Typical American by Gish Jen: A Lakeview Branch Book Club Review

Lakeview Book Club highly recommends Typical American or any other of Gish Jen's beautifully written, humorous and bittersweet tales of Chinese Americans jumping into the "melting cauldron."

Typical American by Gish Jen, is a first novel published in 1991. Our leader for the evening brought some biographical information about Ms. Jen. The name "Gish" was a nickname from her high school years, named for actress Lillian Gish.  Gish is Chinese American. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1940's. She grew up on in and near New York City.
She writes of characters in her world and the inevitable clash of cultures lived with difficulty by our new Americans. This is a comic novel, sometimes dabbling in the darkness of poor choices and misspent love. The characters were not all sympathetic. In fact, the anti-hero, Ralph, was not well liked by many of our group. He was weak, undisciplined, easily led by shady characters, autocratic and pig-headed......yet, very human. Some of our group thought he was a sad character.
The strong family dynamic was the major entity of the book. Although the characters betrayed each other, there was strong underlying love and sense of unity that truly pulled them all through, even when near death.
It was pointed out that the type of places they lived and worked in became metaphors for their current status as Americans, from seedy apartments with marginal neighbors, to the poorly-made suburban tract home which quickly slipped into disrepair, from the chicken-killing kitchen on the down-low and the claustrophobic closet tower classroom to the fried chicken shop which literally was falling down around them, we see constant adapting and constant adversity.
Throughout the evolution of this family odyssey the phrase "typical American" was used as a slur against each other and against Americans they held in distain, the loud, greedy, avaricious and just plain rude Americans.
Yet, as they pointed out the typical American foibles, they were gradually acquiring those traits themselves. Even so, they grew stronger; they endured; they developed and ultimately became people we really cared about.
Some of Gish Jen's stories have been featured in the New Yorker and other literary magazines. Our leader told us of one he read where the same major character, Ralph, is badgered into wearing a new, hot and uncomfortable seersucker suit coat to a country club party. He leaves the price tag on so that he can return the jacket later. All the Americans at the party are dressed casually and the host offers him a polo shirt to wear instead. In anger, Ralph takes off his new jacket and throws it into the swimming pool, says some rude comments and stomps off to return home, only to find out in the parking lot, that his car keys are in the pocket of the jacket at the bottom of the pool. Yep! That's Ralph!
We thought that Gish Jen is a wonderful storyteller using beautiful prose to build great suspense. We were all compelled to read this book quickly. Some of us liked it so much that we found her other novels and started them. Those members reported that her later books, Mona and the Promised Land and The Love Wife were even better than Typical American.
The characters were so very naïve, careening from one misadventure to another on the advise of questionable people. They had bought into the myth of American exceptionalism. The few non-Chinese characters in this book were, for the most part, not people you'd want to invite to your kitchen for brownies and coffee and the Chinese Americans who were assimilated weren't much better.
Ralph was given his name by Cammy, the American civil-servant who helped him with his visa and student status. He became mesmerized by her flip style, wise-cracking ways and curly red hair. Although Ralph finally got his mechanical engineering degree and was a professor, the lure of riches and of being a self-made man, led him to his businessman years with the fried chicken shack. This fried chicken shack was used for money laundering by his assimilated Chinese American friend, Grover. Oily and slimy Grover seemed to be able to lead Ralph everywhere. After all, Grover had a mansion and a maid, so he had to be someone of note! The "kidnapping" joy ride-trashing-a-restaurant by Grover with abductee, Ralph, was a very memorable episode in this novel. We all sort of would like to see this in a movie.
The female characters were ultimately very strong. They evolved, became educated, found their talents, took lovers, cheated on husbands and developed professional careers or businesses. The transition was fascinating! 
We noted that Ralph, when compared to his sister, Theresa, was actually weaker, that is, their sexes should have been reversed, as Gish Jen notes. Poor Ralph had to keep reminding his family of women (wife, sister and two daughters) that he was THE MAN OF THE FAMILY! Men were to rule the roost, but it all got away from Ralph.
Ralph was passive aggressive. He taught the family dog to hate and attack anything with a cat smell and finally the dog attacked his sister Theresa! Ralph was jealous of Theresa. She had true love with “Old Chow” the older married family friend who helped Ralph in his engineering career. The image Ralph kept in his mind of Old Chow and Theresa luxuriating in a wading pool holding hands, lying peacefully together is one which made him ache with longing for such a relationship.
Ralph’s wife, Helen, had a sexual relationship with the evil Grover, we think. We actually weren’t sure it was completely sexual or just working up to being sexual, or, if it was sexual, it must have been the stain on the love seat that made her discard that prized piece of furniture.
We commented on the writing style. Gish Jen used many Chinese aphorisms and used italics when she was using translated Chinese. We thought the book was compelling and couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.
We digressed and spoke of friends we knew who are recent immigrants from Asian countries. One member of the group later mentioned that she thought a major difficulty for this family was the language barrier. Some new people to this country who already speak English do not have the same intense learning curve with language and culture.
Ultimately, we thought this book was a tragedy, albeit, redeemed by the family love and support. They gave up everything for a dream that was never truly actualized. “Every river has its own course.” They just kept going. There is always hope!
We highly recommend this title and any other by Gish Jen.
Happy Reading!
Mary Farrell
Lakeview Branch Manager


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