“Who's Irish?”

In her first collection of stories, Chinese-American novelist Gish Jen turns stereotypes on their heads.

Topics: Books,

In the gang warfare of contemporary American fiction, no turf has been claimed more genially than that of the Chinese-Americans in the work of Gish Jen, who is quite as ready to expose the foibles of her own people as to catalog their complaints. One of the most impressive things about her first collection of stories — “Who’s Irish?” — is its range: First-person tales told by an old lady, a little girl and an Italian-American teenage boy sit easily alongside wry omniscient narratives set in prosperous American suburbs, the tough inner city and China itself. Yet in all its widely diverse cast of characters, there’s not one you can’t like, or at least sympathize with, even if there are few you can admire. Which is just as it should be.

The title story is one of the best. A Chinese-born grandmother, the story’s narrator, makes a poor baby sitter in the eyes of her liberal-thinking, Westernized daughter, who has married into an Irish-American family. When the old woman tries to discipline her naughty granddaughter in the Chinese fashion — firmly — the child’s mother decides it’s time for her own mother to move out. They look at some small apartments, but in the end the narrator stays with her son-in-law’s mother, an Irish woman of her own age, who is just as befuddled as she is by the young people’s modern ways: The generational wars have overwhelmed the ethnic skirmishing.

Jen has a deft way of turning stereotypes on their heads. In “Birthmates” — which John Updike recently included in “The Best American Short Stories of the Century” (a title P.T. Barnum would not have been ashamed of) — a traveling Chinese businessman, pinching pennies, stays at a welfare hotel, where a young hoodlum knocks him out in the lobby. He regains consciousness in the room of a young black woman; groggily, he sees her cooking something and notices a plastic bag full of white powder on the table. He assumes the worst, but it turns out that she’s making him a mug of hot milk and can afford only the powdered kind.

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“Duncan in China,” a novella-length piece, is a fascinating reversal of the usual immigrant’s story. The title character, an assimilated Chinese-American, idealizes the intellectual and cultural tradition of the mother country and goes there to discover “the China of ineffable nobility and refinement.” The story is set in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and Duncan finds not the refinement of the Song dynasty porcelain he cherishes, but rather snitches, a tubercular cousin, lust and anti-intellectualism.

Another novella, “House, House, Home,” is the weakest work in the collection. It tediously details the decline of the marriage of a college student and her art professor, a man of highly cultivated eccentricity who would surely be among the most irritating characters in contemporary fiction if you could believe in him for even a moment. “Sven did not see why he should not wear other people’s clothes if they were left handy. And why not pick up someone else’s camera at a party and, holding it behind your back, snap the party scene you couldn’t see?” The narrator, who is Asian, finally splits up with this highly original person and finds a sensitive, politically enlightened Hawaiian hunk, who shows her “how she had been wifed, how she had been fetishized, how she had been viewed as Orientalia” by white, Western Sven. Where is the irony with which Jen usually slaps down that sort of cant? At the end, the author even finds it necessary to inform the reader that both these men were “anatomically well-equipped.”

“House, House, Home,” never before published, has an earnest ’70s air about it; I would hazard a guess that it’s the torso of a failed novel that was resurrected to bring the book up to 200 pages. That might be wrong and completely unfair, but in any case including it was unnecessary: The 126 pages that precede it are well worth the price of admission.

Jamie James writes for the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and other publications.

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