Gish Jen, a second-generation Chinese American baby boomer raised in the greater New York City area, often deploys immigrant characters and perspectives in her work, but her overarching theme is the broader scope of American cultural identity, which she has explored with wit and due gravity, beginning with her acclaimed debut novel, Typical American (1991). Reviewed: The Love Wife ( Nov/Dec 2004).
The Story: Jen probes deeply into American landscapes, interior and exterior, in her fourth novel. In early 2001, half-Asian Hattie Kong, 68 and widowed, resides in an iconic New England mountain town. Hattie, who escaped China as a youth and has lived in her mother's American homeland ever since, retired to bucolic Riverlake hoping to overcome crippling grief. Here she has community, pets, and a view, but their healing powers are challenged by the arrival of troubled Cambodian neighbors, chain stores, cell phone towers, failing family farms, uncompromising religious fundamentalists, and Hattie's own internal struggles. By the morning of 9/11, it's clear that Hattie can't forget her past or isolate herself from the outside world. The world keeps on coming.
Knopf. 386 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307272195
"As Hattie and [the Cambodian family] struggle to bridge their own divide, they come to rely on their shared sliver of experience, of being outsiders among outsiders. Jen's masterful book suggests that's almost enough to fill the gap." Ellen Wernecke
"Jen's exuberant storytelling is not always able to resist an enticing side trip, and there are times when World and Town seems over-storied. This and her tendency, here and elsewhere to pack her conflicts with cheerful endings--a kind of narrative gift-wrapping--are the only flaws in an imaginatively questioning and shrewdly written novel of our times." Richard Eder
NY Times Book Review
"One of Jen's greatest strengths is her fluid point of view, which she employs beautifully here ... Nothing is fixed for these unsettled characters, who keep trying to build new lives in a bewildering world, and whose victories, when they come, bring not rapture but ‘a defining grace, bittersweet and hard-won.'" Donna Rifkind
"Most importantly, this is a beautifully written novel of wit and insight and great generosity. Gish Jen's novels do not come along often, so this is one not to miss." Claire Hopley
"The only thing Jen can't forgive is fundamentalism: The story's one ardent churchgoer might as well be wearing horns, and Jen devotes long passages of unlikely dialogue to proving her wrong again and again. ... Her bighearted rumpled novel gives [even the violent characters] room to change directions and find new ways to live together." Margaret Quamme
"It's into this mix that Jen gracefully introduces some of the great issues of our time: how the shock of 9/11 reverberated from city to town; how lost souls can cling meanly to fundamentalism; how it feels when a chain store bulldozes into a mom-and-pop community, or a family farm finally collapses." Karen Valby
To date, World and Town has drawn the most consistently positive critical response of Gish Jen's career. Reviewers, who cherish Jen as an often funny and engaging storyteller who creates memorable characters, praised the author for tackling the complicated theme of what lies at the tangled roots of Americanness, an ambition Jen signals with an epigram from de Tocqueville and fulfills in a "thick, satisfying sprawl of a read" (Entertainment Weekly). A few critics had minor complaints, including some digressive, albeit amusing, subplots. The critics concluded, however, that Jen handles her troubled souls and big themes with authority and that her work is at once entertaining, relevant, and thought-provoking.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. The prologue is set in a beautiful and ancient Chinese graveyard in which Hattie Kong’s relatives--descendants of Confucius--are buried, a provocative opening for a book about small-town America. What does this suggest about America today? The section ends with Hattie Kong--Chinese and American, Christian and Confucian--lamenting the passing of an older, simpler order and wondering what she has to replace it. To what degree are her questions uniquely her own?
2. Hattie is the center of this novel, the person through whom all the others connect, but she has her own story as well. Why does she move to Riverlake? What do Lee and Joe represent to her? Why does Sophy mean so much to her? When Neddy Needham, in the first Town Hall scene, asks “Whose town is this?” she wonders, on the side, if it is hers. It is by the end, but how has this change come about?
3. There is a lot of doubling in this book. Chhung feels himself to have been reborn into his brother’s life; Carter Hatch seems scripted to become his father; Hattie is able to leave China thanks to her serendipitous resemblance to a girl who died. Do you see other doublings of characters or situations? What does this suggest about the nature of the self and reality?
4. Vision is a major theme in the book. Hattie’s mother has always told her, “We must see that we don’t see,” and Carter spent most of his career working on the process by which information from the outside world is filtered and made coherent. Vision, as Carter’s father says, goes with blindness, even depends on it. Do you find in the book other forms of seeing that involve blindness? And if what we see might be thought of as a “world,” does this shed light on the title of the book?
5. Hattie, by the end of the book, has embraced a new life, but she has also rejected several modes of being. Though displaced, like her fellow teacher Ginny, and betrayed, she has chosen a different road for herself. Do other characters offer reflections of what Hattie might have become, had she chosen differently? In her youth, Hattie rejects superstition and embraces science; by the end, she has modified her view somewhat. Why?
6. One of the ways in which people in this book try on new selves is by changing their hair. What are some of the things people do to their hair?
7. This book has a main narrative in three parts, with two related narratives inserted into it. What does this suggest about the nature of the main narrative and storytelling generally? Is it definitive? How might it be related to the themes of “world”-making and blindness?