March 23, 2018
MarkBernstein.org
 

The Girl At The Baggage Claim

Novelist Gish Jen sets of into the world of armchair sociology to distinguish the Western psyche — the “avocado-pit self” — from the more collectivist Eastern flexi-self. There’s some good plain sense here, and some gross generalization of concepts that Jen, the author of Mona In The Promised Land, can address with more safety and confidence than most.

The title comes from the protagonist of its framing story. A Chinese girl applies to Milton Academy. She has great test scores, a fluent essay, great recommendations. She’s admitted. When a school representative meets her plane, though, the student is nothing like her application. Eventually, it emerges that her sister got those scores and wrote that essay. What, Jen asks, made her (or her sister, or her parents) think this a good idea?

The problem with this story is it’s the best and most interesting part of the book. Another high point is a sociologist who went to visit Dafen, the Chinese town that’s dedicated to making copies of oil paintings. A civic leader praises the visitor’s interesting topic, and offers to write her dissertation for her; after all, he reasonably says, he is a good writer and knows Dafen and its painters intimately. Just tell him how she’d like it organized, and he’ll have it ready in a couple of weeks.

These are fascinating confrontations — just as good as Mona with her realization that she wants to convert to Judaism because the Jews, even more than the Chinese, have this minority thing figured out. But the language of nonfiction pop psych flattens everything, and because we’re making generalizations we spend a lot of time explaining that yes, there are lots of exceptions. Usually a stylish writer, Jen here develops a fondness for rhetorical questions to which she supplies an immediate, and usually obvious, reply. I’d have preferred a novel.