“The Boat Rocker” by Ha Jin

Set in New York, Ha Jin’s new novel, The Boat Rocker, takes place “a week before the fourth anniversary of 9/11”. Much of the novel’s power derives from the uncanny parallels between the issues faced by its central figure, a truth-seeking online journalist in the era of Hu Jintao and George W Bush, and all of us, in our Trumpian moment, as we struggle with its penchant for “alternative facts”.

Thought-provoking and fast-paced, The Boat Rocker is a perfect read for this anxious winter of discontent.

The Boat Rocker, Ha Jin (Penguin Random House, October 2016)
The Boat Rocker, Ha Jin (Penguin Random House, October 2016)

The Boat Rocker starts with a bang, when Danlin, a writer at Global News Agency, who is known for his “exposés, shining a light on the towering corruption of Chinese politics and media” is given a new assignment,

 

… my boss, Kaiming, barged into my office, rattling a three-page printout in his hands. “Look at this, Danlin,” he said dropping the papers on my desk. “This is outrageous! How could they claim that George W. Bush had agreed to endorse a book by Yan Haili? Everyone can tell it’s a lie the size of heaven.”

 

I picked up the printout, an article from The Yangtze Morning Post. It raved about “a landmark novel,” not yet released. I had recently signed a book contract myself and was used to the hyperbole of the book business, but it was the novelist’s name, Yan Haili, that took my breath away. She was my ex-wife. That brassy bitch—she never stopped vying for attention.

 

Danlin learns that his ex-wife’s book, Love and Death in September, centers on a “bewitching” Chinese heroine who loses her “princely” American husband, in the terror attacks of 9/11. It is being positioned by her shady but powerful Chinese business partner as utterly autobiographical when Danlin knows it is pure fiction.

What is more, he knows Haili can’t write, and the whole thing smells worse the deeper he digs in. His research leads him to Chinese press coverage of Haili’s publisher, Jiao Fanping, claiming that Random House had purchased the novel and further, that negotiations with major European, Japanese, Latin American and Taiwanese publishers were underway.

 

“There’s every indication that this extraordinary book will become an international best-seller”, Jiao avowed. “Just last Friday I heard from Hollywood that they were interested in acquiring movie rights to this novel… This is… a breakthrough in our country’s effort to export our cultural products.”

 

Hanlin’s boss fans the flames, convinced that Jiao Fanping is “not a true publisher—he’s nothing but a profiteer”.

Enraged and determined to find the truth, Danlin seems at times to go too far. Is it that his ex-wife annoys him because she left China ahead of him and abandoned the marriage, taking up with a Wall Street analyst? Why not let her get away with publishing schlock and shamelessly promoting it in China?

 

Danlin equates journalism with truth and good. He doesn’t mind that he “was hated by officials and cursed by those I’d exposed.” Instead, he plays to the wide audience of the Chinese diaspora. He says, when they “discovered my writing, it was, in their own words, like discovering a new continent.” Danlin’s quest to expose his ex pits truth against the forces of fiction and self-invention. Each column he writes about her stirs up huge waves of sometimes cruel reactions. Readers from Taiwan and Hong Kong lob in opinions shaded by their own world views. Amplified by Weibo, disinformation and chatter converge creating a vast echo chamber that unmistakably evokes our current world of “fake” news.

The situation becomes more intense for Danlin as he runs up against pressure from Haili’s powerful business partners. It is here that some telling disputes play out. When they meet, Yan Haili tells the increasingly dismayed and disgruntled Danlin that the book is a “project of the State”. One of Haili’s associates, Gu Bing, a goon powerful in the publishing world, offers to publish and promote Danlin’s own book in exchange for his silence.

 

“This is America, not China where you bulldoze small potatoes like me at will. Here people go by rules, and reporters publish the truth.”

 

 

Ha Jin is one of the most respected and widely-read Chinese-American authors writing in English today. China and its political system figure prominently in his writing, often cast in a dynamic tension with the US. It is hard to miss the irony that “truth” today is potentially as compromised and blurred in the US now as Ha Jin would have us believe it has been for a long time in China.

Ha Jin is one of the most respected and widely-read Chinese-American authors writing in English today.

Thought-provoking and fast-paced, The Boat Rocker is a perfect read for this anxious winter of discontent.


Jill Baker is an Adjunct Fellow at the Asia Business Council in Hong Kong.