What Was Mine
Typical American, Gish Jen’s poised, unsentimental novel about a Chinese immigrant’s life in the United States, is as preoccupied with the notion of pairs, doubles, and the interplay of possibility and limitation as the famous Chinese book of divination, the I Ching, or Book of Changes. Even the typical American of Jen’s title is a Chinese immigrant, a man of two names, two cultures, and two languages.
When we meet Jen’s hero, “Yifeng—Intent on the Peak,” as a boy of modest academic talent, his goal in China is “struggling to grow up his father’s son.” When he arrives in America after “the Anti-Japanese War” as an engineering student, only to be trapped by the Communist victory in China, permanently separated from his family, his goal becomes simply to grow up. In America, Yifeng discovers romantic individualism, that raft on which both immigrants and the native-born shoot the white rapids of American life, through the works of Norman Vincent Peale. It seems no accident that the name Yifeng is given on his US papers is Ralph, a name shared with Emerson, whose ideas he is living out, with mixed success and disaster.
Although his parents disappear, never to be heard from again, Ralph is not alone in America for long. Jen quickly sets beside him his contrasting partner in the form of his older sister, Theresa, who has escaped to America in the company of a school friend, and finds Ralph just in time to save him from suicidal despair over his lost country and family. Even in the incident of their chance encounter in a New York park, Jen subtly provides two versions. Ralph responds to the coincidence with dual vision, both American and Chinese. The American version has a comical, rags-to-riches, complete reversal-of-fortune quality: “‘Was miracle’…anyone could…hear in his voice all that the word meant to him—rocks burst into blossom, the black rinsed from the night sky. Life itself unfurled. As he apparently, finally, deserved.” The Chinese version is less absolute, more like the delicate metamorphoses of line drawings, in which the original line is present and preserved even as it curves into a new shape: “But what earthly luck could have produced this black coat, made it stop—could have made it talk Shanghainese, no less, could have turned it right before his eyes into a sister, his sister?”
Theresa’s reappearance is both a grace and a curse. She saves Ralph from suicide and restores him to family life, sharing a flat with him and her school friend, Helen, whom he marries, but she also inadvertently renews family jealousies and quarrels. As a boy, Ralph called her “Know-It-All,” irritated by her superior intellectual gifts and the way the family held her up as an example. It is as if one of Frank Capra’s amateurish angels settles down with the family it rescues. Ralph discovers how chafing it can be when divine agents don’t disappear after their miracles.
“It was as if their past,” writes Jen, “in the eternal way of pasts, had been shipped after them by sea mail, arriving in spectacular condition just when they’d forgotten it entirely.” While Ralph struggles drearily to win tenure as a professor of mechanical engineering, a field he himself considers colorless, Theresa proceeds smoothly through medical school. Classified as homely and unmarriageable in China, she infuriates Ralph further by attracting his oldest Chinese friend, a married man, senior to him on the engineering faculty. Ralph wants her to suffer for her brilliance, at least trading one kind of fulfillment for another.
It is partly out of competition with her that Ralph risks his academic career to enter into a dubious get-rich-quick partnership with a vulgar Chinese-American entrepreneur named Grover Ding. Ralph papers his walls with sayings like “What you can conceive, you can achieve,” acquires books with titles like Making Money, Be Your Own Boss! Ninety Days to Power and Success, and buys a takeout chicken business from Grover. He leaves teaching just after getting tenure, and though “small doubts rained on him from time to time… mostly he floated in hope, fabulous hope, a private ocean, gentle and green.”
Grover teaches Ralph that in “the legendary America that was every wish come true,” income too can be a dream; under his tutelage, Ralph begins faking the day’s returns on the cash register tapes.
Grover is a capitalist par excellence; when Ralph asks him what he does, he replies:
“What? Field? My field“—Grover flashed his gold tooth—“is anything….” Grover was whole or part owner of any number of buildings and restaurants. A stretch of timberland…. He described mines he was in on, and rigs. A garment factory. A toy store.”
Grover will buy anything, sell anything; he is even an emotional capitalist, trading in people, sacrificing Theresa and ruining Ralph financially in order to seduce Ralph’s wife, Helen. When he starts his campaign for Helen, it is with all the trickster’s P.T. Barnum poetry of America. He fills the mailbox with lilacs, which makes Helen as woozy as a teenager, until she discovers that her own stripped bushes have provided the means for his romantic gesture—“She trimmed the broken twig ends, so that the cuts would be cleaner, less apt to harbor disease.”
