Some contend that the term literary fiction is so overused and broad, it now amounts to little more than a name for a recent genre. And if you're an illiterati like me, you might consider literary fiction to be like pornography - I can't define it but "I know it when I see it." Applying that standard to A Free Life, the most recent novel by award-winning Chinese-American author Ha Jin, erases any doubt it qualifies as literary fiction.
At its most simple, A Free Life traces the story of Nan and Pingping Wu, Chinese immigrants chasing the American dream. Yet while a tale of immigrants in modern America, it also reveals a core commonality. The Wus are dealing with the day to day events of work and life, events that so often seem routine and constant but which ultimately add up to goals realized and dreams unfulfilled. And like life, A Free Life unfolds and reveals itself slowly, consuming some 650 pages in its new trade paper edition. There are ups and downs but it isn't a roller coaster ride.
A purposeful sameness is actually what the Wus want. "'I hope we just live a life similar to others' here, making some money and having our own home, so that every day will be the same as the previous one," Pingping tells Nan. Despite the fact we are observing ordinary lives — at least ordinary for modern immigrants — Jin's style not only keeps us reading but generally wanting to press forward to see how the Wus will live and how their lives will turn out. To a certain extent, A Free Life seems almost an invitation to savor our own life experiences as much as we are induced to appreciate the Wus'. Still, even significant events, such as a miscarriage or a brief visit to China, are relayed in the same easy style, even though the reader may want more than a continually even keel.