Years ago, in a routine about craft projects, Lily Tomlin said that some of the things people can make nowadays are so clever it's impossible to tell whether or not they have any talent. You could say the same thing about comic observation in modern novels. There's observation up the ying-yang in Gish Jen's second novel, "Mona in the Promised Land": witty observations of how the teenage Chinese-American heroine has more in common with her Jewish friends in suburban Westchester than her hard-working parents and telling observations of how Mona's parents give themselves over to the all-American work ethic while they resist becoming more Western. But is there dramatization, narrative momentum, any spark of savvy, pep, sensitivity or -- excuse me -- chutzpah that would tell us why we should care about Mona? We should only be so lucky.
The opening passages, with Mona sprouting all sorts of tall tales about her heritage, had me laughing. "In the eighth grade, people do not want to hear about how Chinese people eat tomatoes with the skin on . . . On the other hand, the fact that somewhere in China somebody eats or has eaten or once ate living monkey brains -- now, that's conversation." Fifty pages later, I had stopped laughing and had no idea why I was still reading.
Jen has the audacity to combine an adolescent's search for self with the larger search for cultural identity, and to set the whole thing in the late '60s when questions of racial and cultural identity seemed new and urgent. But there's nothing here Margaret Cho hasn't done funnier already, and Jen shies away from any turmoil or conflict that would require more than her oblique, low-key fiction-class approach. Reading Mona, you'd never know the '60s were anything more than a fad for bored, spoiled suburban kids. It's not just that the characters are oblivious to the larger questions swirling around in that decade; so's Jen. The book reads like notes for a character who didn't make the final cut on "The Wonder Years." In this novel, the '60s are grist for nothing more than the latest offbeat entry in the "It's all a part of life's rich pageant" genre sweepstakes.