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.
Since 1976, Beattie has been known for her bittersweet, intelligent, and suave stories of the confusions and fears of prosperous, most often youthful, Americans. Her new collection, What Was Mine, with its catered parties in Charlottesville, vacations in Amalfi, and Vermont farmhouses crammed with folk art, is rooted firmly in the territory she has made her own, for good and ill. Beattie’s characters are emotional drifters, unstable in the midst of their tasteful houses, barely able to sustain connections with each other; they wish they could burrow in their luxuries like sleepers under covers. It is a fresh source of wonder for them that death is present even on the most idyllic afternoon.
In “In Amalfi,” on an afternoon of chilled white wine and Mediterranean views, the main character waits for the return of someone boating: “She reminded herself that it was a calm sea, and that the woman could not possibly be dead.” In “You Know What,” a father is told that his daughter’s teacher has been hit by a truck: “She was struck from behind…. She was out getting groceries. It seems clear that that is so often the way. That in some very inconspicuous moment, a person can be overwhelmed.” There is no escape either for people who have given up trying to placate death by offering it a cocktail and an hors d’oeuvre.
In her opening story, “Imagine a Day at the End of Your Life,” Beattie suggests that there is something tragic even in the simple act of perception; perception, which is supposed to join us to the world, also separates us from it, since what is perceived fully will include an ominous consciousness of coming death. The father of a family goes for a rare walk in the woods:
That day in the woods, I thought: Don’t run away from the thought of death. Imagine a day at the end of your life…. You’re not decrepit, you’re not in pain, nothing dramatic is happening…. You’re going along and suddenly your feet feel the ground…. Clouds elongate and stretch thinly across a silvery sky…. Then imagine that you aren’t there….
Seven out of the twelve stories concern themselves with the consequences of divorce, and all are shadowed by the allusion to a violence underlying American domestic life. Working within a narrow range of class and setting and emotional preoccupation can sharply expose a writer’s mannerisms and technical preferences, and means that within close confines, even within the same story, good and bad variations on the same material will be played out.
Beattie achieves her pervasive atmosphere of threat and disorientation through radical economies. She often truncates her characters, emphasizing what is peripheral about them instead of what is central. In “The Longest Day of the Year,” the narrator, a woman whose third marriage is failing, describes a trying visit from a neurotic neighbor. We never learn the narrator’s name or background; we learn little about her marriage, and we never find out where she is living, though most of the story is taken up with a discussion of the community. What is local and distinctive, in both characters and setting—history, class, education, region—goes unaccounted for. As in a conventional television series, the episode itself is supreme, and the complexity of social detail is diluted.
In “What Was Mine,” although the widowing of the narrator’s mother is a crucial event in both their lives, the mother tells her son nothing about his father. She doesn’t reminisce or talk about his gestures or how they met; nor does the son ever ask her to talk about his dead father. Without context, their behavior seems inexplicable. Beattie’s stories sometimes seem less narratives than assemblages; she pares away a character’s history and what it may contribute to his motivations, foreshortening her people into a permanent present tense, while lavishing her most detailed descriptions on the objects surrounding them, telling her story through props. “The Working Girl” even reads like a treatment, since Beattie is openly giving the characters and settings the traits that will quickly establish them for the reader: “Details. Make the place seem real. In the winter, when the light disappears early, the office has a very strange aura. The ficus trees cast shadows on the desks.” We are never told what the working girl’s work is; there is no explanation of why her lover leaves his wife for her, no clue to what draws them together. We know that “her future husband had two dogs in his life, and one cat,” but not where he comes from, or what he does. The omissions create the unnerving distortion that is the hallmark of Beattie’s world; Beattie achieves the illusion of alienation and unknowability between character and character by limiting severely what the reader can know about them. In “Honey,” a story about a group of suburbanites seen at leisure and again during a moment of common crisis when a swarm of bees attacks their Sunday brunch, we know little about the past of the main character, her occupation, or her strained marriage, but the meals she makes are exhaustively described:
One tray was oval, painted to look like a cantaloupe. The other was in the shape of a bull. She had bought them years ago in Mexico. Deviled eggs were spread out on the bull. The cantaloupe held a bottle of gin and a bottle of tonic. A lime was in Z’s breast pocket. A knife was nestled among the eggs.
The trays are given what almost amounts to a biography; the characters are not.
There is a disturbing undertone in some of Beattie’s work, a kind of American equivalent of the state of mind that in Britain is called “twee.” In Britain, “twee” involves the sentimentalization of the past, all thatched cottages and Devon cream teas on flowered china. Its tougher transatlantic cousin is the sentimentalization of pop culture, its adorable bad taste, its sly celebration of the menace hiding beneath the façades of ordinary lives. It is the twee of David Lynch movies or Twin Peaks, in which the perversities and evil that go unacknowledged under their suburban marquetry give those lives a sentimentally heroic dimension, in which pop culture and suburban trappings are invested with a precious malice. Many Beattie stories are riddled with this tone.
