Strangeness and Failure: Gish Jen's Who's Irish?

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By Sandy English
19 January 2000
Who's Irish? , by Gish Jen, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999, 208 pp., $22.00 Gish Jen has published two well-received novels, Typical American (1992) and Mona in the Promised Land (1997), both of which deal with the entry of Chinese immigrants or their families into American life. Who's Irish? is her first book of short stories. It deals with much the same material, and the quality of the eight stories is uneven; two are quite satisfying, the rest less so. “Birthmates” was selected by John Updike for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories of the Century. The protagonist, Art Woo, is a divorced computer salesman who sells a technology quickly becoming obsolete. As he prepares to market his wares at a sales show, he belatedly discovers that the motel he has chosen in order to save money is a welfare hotel. Paranoid from the start, he checks behind wall-hangings for hidden peepholes and worries that someone will break into the room. For self-defense he carries a telephone receiver that he has removed from the rest of device. Art expects to be challenged and irritated by Billy, a fellow salesman from another company, a blowhard who was born on the same day in the same year as Art. After Art has set up shop at the sales convention he finds out that Billy has moved on to a better job in Silicon Valley. Art himself decides to jump the sinking company ship when a friend puts him in touch with a headhunter. Things are looking up for Art. He goes back to his hotel to make the appointed call with the headhunter, which of course, cannot be made. There is a feeling of desperation and failure in “Birthmates,” the kind of nervous desperation that leads one to drink too much or to do stupid things. Art Woo's paranoia seems quite well integrated with this overall sense. The story is also rather amusing. This is not entirely a good thing, because it seems that Jen is laughing at her characters, and that she may not be entirely sympathetic to them. But mercifully, the focus at least is on the underdog. Jen's presentation of Art walking around his motel with a telephone receiver is arresting. His eccentricity feels natural. The story does not pander to what seems to be a prevalent taste in the American short story for quirkiness as a thing in itself. Art's paranoia, cheapness and desperation seem to flow from something bigger than himself. Peculiar or unsettling circumstances do not create emotions or emotional crises; they can only be catalysts for feelings that have long been simmering under the surface. To her credit, in this story Jen is not leaning too much on the peculiar situation as a conventional device, meant primarily to be attention-grabbing. She shows briefly and elegantly a world that creates alienation and anxiety in Art. “Duncan in China” is a novella-length piece. A 37-year-old Chinese-American, Duncan Hsu, gets a job teaching English in mainland China not too long after the ascent of Deng Xiaoping in the early 80s. Duncan, who does not speak much Chinese, has had trouble settling on a career in the US. His parents disparage him and contrast his life to that of his brother, who runs a successful import/export business and drives a BMW. Moved by the artistry of Sung dynasty porcelains (“their grace and purity, and delicate crackle glazes; what with their wholeness and confidence and wholly untutored air”), Duncan has decided to try out life in a China of “ineffable beauty and restraint.” When he arrives in China and is given a job as a “foreign expert” at a mining institute Duncan realizes that “the China of the early 1980s had more to do with eating melon seeds around a coal heater the size of a breadbox than about Sung dynasty porcelain.” The physical discomfort of cold rooms in the winter, the mental discomfort of being treated as a privileged person (he has a bathroom in his apartment), the creepy bureaucratic time-servers who are his superiors, all introduce Duncan to a quite...
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