There’s a quote from Greg Burkman of The Seattle Times on the flipside of the paperback version of Don DeLillo’s Underworld that starts with “[m]asterpieces teach you how to read them.” I’m not sure if Burkman was the first person to ever reach that conclusion, but his words are apt to describe the fourth novel from Chinese-American author Gish Jen, World and Town. While I would stop short of actually calling it a masterpiece – there are a few flaws with the work – it is a book that does, in essence, teach you how to read it.
It’s a weighty novel, and at times a profoundly moving one, but it does require a great deal of patience on the part of the reader to reap any rewards, as gradual as they may come. It literally takes about 100 pages before the novel really starts to move, as Jen is prone to writing in wild tangents – sometimes even interjecting new characters into her narrative halfway through a paragraph. You cannot let your mind wander when reading this book, or else, as I did during the first third, you’ll be flipping backwards a few pages to catch a necessary detail that you missed.
Describing what the novel is about is a bit complex, as there is enough narrative and plot here for perhaps three novels. Essentially, World and Town is mostly told from the perspective of the lonely 68-year-old Hattie Kong, a Chinese immigrant who has moved to the small, idyllic New England town of Riverlake to start her life over after both her husband and her female best friend die at almost precisely the same time. Her son, who is barely heard from in the novel, works aboard, and though she hangs out with members of a local walking group, she more or less lives as a hermit with her three dogs as faithful companions.
However, she soon starts taking an interest in the lives of a Cambodian immigrant family that has just moved into a trailer next door; the family, it turns out, is on the run from the authorities after the children make a few unwise choices growing up in the ghetto of an unnamed American city. Hattie’s world also turns upside-down with the arrival in Riverlake of Carter Hatch, a retired neuroscientist and a newfound yoga and guitar instructor, who was something of an old flame in Hattie’s youth. Complications gradually begin to unspool as all of these lives begin to intertwine and intersect with each other.
World and Town is unusual and unique in that it’s lopped into five distinct chapters: three of which are told from Hattie’s perspective, and two others that fill in a bit of the back story from the point-of-view of lesser characters: Sophy (pronounced So-PEE), who is one of the daughters of the aforementioned Cambodian immigrants, and Everett, the husband of the novel’s antagonist, Ginny, the latter of whom is slowly going off the rails thanks to her born again Christian devotion and religious fervour. It is, in fact, once Sophy’s story begins unspooling, the circumstances behind her family’s move to Riverlake and her motivations for getting involved with the local Christian church are revealed that World and Town truly begins to get interesting.
However, there is a bit of a quirk in Sophy’s story in that, in typical teenaged fashion, her speech is augmented by a lot of, like, slang, which includes the usual and liberal uses of the words “like”, “whatever” and “whack”. This is, perhaps, the weakest link in the novel for me, as it appeared that the 55-year-old Jen was trying to be hip and cool by appropriating certain teenaged stereotypes and mannerisms, which, in reality, are much more nuanced than simply adding the letter “z” to the word “boy” to pluralize it in teen lingo. However, if you can overlook that weakness, Sophy’s journey to Riverlake marks the true beginning of World and Town, the part of the book where the narrative doesn’t seem so listless, where the novel really begins to go places.
Riverlake itself is the only geographical community that is actually named in the course of World and Town, and that is perhaps apt for the small town is really a stand-in for others that have seen its values and traditions encroached by both the faceless means of technology and an urban way of living. Riverlake faces the unwanted intrusion of both a cell phone tower and a Wal-Mart-like superstore. The novel also chronicles the failure of family-run farms and the growing hysteria of fundamental Christian groups that also pepper some small communities. World and Town, thus, offers a bit of a microcosm of small town life and how it reacts to the transgressions of the rest of the world upon it.
Seeing that the novel is set in 2001, you also get a dose of 9/11-style hysteria thrown into the mix, although thankfully, Jen largely keeps this aspect of the book somewhat muted and in the background. As a bit of an aside here, with so many American authors and filmmakers taking their stab at that horrific event ten years ago, I wondered while reading this book if any Great American Novels were written about the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. The events of 9/11 are so intangible to the plot of World and Town that, if you removed this aspect, it wouldn’t have a significant impact on the storytelling whatsoever. It just seems that 9/11 is so de rigueur a topic in American letters and some movies, that Jen just couldn’t resist tossing it into her book.
In essence, World and Town is a novel about characters, and how a small town reacts to foreigners and newcomers. That’s the strongest element about the novel, and the one that is the most difficult to explain, without giving away large chunks of the story. (World and Town is best read without knowing very much about the plot, aside from what’s written on the side flaps of the book.)
It’s also a novel about characters who struggle to make right choices, no matter how misguided they may seem on the surface. It’s particularly engrossing to watch Hattie find her voice and grow from a person who has seemingly just dealt with the bad hand that life has dealt her, to paraphrase from one of the chapter titles, to lying down and bleeding for awhile, to someone who begins to get in touch with herself and her feelings, and eventually is fuelled by a devotion to set things right.
All in all, World and Town is a novel that unfolds with a great deal of grace, and is so richly textured that reading it is a little like eating a delectable piece of gooey, rich chocolate. (I imagine it will be a hit with older ladies at book clubs, where talking about this novel can be enlivened with the addition of tea and crumpets.) It may not be a masterpiece, but it is a richly textured, engrossing tale that you’ll feel a little sadder for leaving upon the final time of closing this novel shut. World and Town, despite its minor warts, is definitely worth checking out, and establishes Jen as a fine writer of some magnitude.