Tales From the Melting Pot
Let's briefly entertain the notion that you can judge a book by its cover. Consider Exhibit A: Gish Jen's handsomely packaged second novel, Mona in the Promised Land (Knopf). On the front jacket, designed by the ubiquitous Chip Kidd, we see three concentric circles. The outermost disc is an overhead view of a bowl of Chinese noodles. Obscuring most of the bowl's contents is a shiny bagel. A pair of eyes that seemingly match those of Asian-American author Gish Jen peek through the bagel's hole. On the spine of the book, a miniaturized spotlight cut-out of the same eyes is loosely sandwiched between the open halves of the bagel. Where African American race traitors have been labeled Oreos--that is, black on the outside, white in the center--Jen, in the cream cheese and lox position, is similarly wedged into an ethnic identity.
So it is that within the first paragraph of Mona in the Promised Land, we have been introduced to the Changs--"nice Chinese family--father, mother, two born-here girls"--and their new home in the tony suburb of Scarshill, New York, the "moneyed" land of "many delis." "They're the New Jews, after all," Jen continues in the next paragraph, "a model minority and the Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land." We have Changs, we have Jews, we have the American Dream. We have enough unnecessary capitalization to let the most obtuse reader know that this is the kind of American dream which comes with irony included. We have 299 pages left to go.
While the Changs manage a successful pancake restaurant, younger daughter Mona scouts the frontier of late-1960s cultural assimilation. One minute she is capitalizing on the attention she can attract as an exotic; she claims karate prowess, speaks phrases of Chinese gibberish ("stop acting crazy, rice gruel, soy sauce," she says), and compliments the Chinese culinary adventures of her friends' parents (delish!). At the same time, Mona hits the bar mitzvah circuit and discusses the risks of French kissing with braces. Soon, Mona has tagged along to enough "Temple Youth Group" meetings in her friend Barbara's VW minivan to qualify as the "official mascot." While older sister Callie, ever the good Chinese daughter, trots off to "almost-Harvard" (that being Radcliffe), Mona discusses conversion with her hippie-rabbi. Unbeknownst to her Catholic parents, Mona slips out of the house after her 16th birthday for a mikvah-dipping. The noodles. The bagel. Mona is a Chinese Jew.
Predictably, none of this nonsense makes Mona's mother happy. Helen is obstinate, dogmatic, and acutely class conscious; she could be an auxiliary member of the Joy Luck Club. "They'd like to be snobs," Mona says of her parents to the good rabbi, "[but] the trouble is that here in America, they often can't tell what set they're talking to. And they're not sure what set we are either." For her part, Mona is equally befuddled by the protocol that dictates her parents' lives: "You have to know how to stand, how to sit... people in Shanghai knew who you were right away, you didn't have to open your mouth." Yet when it comes to understanding social status, author Jen, like young Mona, can't keep her mouth shut. We are treated to exhaustive insights into what each character is doing, thinking, thinking about doing, and even thinking about thinking.
But Gish Jen is not only conspicuously omniscient. The author is also intimate with each character, imitating the idiosyncrasies of her thoughts. At the beginning Gish Jen is a meandering teenager: "Luckily, she just about then [emphasis mine] happens to tell Barbara Gugelstein she knows karate." Gish Jen is a non-native speaker, omitting articles, inverting subjects and verbs: "Mark and Louie's kids, for example, have no idea who is Jimi Hendrix." Gish Jen is black: "He understands why he shouldn't play no music, and why he can't turn no lights on at night." As a narrator, Gish Jen is everyone's friend.
While the author is busy getting chummy with character and reader alike, her young charge, Mona, is fraying and weathering her "hip-hugger bell-bottoms" for maximum cool, and rolling around with "Mr. Authentic Self," Seth Mandel, in his live-in teepee. Conveniently located in his parents' backyard, Seth's teepee is furnished with "a reading lamp... a tape recorder and a sky-blue princess telephone"; he considers "upgrading" his sheepskins and down mummy bag with a heated water bed. Ah, rebellion. Mona, Seth, and Barbara smoke dope and construct a comparative point system for historical atrocities. The Chinese Revolution vs. Slavery vs. the Holocaust. Mona and crew are idealistic, generous, and idiotic all at once. Ah, youth. Here, the author's breezy tone and easy sympathies prove more trenchant than hard-nosed satire might. Without undue scorn, Jen acknowledges that for every Yippie there were a dozen stoned shirkers; for every magic bus, a dozen suburban VWs on the way to SAT tutorials.
Yet the demanding reader may be forgiven for questioning the deeper ambitions of a book that is so often bereft of both mystery and malice, a book so content to say what it means and mean what it says. (Perhaps recognizing this lack of tension, the author confects a lost grade-school Romeo and his subsequent surprise unveiling; alas, no one cares about him--not even Mona.) However, these same characteristics may be a testament to how much the identity novel of sexual awakening and Jewish social mobility has evolved since its 1959 prototype, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus. (Interestingly enough, the two texts share a locale in Scarsdale/Scarshill; Callie even recalls the filming of the 1969 Richard Benjamin/Ali MacGraw movie on the town's clay tennis courts.) More than that coincidental concordance, the novels share an ironic approach to the imperfect assimilation of suburbia's ascending classes.
In the earlier book, surly librarian Neil Klugman makes himself over in the image of his upper-class girlfriend, Brenda, eating grapefruit breakfasts, wearing khaki Bermudas. "You look like me, only bigger," she proudly declares when his transformation appears nearly complete. Neil knows himself better. One phone call to his Aunt Gladys--filled with neurosis, the subjunctive tense, and indiscreet inquiries into the status of his underwear--one phone call like that, and Neil remembers who he will return to being after the summer ends. For Jen's characters in The Promised Land, the goal is not to erase identity, but to embrace the most appropriate one. Mona converts. Barbara Gugelstein instantly regrets her ethnic neutering by way of rhinoplasty. Callie changes her name to its Chinese cognate. In contrast, identity is an immutable fact for Roth and Klugman, a ball and chain that the strong, like Brenda's father, can haul without sweating, and the beautiful, like Brenda, can blithely snip short, like her nose. Neil, a coward who "eats like a bird," spins around his identity like a tetherball around its pole, until he bangs his head up against it.
And yet for both Roth and Jen, there is one persistent identity question that cannot be resolved in their pages: the role of the African American in the "liberal" conscience. Neil all but congratulates himself for aiding a young black boy in the library; where his coworker would evict the boy, Neil allows the kid his favorite book of Gaugin nudes.
But where Roth keeps his interracial interactions at a narrative distance, Jen attacks the issue with her usual headlong rush toward total divulgence. Mona explains her parents' denial of their "minority" status: "We own this restaurant," Helen says pointedly to an African American woman who expresses common cause; "You should see our tax bracket." Later, Mona will attack her parents' refusal to promote a black cook, Alfred, who is harbored in Barbara's guest room after a spell of marital discord. As Mona's and Alfred's friends begin to socialize regularly over beer and yoga, Jen attempts to recreate the black vernacular, with more bravery than success. ("I was just having me a broadening experience," Alfred says.) But suspicion soon dissolves the social congress; balkanization is the future. Until the afterward, at least, where in Jen's ever-optimistic scheme, the promised land is close at hand.
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