Grover’s special gift is to discover the secret dreams and needs of others and to sell them back distorted, tawdry versions of those dreams; he exploits Ralph’s desperate sense of inferiority, the unmarried Theresa’s need for a family, the obedient Helen’s need for erotic power. In the end, he is the catalyst for the near breakup of the family. Ralph’s business fails, Theresa has been driven from home, and Helen nearly loses her marriage. When Grover contemptuously lets it slip to Ralph that he has been sleeping with Helen, Ralph violently forces a confession from her, and in his rage, runs his car into the too prescient, too talented Theresa, nearly killing her in a moment he himself recognizes as half accident, half seized opportunity. Ralph’s run at Theresa is a way of settling old and new scores, the result of years of resentment, but also a savage acknowledgment of the limitations of democracy, of the America which tells him that he can be whatever he chooses, yet cannot make him more gifted than his sister, or give him a life unscarred by mistakes and losses.
Jen’s emphasis, as her title promises, is on the experience of immigration as typical rather than exceptional. She describes a life of constant migrations between world and world, in which birth itself is a kind of immigration, and death another. When Ralph is tempted to suicide, “He felt his neck for the vein he had slit countless times before. How easy to cross the line. One moment, one step, and a person was there, through the curtain to another world.”
She deals as well with the specific consequences of the migration from one culture to another, deftly recording the changes in the women, Helen and Theresa, unexpectedly clinging together in a foreign country, “learning to make decisions.”
At the beginning of her marriage, Helen is described as “attentive. She sensed when a guest needed more tea before the guest did, expressed herself by filling his cup, thought in terms of matching, balancing, connecting, completing.” The old-world Theresa, too, expresses the Chinese notion of woman as a kind of perfection of a pattern of design in nature and art; when Theresa, who is considered too ugly and too tall to be an ideal woman, must show herself to her prospective husband, she is to stroll in a park, masked by a parasol on a “path [that] had been chosen so as to ensure that there would be nothing small in the picture—no flowers, no low walls, nothing for scale.”
As they learn to live in America, these women are like works of art coming to life. And Theresa, undesirable in China, will discover that not only is she attractive to men, but that in America, in the absence of a “terraced society” of relationships, even the married are marriageable. In homage to Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, to whom clothes in shop windows “spoke tenderly and Jesuitically for themselves,” Theresa, too, discovers the possibility of personal desires through the symbol of beautiful clothes:
There in the store window…they did not look like shoes so much as some highly adapted life form, mimicking shoes the way lizards mimicked desert rocks…. At the center of her image, the red shoes had seemed to pulse, like her own true heart.
Her brother Ralph, though he blusters bravely, “I am the father of this family,” finds in America that the underside of masculine authority is fear, a perpetual risk of failure and humiliation.
It is through the experience of speaking different languages, of living in adjoining worlds, that Jen explores the lives of the Chang family; intriguing fragments of Mandarin surface throughout the book, revealing how names, expectations, and self-images are influenced by words, the way the same person looks different in day or evening clothes. In fact, Jen’s novel suggests that having several languages is not only a consequence of accidents of personal history, but part of the human condition itself. The partialities, approximations, and refinements of comprehension made between husband and wife, sister and brother, child and adult, make domestic life itself an act of translation. And each individual’s life with himself is a matter of coexistence; in Ralph, a murderer coexists with a lover. During a fight with his wife, he is tempted to strangle her: “His face looked strangely melancholy and sallow…he squeezed, almost courteously, as if he only meant to be holding her breath for her, and just for a moment.” And a moral self inhabits the same Ralph as an amoral one; when his sister steps in front of Ralph’s speeding car,
He recalls the sight of Theresa in his headlights. Recalls the chill that descended upon him. How he felt humanity squeeze his hand, and how he let that hand go—shook himself free of it, like a young boy confronted with an overardent admirer.
Finally, the typical American of Jen’s title is neither American nor Chinese, neither native nor immigrant; it is someone good and evil, lucky and unlucky, whose grandiose dreams are compromised by disillusionment, and whose disillusionment is tempered by fulfillment. In this impressive first novel, Gish Jen sustains her complex pattern of duality even in her prose style, sophisticatedly choosing to tell her somber story wittily.
In Gish Jen’s case, it is her story that is charged with dualities; Ann Beattie appears to be living a double life as a writer. As a writer, she may be married to literature, but she seems to be having an affair with television. There is a strain of Beattie story that can be read in a state something like the kind of sensuous amnesia that television often provokes. In this kind of Beattie story, character, decor, and language are smoothly recognizable without being truly specific, as if they were the results of casting instead of writing. We know details about the characters that are establishing instead of revealing; as in the story “Honey,” we know that Elizabeth is forty-five, drinks Courvoisier, owns wind chimes, but not what her personal history or passions are. Some of Beattie’s characters and settings have at best the life of images; there can be something oddly interchangeable about them, as if they were not quite important to their own stories, and could be shifted to other stories with the right cosmetic changes.