Gish Jen's World and Town is a favorite novel of the year--this on the basis of the first 100 pages. It's beautifully written, absorbing, peopled with engaging, distinctive characters, and also manages to document some of the intricacies of modern life: the role of town meetings in New England, community responsibility, cell phone towers, environmental concerns, cancer, old age, friendships with difficult people, and helping Cambodian immigrants in trouble. One of the reasons I love this is that it is about contemporary life, as opposed to the careful detailing of important events of many good, well-researched historical novels this year. Jen dares to tell us what's happening now.
World and Town is very different from Jen's 1996 novel, Mona in the Promised Land, the hilarious story of a Chinese-American teenager who decides to convert to Judaism. Hattie Kong, the half-Chinese, half-American heroine of World and Town, is is one of the most dignified, original, and politically liberal women I've met in fiction. She is sixty-eight years old and has a broad perspective on life, as a woman raised in China, the daughter of a Chinese man and an American missionary who rejected her religion and settled in China. Personal reasons have led Hattie to Riverlake, a small northern New England town, where she hopes to find calm and quiet and make a new life for herself. Her husband and best friend have died of cancer. A retired science teacher, she now paints and does yoga. She is also politically active.
One of the first political conflicts of the book revolves around a cell phone tower. At a Town Hall meeting, a huge crowd of people from different backgrounds opposes a local family's plans to make money from leasing land to the cell phone company. They raise concerns about radiation and holes in the service. Hattie speaks at the meeting.
"It's hard not to notice the convenience of cell phones," she says, her voice clear and strong; she can feel the vibration in her thoracic cavity. "But ought there not be one place on earth that cell phones can't reach?"
One has a strong feeling of the passionate involvement of the townspeople, and the liberal voices seem real. It reminds me of my youth, not in a New England town. And doesn't one really feel this about cell phones? Shouldn't there be some quiet places?
Hattie also is ambivalent about e-mail. Old friends and relatives in China contact her. She isn't always happy about these messages from the past. The email can be burdensome: the relatives want her to send her parents' bodies back to China. "She half expects to be hearing from the dead direct, pretty soon..."
She attends a yoga class and has a walking group. How I'd love to join these! It's been years since I took yoga, and, who knows? Maybe Jen's book will inspire me to take it up again.
The delineation of Hattie's friendship with the Cambodian neighbors is also fascinating. She is a good neighbor: brings them cookies, gives them an old wheelbarrow, takes the daughter, the designated English translator of the family, to the farmer's market, and helps them out in a health crisis. She is not the kind of person who gets overly involved personally, or so it seems so far, but she sees what needs to be done. And the family has a troubled history: the father, traumatized by the war, cannot work; the mother can't speak English; the son has money, having been involved with a gang in the city.