Looking at Gish Jen and the Conglomeration of Others
This week, Karen Thompson Walker reviews Gish Jen’s new novel, “The Resisters.” In 1999, Jean Thompson wrote for the Book Review about “Who’s Irish?,” Jen’s collection of short stories about the ambitions and compromises of immigrants and their children.
If the American immigrant experience is most often construed as a process of merging and gradual assimilation, like traffic on a freeway, then Gish Jen’s version resembles a busy intersection with everybody laying on the horn. Her novels, and now the stories of “Who’s Irish?,” portray cultures in splendid confusion and outright collision. There is no monolithic mainstream here but rather a conglomeration of Others, a dynamic, free-for-all, often loopy national motorcade.
“Who’s Irish?” moves beyond the Changs to other characters, although family remains a unifying theme. In the title story a Chinese grandmother attributes her granddaughter’s misbehavior to the Irish side of her parentage. The ensuing battles over how, or even if, to discipline the child divide along generational rather than ethnic boundaries. Ultimately the two grandmothers, Chinese and Irish, align themselves, a reconstituted family unit that achieves a harmony of nations on a small, human scale. Jen’s gift is for comedy that resonates, and sadnesses that arise with perfect timing from absurdities. Her subject matter is so appealing, it almost obscures the power and suppleness of her language.