it? It’s become a lazy shorthand, often for something it isn’t.

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      2. As far as I can tell, yes. The Kirkus and BookPage reviews—the two that at least question Danlin’s reliability—come out explicitly on his side in the end.

        “Initially, his pursuit of such a seemingly silly story in which he has an obvious personal stake makes the reader question his credibility and judgment. We find ourselves wishing Danlin would drop his personal vendetta. But eventually we start to see the point: When a government begins to manipulate art, even romance novels, it signals a determination to root out individuality and liberty wherever it grows.” (BookPage)

        “The problem is that everything he writes in his exposés seems to some like the bitterness of a jilted husband whose own writing has never generated such interest . . . Is he paranoid? Could his ex-wife’s novel have more merit than he thinks? Is the fix really in? The tensions extend well beyond the two antagonists, as relationships of male/female, fact/fiction, Chinese/American, freedom/fatalism, and ideals/realities are all thrown up for grabs, subverting conventional wisdom. The narrator ultimately realizes what an innocent he’s been, and the reader shares the epiphanies of this pilgrim’s progress.” (Kirkus)

        “Innocent” is not remotely the word I would have used.

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      3. Kirkus also did an interview with the author, and I get the same impression from it:

        “In this darkly comic, philosophical novel, Ha explores Chinese and American politics, interpersonal relationships, and languages through a protagonist caught between the two nations—challenging the conventional values of both.

        “In this book, there are lot of dark messages, comments, and remarks, but I really want to be entertaining at the same time,” Ha says. “I do feel that the book engages so many serious topics—such as exile, migration in either country, patriotism—so I think, sure, after a person has read this book, those ideas might affect them differently. On the surface, it is a comic book.”

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