Quick Review: THANK YOU, MR. NIXON by Gish Jen (Knopf)

JenG-ThankYouMrNixonUSHCA novel comprised of linked short stories, which paints a picture of China’s past half-century

Beginning with a cheery letter penned by a Chinese girl in heaven to “poor Mr. Nixon” in hell, Gish Jen embarks on a fictional journey through U.S.-China relations, capturing the excitement of a world on the brink of tectonic change.
 
Opal Chen reunites with her Chinese sisters after forty years; newly cosmopolitan Lulu Koo wonders why Americans “like to walk around in the woods with the mosquitoes”; Hong Kong parents go to extreme lengths to reestablish contact with their “number-one daughter” in New York; and Betty Koo, brought up on “no politics, just make money,” finds she must reassess her mother’s philosophy.
 
With their profound compassion and equally profound humor, these eleven linked stories trace the intimate ways in which humans make and are made by history, capturing an extraordinary era in an extraordinary way. Delightful, provocative, and powerful, Thank You, Mr. Nixon furnishes yet more proof of Gish Jen’s eminent place among American storytellers.

An interesting and engaging novel, Thank You, Mr. Nixon contains 11 linked short stories that give us a glimpse of how China’s social, political and economic evolution since its “opening” affects those who experience it: Chinese, Honk Kongers, members of the wider Chinese diaspora, and others. I really enjoyed this.

Jen’s writing and novel manage to do a great deal, without overdoing it. The author’s characters are constantly grappling with shifting expectations — of heritage, family, and society. The stories are presented in chronological order, and through the eyes, thoughts, and experiences of the protagonists we see how China has changed. The “opening” up in the 1970s after President Nixon’s surprise visit unleashes a capitalist impulse, which has echoes and repercussions down through the generations.

One of the recurring themes across the stories is how subsequent generations hold different opinions and impulses to their parents and grandparents. Through an insightful and compassionate lens, Jen gives us a great examination and critique of changing cultural, social and political expectations. We see how certain characters’ opinions and behaviour shifts as China’s economy becomes stronger — their critiques of China weaken, become more veiled, or simply go away. The “no politics, just make money” mentality comes to dominate those who are successful, as they recognize that to do otherwise can jeopardize everything: their careers, their wealth, and their families. In the final story, “Detective Dog”, Betty expresses this fear and its sinister manifestation in the phrase, “the Chinese government likes to know all your family members.”

The second story, “It’s the Great Wall!”, is probably my favourite — it follows an American tour group in the years soon after travel was allowed to China from the US. The protagonists are an American of Chinese descent, her Jewish husband, and her mother: the latter stayed away from China after attending college in the US in the years before and during the Civil War. There is a lot of ground covered by the story — from the “casual” racism of the tour group members, to the subtle and overt politics of China at the time (although, really, each of these continues to echo throughout the novel and contemporary China and America), and also the impact of long-term family separation. It’s strange to pick out a favourite, though, as each one gains impact as a result of what’s included in each of the preceding stories.

The lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution, for those who participated in the chaos as well as those who were “struggled against”, features in a number of the stories. Jen handles the subject very well, observing the caution that characterizes many of those who were designated as class enemies, and how they often retain a lingering fear or caution about speaking out against the Chinese government, or evincing any overtly Western mores or attitudes. Readers also see how easily history can be ignored or suppressed, to ensure it doesn’t get in the way of progress.

When he posted a sign-up sheet for individual conversational practice, almost all his students came, bearing stories. Many of these involved the Cultural Revolution, during which some of them had been struggled against; others had been Red Guards. How could they sit next to one another in class? Yet they did. They were civil; they lent each other blank cassettes. Those who had been made to dig ditches had not forgotten it. They told Duncan of rape and torture; of seeing loved ones blinded, smeared in shit, drowned, driven to suicide. No, there was no forgetting. How could they forget any of it? The former Red Guards, on the other hand, professed to have forgotten much. They vaguely recalled riding the trains around the country — being out on a lark, seeing new places. None of them admitted to participating in anything ugly; indeed, at least one of them seemed quite genuinely more interested in magic tricks and Chinese chess than in ongoing revolution.

The above excerpt is from the perspective of Duncan Hsu, a “foreign expert” who goes to China to teach English pre-Tiananmen Square (it’s not always easy to place the stories exactly in time — save for one that does mention the student protests in Tiananmen Square, in 1989).

He had not expected that it would be so tinged with sad realism, though — all anyone wanted anymore was to be left alone, that’s what the students said.

Later in the book, there was a great moment when a Chinese mother, visiting her son and daugher-in-law in the States, and she’s observing how contradictory some of American culture and economics are. For example, the fact that English lessons can be had for free, despite America’s fetishization of the free market and capitalism — “Free classes are socialism!” she declares. The son’s response, I thought, was rather amusing:

“It is not socialism,” Wuji says. “It is capitalism with American characteristics.”

While many of the issues and themes of the novel are serious, it should be noted that each of the novels is also often quite amusing. From the bumbling ignorance of the American tourists in “It’s the Great Wall!” to the perennially amusing generational squabbles and clashes, Jen injects a good amount of humour into the novel. Each story is very human, delving into the insecurities, prejudices, and aspirations of each protagonist. Many of them are balancing personal struggles with much larger national and international struggles.

The last few stories address contemporary issues — including the coronavirus epidemic and also Hong Kong. The latter, in particular, was very well done: the tensions are clear, as is the fear and frustration of those who are either there or have relatives in HK. “Detective Dog”, the aforementioned final story, was a particularly affecting story to end on. It has a mix of light humour balanced against a tragic ending, told against the backdrop of the protests in Hong Kong.

“… all she could think about was 2047, when Hong Kong would be swallowed up by the Mainland forever. And the funny thing is that the way she said that, for the first time, I also just wished the Hong Kong we grew up in was not gone. Of course, back when the Mainland first started to rise up, we were proud to see Chinese people stand up to the West. Talk about bullies! The West always just had to humiliate everyone, and, by the way, now that Hong Kong needs help, do you see them? But in the end, the Mainland turned on us, too — the way they fired on their own people in Tiananmen…”

This is the first book of the author’s that I’ve read, but I doubt very much that it will be the last. I’m keen to go back and read some of her previous work, and I also look forward to her next. Thank You, Mr. Nixon is an excellent read. Insightful, eloquent, and engaging. Definitely recommended.

*

Gish Jen’s Thank You, Mr. Nixon is due to be published by Knopf in North America, on January 25th.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter
Review copy received via Edelweiss

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