HA JIN’S THE BOAT ROCKER arrived at my apartment in LA at an interesting time — while I was putting almost 3,000 miles between myself and a breakup. When I returned from a two-week trip to New York, I began reading about a man trying to make peace with where he is, and who he is. As I packed my books, mugs, and earrings, without any particular idea of where I might live or what I’d do for work, I recognized the same combination of ambivalence and determination in the novel’s narrator, the forthright but miserable Feng Danlin. He, too, is a writer, in 2005, for a Chinese news agency that prides itself on operating in the United States, and promoting its work across his home country. His writing is strident, devoted to his own strange and righteous version of objectivity, but his personal life is a mess. If a consistent facial reaction accompanied my reading, it was a grim smile.
Danlin’s quandary in the book is not the rocking of the boat. On that score, he is firm and determined. Nothing will come between him and covering his ex-wife and a suspiciously glamorous book deal she landed in China. Yan Haili divorced Danlin the day after he arrived in New York to join her, and in the novel she is demonstrably evil. She threatens him with the authority of the Chinese government to halt his American naturalization process; she makes snide remarks about his relationship with Katie Torney, a NYU grad student; and she jeers at him especially for covering her with such vindictive fervor.
The glaring conflict of interest that should’ve stopped Danlin from reporting on his ex-wife’s public life is only once addressed in the book, adding to the novel’s overall mordant reality. Indeed, Kaiming, Danlin’s editor at Global News Agency, considers the issue for a moment, and replies: “Conflict of interest? We’re dealing with a bunch of scumbags who never do anything by the rules. You can’t handle them by acting like a gentleman. I want you to throw all your fire into this case.”
Alas, for almost everyone in the book, this is a fatal error. What starts as journalistic conflict of interest atrophies with alarming speed into a 1984-style nightmare, complete with authoritarian sabotage and infiltration.
American novels about the immigrant experience tend to focus on their protagonists’ interpersonal relationships, and the generational conflict between parents and children. Jhumpa Lahiri’s work shines a critical light on the ambitions of her characters — scientists, academics, lawyers, architects, and their identity crises. Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds, too, is a riff on solo experience as a Bangladeshi woman named Amina meets George, an engineer from upstate New York, on a slightly sketchy dating website and marries him, to her parents’ dismay. Short stories and essays by Julia Alvarez and Naomi Shihab Nye analyze the dichotomies between the cultures of native and adopted homelands — the Dominican Republic versus New York City, the West Bank versus San Antonio, respectively.
Jin’s focus is not on internal impasses of cultural identity. His hero believes with every fiber of his being that his mission to unmask the burgeoning and likely fraudulent successes of his ex-wife and her cronies is the right thing to do. Part of what jumpstarts Danlin’s investigation is the hideous plot of Haili’s novel:
[T]he book follows a young couple, a princely American man and a bewitching Chinese woman, whose coming honeymoon to Bali is annulled by the groom’s disappearance in the collapsed World Trade Center. He’d been in the North Tower. They had just been married the weekend before. The bride, wrecked by her husband’s death, almost dies herself, of grief. Sometimes when she picks up the phone, the voice she hears is his. The man had dreamed of becoming a watercolor painter with a studio in Paris, on the willow-lined Seine. How remorseful she is for not having persuaded him to follow his passions! For almost half a year after his death she can’t go to work, fearful even of crossing streets and riding elevators. But now, she’s finally found the courage to write this book, which is said to be “utterly autobiographical,” because she wants to share both her joy and her pain with others.
The single section of the book that tackles Danlin’s identity is far more concerned with his pervasive loneliness, and the lure of becoming a government-backed cultural authority in China.
I imagine the number of novels that employ sardonic commentary regarding the exploitation of 9/11 by authors and political entities is a very short list, if not nonexistent. Jin pulls no punches in describing Danlin’s fury at Haili, not only for the plot of her shoddy novel, but also for the glowing press she is receiving in both China and the United States. But Danlin seems incapable of recognizing the absurdity of arguing with someone so hideously empowered by her audacity and desire for fame. When he interrogates Haili at a café in the Village near the start of the novel, he resists the urge to laugh at the idea that the Communist Party’s Central Committee and the White House might be backing Haili’s PR campaign. He instead asks, “It’s supposed to be autobiographical. How in God’s name did you lose your husband in the World Trade Center? How did Larry [her second husband] become a gorgeous artist?”
Haili’s response is specious and byzantine, and, by proxy, hilarious:
“It’s a novel, for which I’m free to invent drama and characters […] The beauty of fiction writing is that you can create people and episodes to fully realize the story. Sometimes you even must lie in order to tell a bigger truth.”
Danlin counters, “In your statements to the press you insist that the story is based on your personal experiences, every episode rooted in an actual event.”
“That conceit is part of the novel.”
Anyone less inspired by a half-baked revenge plan, masked as reportage, might have given up or at least not let his incredulity guide his next move. But it’s difficult to find fault with Danlin’s quest. The reader comes to believe in his surety that Haili’s entire venture is a massive false flag campaign, designed to engineer goodwill on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, all ultimately to the benefit of geopolitical interests.
Two glimmers of hope appear, before everything finally falls to pieces. First, Danlin is honored by a nomination as one of China’s top 100 public intellectuals, and the novel takes on a poignant tone when the reader learns of the narrator’s scholarly aches. “I longed to become someone, to create an identity for myself to fit this nomination. I knew people had nominated me […] because they wanted an honest voice that could articulate their feelings and opinions in the public discourse.” Jin then indulges some Horatio Alger–esque soliloquy stylings:
A little guy like me must by chance have risen to the expectations of a frustrated, oppressed, silent multitude. I did want to be a voice others would listen to. Ideally I wanted to be independent of any group or cause and just speak from my heart, guided by my own sense of justice and decency.
