Gish Jen can and will be mentioned in the same breath, simultaneously exhaled by a dozen puffing reviewers, with Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. But such routine ethnic shelving (Chinese-American section, third aisle, on your right) is mostly beside the point. Typical American, Jen’s first novel, does supply plenty of enchanting Chinese-American nuances, but above all it’s an irresistible story. I got so absorbed in it that for a long stretch I forgot to take notes. A reviewer can give no higher praise. Jen manages to make her book suspenseful, startling, and heartrending without ever losing her discerning comic touch. Her characters are both thoroughly Chinese and universal in their quirky, abruptly wayward individuality. They keep us off guard, where we as novel readers belong.
The book begins with some standard immigrant-without-a-clue comedy. Yifeng Chang has left behind his father, an embittered old-fashioned scholar-official, his worried mother, and his dutiful older sister in a small town near Shanghai and has arrived in New York in 1947 to study engineering. The first problem is choosing an American name. Baffled, he asks the brassy Foreign Student Affairs secretary to give him one, and she chooses the name Ralph from a long list of ex-boyfriends. The newly christened Ralph falls awkwardly in love with her, forgets to renew his visa, and sets off on a course of slapstick self-sabotage driven by his Chinese penchant for secrecy and intrigue, along with his fear of being sent back to China, where the Communists have taken over and his family has disappeared.
Snatching serious trouble from the jaws of minor confusion, he’s about to sink out of sight when his sister, now called Theresa, turns up and sets him back on track. He completes his degree, marries Theresa’s best friend, Hailan, or Helen, and gets a teaching job. Eventually the couple, with two high-spirited little girls and Theresa, move to suburban America, Broadway show tunes, baseball, and upbeat 1950s slogans dancing in their heads.
That’s when the surprises start. Sober, virginal Theresa is drawn into an affair with Old Chao, a married Chinese colleague of Ralph’s. A suave, shady millionaire businessman named Grover Ding talks Ralph into quitting teaching in order to get rich quick by running a take-out chicken place. Helen also begins to fall under the spell of Grover’s ruthless charm. American impulses take the place of 3,000-year-old Chinese customs. At every turn Jen pulls our well-worn Chinese stereotypes out from under us.
Toward the end, the book flirts with implausibility and melodrama but keeps its balance with the help of Jen’s quiet wit and serenely felicitous style. The dark comedy of secretive errors and errant secrets ends on a note of vinegary wisdom: ”A man was the sum of his limits,” Ralph concludes. ”Freedom only made him see how much so. America was no America.” No utopia, that is. This book is a wry, levelheaded tribute to America and to the people who keep discovering it.