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waiting

In Waiting, Ha Jin tells the story of a man, Lin, for whom everyone around him does the title activity; i.e., they wait. It’s not more or less complicated than that. His country wife, Shuyu, who he married to be a caretaker for his aging parents, waits for his annual two-week visits home. Each year, Shuyu then waits for him to try to divorce her so he can marry his “true love”—the city-based, professional Manna. Manna is, of course, waiting for him to divorce his wife so they can consummate their love. This all goes on for 18 years. Really. These women (and the gender identity of the “waiters” and he who is “waited upon” should be noted) are the main waiting agents—if that’s the proper term—in the book, but there are numerous others, including Lin’s daughter, his brother, his colleagues, his supervisors, and his supervisees.

The symbolic and metaphorical significance of waiting are important to consider and I think Jin does a nice job of mostly letting the reader think about those things without hitting us over the head with them (different from say, Possession, in which Byatt mentions the word “possession” about 50 times in the last ten pages of the book, just to make sure we “get it”—okay, I’m probably exaggerating, but not by that much). In fact, I think that’s one of the great things about Jin’s style: he writes relatively simple sentences in which, when taken together, the depth of human relationships, human activity, and human interaction with the world is revealed if you give them the time to sink into your consciousness. Unfortunately, this strength in his writing is also something I am not that interested in. I just want a little more stylistic pyrotechnics than Jin wants to provide.

Still there are some great moments. For example, during the delivery of her twins, Manna cries, screams, and curses Lin, the doctor, and everyone else she thinks has anything to do with her pregnancy. Lin can’t handle it and has to leave the room. Finally, she has two, healthy boys, but she is weak from the labor and they carry Manna home on a stretcher, Lin following and holding the babies in his arms. He is shaken, drained both physically and emotionally—the world seems so different now than it was a few short hours ago, before his sons were born. And yet,

the moon was glistening on the willow and maple crowns; beetles and grasshoppers were chirring madly. The leaves and branches, heavy with dew, bent down slightly, while the grass on both sides of the road looked spiky and thick in the coppery light of the street lamps. A toad was croaking like a broken horn from a distant ditch partly filled with foamy water.

In these few sentences, Jin invokes the water/fertility trope and shows that despite the drama of the last few hours, the world goes on as it always does—not waiting for anything or anyone—with all its beauty and ordinariness. Many a lesser writer could aspire to this synthetic ability.

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