The second is less binary, with potential for development that Jin wisely ignores in the novel’s abrupt and realist ending; Niya is a NYU staffer who, at first, writes pro-Haili articles in the Chinese publication she edits. She accompanies her friend to meetings with Danlin, where she functions as a de facto publicist, insisting that everything about Haili’s book is aboveboard, that her claims about a Hollywood studio buying the movie rights for over $1 million are real, and that a director is attached. Later, when the ferocity of the scandal’s rhetoric worsens, Niya declares herself neutral, and eventually befriends Danlin. The pair spends an odd but sweet idyll in Berlin — Danlin has been ordered by his boss to take a break from the controversy, and to cover a festival of cultures in that city, and Niya joins him. They wander through parks and dine together, discussing Haili’s triumph, the details of which she has not divulged to Niya, but swears is the final nail in Danlin’s coffin. The tension between Niya and Danlin is noticeable, and its sexual nature is implied, never acknowledged directly by either party or by Jin. It’s possible that Danlin now views Niya as a bedfellow, metaphorically, at least for the moment, given her disillusionment with Haili’s array of lies and deliberate destruction of her ex-husband’s reputation and career. For her part, Niya is an honest character, perhaps the only realist in the entire novel: “We’re two of a kind. I’m a good woman who has no luck with men.” Danlin admits that he dated Katie to improve his English (as she learned a lot of Chinese from him), as well as his life in the United States. At an Indian restaurant in Berlin, two Chinese people realize that, in relationships, they have always given more than they’ve gotten: a painful moment made more tolerable by its inherent bonding and its cosmopolitan setting.
The two institutions on trial in the novel are writing as a vocation, and the Chinese government. Disgust buoys Danlin and most of his colleagues’ attitudes regarding news coverage. They attract a high readership around the world with a vibrant comments section, snippets of which are provided in the novel. Commenters who support Danlin’s investigation function as a kind of Greek chorus, praising him for his work while slowly receding into the background, their cries of support no longer powerful. For most of the novel’s first third, commenters refer to Haili, her publisher Jiao Fanping, and her editor Gu Bing, as the “evil triangle” and “a gang of three.” Even after meetings with Gu, who unleashes gentle threats about halting the production process of Danlin’s book of essays, our hero is unmoved. But for all his rage at the tactics of mainland Chinese puppets (working in various fields, including publishing, diplomacy, and journalism), his incorrect assessments of the opportunities available to Americans is galling. He tells Gu with zero hesitation that “this is America, not China, where you can bulldoze small potatoes like me at will. Here people go by rules, and reporters publish the truth.” Even if this was true in 2005 —it wasn’t — it certainly isn’t standard practice now. Danlin seems to conflate truth with objectivity, and his objectivity has been completely bulldozed less than 10 pages into the novel.
Jin’s criticism of modern-day Communist China is stunning, easily the best part of an already well-crafted novel. I was reminded of 1984 and the passages Winston and Julia read aloud from The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism: Danlin compares the Party to the superintendent of a large warehouse to which the citizenry must contribute parts of their income. But only the superintendent has the right to decide who can have what from the warehouse. “The privileged and most powerful enjoy the lion’s share, while the rest of the citizens must shut up about unfair distribution, because their role is simply to meet their obligations to the national treasury.” What might happen if the warehouse is destroyed? “This is the root of fear shared by all those who receive generous provisions from this warehouse, so they fight tooth and nail to maintain one-party rule and perpetuate the lie that the superintendent works diligently for all citizens.”
It is not unfair to say that this definition of authoritarian politics could also be applied, with qualifications, to the United States of America. The poor and working class are taxed regularly the little they earn, while the one percent — the Peter Thiels and Tim Cooks of the world — enjoy the lion’s share of their non-confiscatory taxed profits and income. Certainly, the US allows for advocacy groups and lobbying, but Danlin seems unaware of the parallels between one-party rule and the role of money in American politics. Then again, in 2005 Citizens United was not yet a twinkle in the Koch brothers’ eyes.
The Boat Rocker is extremely critical of writing as a profession, even if Jin’s major argument is against the people in charge than the act of writing itself. For all of Danlin’s work and fearless essays about Haili’s lies, his book is pulled from publication due to “instructions from above.” Even when he writes using a pseudonym — apparently a common practice in Chinese literary circles — his writing is recognized, his mission visible. Over time, Haili’s threats do not prove idle, and while I won’t say any more about the plot, it’s worth noting that a novel which may or may not even exist is what sets off most of the book’s crises. Writing is weaponry, occasionally even more lethal than nuclear warheads. It can destroy peace of mind, careers, and personal lives. Haili’s final act of vengeance is completely unexpected, and it robs Danlin of what he loves most.
For all his absurdist tendencies, Jin does end the novel on a note of realism. It doesn’t escape the reader’s notice that for all his experience with words, the one thing holding Danlin back from moving on in life is a simple number: the score of the GRE he has yet to take. Now that I’m back in New York, various numbers hold me back as well: the cost of therapy without insurance, the cost of groceries, the rent that must be paid. But like Danlin, the only thing of which I am sure, for better or for worse, is that I am a writer, and the greatest defeat, far more than public feuds or personal turmoil, is to deny myself that agency.