By Gish Jen
A Xmas present from Conan’s mom (no, not this past Xmas but from the one before), and it’s finally taken me this long to get around to reading it (sorry to keep you waiting, Caroline).
MITPL starts off as a coming-of-age tale about a second-generation Chinese girl growing up in the large Jewish community of Scarshill, New York during the late 1960’s (like the author herself did). The protagonist Mona is constantly trying to balance pleasing her traditional parents while figuring out her own sense of self, an all-too-common theme in Asian-American literature. Jen adds a humourous twist by having the teenaged Mona, as part of her identity-searching, convert to Judaism early on in the story much to her family’s dismay and exasperation.
I found the novel difficult to get into at first, mainly because I found Jen’s style somewhat distracting (as if trying a bit too hard to be quirky & charming) and self-conscious in that stream-of-consciousness way of trying to create a flowing narrative using poetic-prose.
I felt Maxine Hong-Kingston had already explored this type of storytelling mode (with more success) when she used Walt Whitman as a muse for her free-style 1989 novel, Tripmaster Monkey, which featured the irreverent Wittman Ah Sing, a 23 year old fifth generation Chinese-American college-graduated wandering hippy. For me, MITPL was a bit like Jen’s ambitious answer to Hong-Kingston's novel, which also takes place in the 1960’s but in San Francisco. It’s been over a decade since I read Tripmaster Monkey, but I couldn’t help comparing the two, which share some similar traits and themes.
So those were the hurdles I was facing at the beginning, but nevertheless I plowed on and eventually, I got used to Jen’s style (or perhaps Jen’s style has finally settled down a bit) and got into her story, which did become genuinely quirky and charming, with an expanded cast of interesting side characters.
And there were many occasions where I identified with Jen’s comic observations of growing up Chinese in North America, although ironically, I never felt I could truly identify with the character of Mona, mostly because Jen would avoid exploring Mona’s emotional interior for very long. Perhaps this was Jen’s way of rendering Mona as a kind of cipher (the story is also told in third person), but to me, this is counter-productive for a coming-of-age tale. For example, when Mona suspected her boyfriend Seth of cheating on her with her friend Barbara, I wasn’t sure whether she was actually upset or trying to bury her feelings. When Mona was attacked and practically sexually assaulted by a stranger then rescued by said boyfriend, I didn’t get the impression that she was very disturbed about the incident afterwards.
Overall, MITPL ended up being a light funny clever read, with some good laughs. What’s more, reading Jen’s book now makes me want to revisit Tripmaster Monkey again.
Below is a link to a brief Salon review which sums up my experience of the book almost to a tee: