The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin
Ha Jin’s The Boat Rocker is a scathing satire about Chinese-American patriotism and intellectual integrity. When young Chinese immigrant Yan Haili’s 9/11-exploiting novel Love and Death in September gets a publicity bump from the Chinese government, and rumors circulate about president George Bush endorsing the book, Haili’s ex-husband takes aim. Feng Danlin is a journalist for GNA (Global News Agency) and still sore from their divorce, and like the worst of our modern media he has no qualms about mixing his reportage with his personal gripes.
As a novel, The Boat Rocker is, well, rocky. It has as much depth as a political cartoon, its message eclipsing any need for compelling characterization and plot. Jin starts with a number of awkward scenes of Danlin, outraged, reading snippets of Haili’s novel, and progresses slowly through a series of revelations about who (or what political entity) might be supporting its publication. Rumors fly about world translation rights and a film deal being inked, which inflates Danlin’s ire into the realm of a vendetta. All of this is told through Danlin’s clunky narration, which is full of strangely prevalent cliches and idioms. It is a particularly ironic tone for a novel about a poorly-written book.
Halfway through The Boat Rocker, Danlin learns he has been included on a list of the “100 top Chines public intellectuals of the year 2005,” and at this point the novel reveals its true form. Chapters that once revolved around things as trite as an airplane-bathroom sex scene in Haili’s novel now spill forth with the passion of a political manifesto. It feels as if the thin story of The Boat Rocker was set up simply to get to this point, to discuss what it means to be Chinese in America.
Danlin repeatedly mentions that he’s naturalized and is waiting for his US passport. The cliched moments of his narration are not bad prose but a testament to that naturalization, proof that he’s able to condense American emotions into familiar, relatable statements. His aggressive journalism, rife with internal conflicts, is presented as a sort of complicated Americanism as well – that the pursuit of the truth trumps any need for ethical integrity.
Alternatively, Haili’s experience is the immigrant’s dream: that a young Chinese woman can come into the country, write about that country, and find unfathomable wealth and fame. It’s ridiculous, and perhaps as exploitative as Danlin claims, but a fantasy come true.
Danlin is frequently warned not to “rock the boat,” but Ha Jin’s “boat” is not quite code for business as usual; instead, consider it the proverbial entryway for immigrants into America. Central to The Boat Rocker is a question of whether to celebrate that cultural transition or to treat immigrants like how Americans treat other Americans, with an almost cruel disregard for their individuality. One could argue that Danlin, although romantically and geographically connected to his target, is not acting specifically with China in mind – he’s focused on a vague notion of integrity and ethics and how they fit into the American idealism he so desperately wants to adopt. He would try to capsize any vessel, regardless of its port, that puts those values into question.
Politically, The Boat Rocker is a brazenly thoughtful work, but those sentiments are trapped in an uneven novel that would have landed better as an essay. Jin appears to have a sly sort of fun with the novel, but does so at the expense of first-time readers. There are some great ideas here, but little to encourage a deeper investigation into Ha Jin’s other works.