What if you were a hard-working Chinese immigrant journalist who discovered that your ex-wife, an atrocious writer, was publishing “a landmark novel” with the support of both the Chinese government and President George W. Bush? What if that novel was being promoted as the fictionalized autobiography of a Chinese woman who lost her American husband in the twin towers on 9/11, but you knew that your Chinese ex-wife’s American husband was very much alive? What if you worked for “the only independent Chinese-language news agency left in the west” (in Queens, to be precise), where you were known for “shining a light onto the towering corruption of Chinese politics and media in [your] regular column”? And what if, years ago, your ex-wife had handed you divorce papers the day after you joined her in New York?
If you were Feng Danlin, the protagonist of National Book Award-winner Ha Jin’s new novel “The Boat Rocker,’’ you would most definitely rock the boat, as you set out to prove that your ex-wife, Yan Haili, is both a liar and a terrible writer; to expose China’s literary and political machinations; to prevent the global embarrassment of Chinese immigrants and Chinese literature alike; and, not incidentally, to revenge yourself on the woman who broke your heart.
At once hilarious and sobering, “The Boat Rocker’’ tells the story of Danlin’s quest through a multifaceted journalistic detective story, exploration of the politics and economics of contemporary literature, polemic against contemporary China, meditation on Chinese expatriate life, and romantic revenge tale. The endearing Danlin is an obsessed narrator, ever eagle-eyed when it comes to the malfeasances of others, yet regularly blinded by his own vendettas; a self-admitted Don Quixote of the Internet era, who, as a result of his crusade, is “ranked ninety-four” in an online vote for the “one hundred top Chinese public intellectuals of the year 2005”; a fighter for the little guy who never hesitates to blow his own horn; and a never-ending advocate for “the truth” over both lies and fiction (especially fiction like Haili’s that is “cheap, shoddy, and . . . full of . . . schlock”).
It is easy for Danlin to prove that Haili’s novel is “a lie the size of heaven.” She herself admits that she takes liberties with the facts, though she argues that such liberties are the prerogative of fiction and that she needs to be edited, for she is still a neophyte writer. Her claims that a famous American academic is translating her novel into English and a major Hollywood studio has paid a million dollars for the film rights are dispatched with a single phone call apiece. As Danlin publishes the results of his investigations in his column, he generates an Internet furor that extends from the US immigrant community to Taiwan and Hong Kong and eventually China itself. Yet Haili and her co-conspirators continue undaunted.
As Danlin digs deeper, determined both to stop Haili and to figure out why the Chinese and American governments are involved, Haili and her allies — from her best friend and husband, to her editor and publisher, the Chinese vice consul, and an agent from the US Department of Homeland Security — fight back. Each of these antagonists starts with blandishments and end with threats, yet Danlin righteously presses on, “like a little turtle attempting to rock a boat shared by two huge countries.”
In doing so, he uncovers a host of less-than-literary motivations: His boss Kaiming wants to grow his business; Haili wants to become famous; her Chinese editor and publisher want to extend the global reach of their literary enterprises; China wants to further its ties with the United States; the United States wants to preserve its business relationships with China without rocking the political boat; and they all “want to make a huge profit.” The resulting transnational boondoggle has transformed Haili’s “simpleminded . . . piece of crap” into a collective moneymaker and instrument of diplomacy, but Danlin is having none of it — until the forces against him start to strike back.
In a 2009 Paris Review interview, Jin claimed that “I’ve never intended my writing to be political, but my characters exist in the fabric of politics. That is to say, it is impossible to avoid politics, especially in China. And of course, the Chinese authorities are afraid of truthful stories told from an individual’s point of view”
In “The Boat Rocker,’’ he shows what happens when truthful stories hit the wall of Chinese politics, and it’s not pretty. At the same time, in crafting a memorable hero and a narrative that is both entertaining and thought-provoking, he affirms the value of fiction itself as not simply a source of profit, but a powerful vehicle for the truths of our times.
THE BOAT ROCKER
By Ha Jin
Pantheon, 240 pp., $25.95
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.” She can be reached at email@example.com.