In “Honey” an undercurrent of drunken flirtation between an older married woman and a younger man is given an infusion of queasy charm:
Inside, Len went to the basement door…. She followed him…there was a rather large cage with MR. MUSIC DUCK stenciled across the top…. The duck…hurried to a small piano…. After five or six notes, the duck hurried to a feed dish and ate its reward.
“They were closing some amusement park,” Len said. “My brother bought the duck. The guy who lives two houses over bought the dancing chicken.”
This is adorable Americana, its very innocence a self-loving decadence, cherishing and superior to its own expert bad taste. Piano-playing ducks accompanying bizarre erotic transactions are America’s equivalent of the thatched cottage, as are menacing lawn sprinklers: “The lawn sprinkler revolved with the quick regularity of a madman pivoting, spraying shots from a machine gun.” And “Welcome Wagon” ladies, as in “The Longest Day of the Year,” cracking up during the course of their hospitality visits to neighbors, revealing their awful secrets and the awful secrets of their seemingly placid small towns. When the wife in “Home to Marie” puts her husband through an elaborate charade of preparing for a catered cocktail party, and tells him that there is no party, and that she is leaving him, you can practically hear the laugh track, except that this time the laughter sounds sinister.
Beattie’s characters tend to behave with a solitary theatricality, as if they were living in front of invisible cameras, like Charlotte, the divorcée of “Horatio’s Trick,” who on receiving a Christmas present of chocolates from her ex-husband, “dumped the contents out onto the kitchen floor and played a game of marbles, pinging one nut into another and watching them roll in different directions.” And when this variety of Beattie character has a conversation, the dialogue has a calculating quality, as if the character were talking for publication or being filmed. Charlotte speaks to her son with precisely calibrated, mannered pauses: “‘No,’ she said quietly. ‘You’re entirely right. He didn’t even notice that we left.”‘ The final speech of “You Know What” spoken between two men, strangers brought together by an accidental death, has just this tailored-for-an-audience quality: “‘McKee,’ Stefan says, walking beside him, ‘all my life I’ve felt like I was just making things up, improvising as I went along. I don’t mean telling lies, I mean inventing a life. It’s something I’ve never wanted to admit.”‘
Paradoxically, Beattie’s best writing is concerned with wordlessness. She is a marvelous witness of how behavior, rather than words, carries coded messages of love and hate. At a family reunion in “Imagine a Day at the End of Your Life,” “The TV ran night and day, and no one could keep on top of the chaos in the kitchen. Allison and Joan had even given friends the phone number, as if they were going into exile instead of visiting their parents for the weekend. The phone rang off the hook.” And in “Honey” it is in a moment of wordless panic, when bees invade an elegant outdoor meal that the characters show what they are; the arrival of the bees is like a testing in wartime:
Max became in an instant the coward, chair tipped back, colliding almost head-on with Margie Ferella;…as a bee flew past Ellen’s nose, she screamed, shooting up from the chair, knocking over her glass of wine…. Louise snatched the baby back from Ellen, hate in her eyes because Ellen had been concerned only with her own safety, and it had seemed certain that she would simply drop the baby and run.
In the last and best story of the collection, “Windy Day at the Reservoir,” Beattie’s brilliant observation of the inarticulate governs the story. Here she gives a virtuoso account of the relationship between a single mother and her twenty-six-year-old retarded son, done entirely without a moment of conversation between them.
In describing the boy’s infancy, Beattie gets across the sheer murderousness obligation can take on:
His screaming when he was two years old had brought his mother to tears, daily…. She had a lock on one small closet that contained clothes she would wear when she took him into Boston to see doctors. Except for those clothes she would often stay, all day, in her nightgown. Even after his teeth came through, she rubbed his gums with whiskey, hoping he might fall asleep earlier. She would smash delicate things that fascinated him before he had a chance.
Through the action alone, Beattie conveys devastatingly the nakedness of the mother’s love and hate, her impulse both to kill and to sustain her son.
Beattie succeeds remarkably in her portrait of the boy himself, with his incommunicable resentment over the inexplicable restraints of his life, and the eerie coherence of his view of the world, far more coherent than his mother’s. “Royce, after promising he wouldn’t go out, had left a note for his mother (he had whirled the yellow crayon around and around in a circle, so she would know he was taking a walk around the neighborhood).” The mother’s world is one of desperate fidelity, the boy’s one of omnipotent appetite.
The passages describing the boy’s walk outdoors are commandingly alive:
He took off one shoe and sock and left them by a tree, because the little piggy that cried “Wee-wee-wee” all the way home was also telling him it wanted to walk barefoot on the grass. When he took off the shoe, he made a mental note of where to find it again. He had left it at tree number fifty. There were exactly four thousand four hundred and ninety-six trees on this road to the reservoir.
The boy is made up of components, and each component has its own desire.
It is this story in particular that shows how much better than Ann Beattie Ann Beattie can write. Like her most interesting characters, her work is a mixture of weaknesses and strengths. She is in the exceptional position of a writer whose powers may guide her into unknown territory, and whose weaknesses are marked by an easy glamour and appeal that can undermine the reality of her gifts.
August 15, 1991