By Ron Charles
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; C04
WORLD AND TOWN
By Gish Jen
Knopf. 384 pp. $26.95
What a pleasure to read this smart, warm novel from Gish Jen. It's another in a small but growing collection of books about getting older -- not getting decrepit or sick or depressed, but just getting older, with all the perspective such maturity can endow. If you've already enjoyed Anne Tyler's "Digging to America" and Helen Simonson's "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," you have some idea of the tenor of "World and Town." Jen's fourth novel manages, in its amiable, unhurried way, to consider the challenges of immigration, the limits of scientific rationalism and the sins of fundamentalism. Yes, it's a heavy load for such a buoyant story to carry, but, like Allegra Goodman, Jen knows how to create thoughtful characters who can talk and think about complex issues without making us take notes.
Her heroine is 68-year-old Hattie Kong, a curious, compassionate woman looking somewhat nervously at the next stage of her life. A good liberal, she fought all the right fights -- "Vietnam! Staff firings! Library closings!" -- but "her chief job these days is to reconstitute herself." She recently endured the deaths of her husband and her best friend and then retired from teaching, so she's emerging from the jolting loss of occupation and companionship. "This is an age of flux," Hattie reminds herself, hopefully. "One thing will become another." She loves the peaceful setting of her new home in little Riverlake -- "a town that would have pink cheeks, if a town had cheeks" -- but she clearly has a lot of extra time and energy. Her late husband referred to her as "Miss Combustible."
One of the great charms of "World and Town" is how fluidly Jen mingles the tone and content of Hattie's scattered thoughts with her own third-person narration. As the daughter of a Chinese father and an American missionary mother, Hattie has spent her whole life feeling foreign. The scientist she became has no use for the theology of her American grandparents or the superstitions of her Chinese relatives, who pester her by e-mail with special requests to satisfy the dead. But more recently, the dogmatic tendencies of science have begun to irritate her as well.
These concerns are all brought to life in the novel by the arrival of several new residents. Like Hattie, Carter Hatch has recently retired, lost his spouse (to divorce) and moved to Riverlake, he says, "to force myself off task." Thirty-five years ago, he and Hattie worked in the same laboratory, and seeing him again now for the first time scrapes the hurt (and romantic) feelings they buried long ago. But if Hattie isn't willing to stoke the old flame, why shouldn't other women in town move in on this distinguished scientist who sails and teaches yoga?
While that retiree version of Emma & Mr. Knightley plays out in a series of sharp, witty arguments, the focus of the novel and of Hattie's life turns to a dysfunctional family of Cambodian immigrants who move into a trailer next to her house. Hattie welcomes them to the neighborhood, spies on them shamelessly through her binoculars and befriends their teenage daughter, Sophie, whose abusive father keeps her from school. He's clearly traumatized by the horrors of Pol Pot and incapable of any kind of productive integration into American society.
This is tough material -- sometimes even violent -- but it doesn't feel tough in Jen's tender retelling, and it's shot through with the author's sympathetic understanding of the cruelty that those who have suffered can end up inflicting upon others. All of us, she suggests, are trapped in our own beliefs, a fact that should humble us as we go about passing judgment. Hattie learned that lesson from personal experience and then from neurobiology, studying the ways vision becomes perception. She's interested in "how differently people see. And what we can't see, because of how we see." As Sophie struggles to negotiate her father's superstitions, her mother's Buddhism and a local church's dogma, Hattie wants to be the voice of enlightenment, advising the young woman to rise above others' limited views, but to what extent is Hattie similarly bound by the dimensions of her own beliefs?
You might expect the novel's philosophical and theological concerns to fit awkwardly with its cozy domestic comedy -- as though Fannie Flagg and Marilynne Robinson were passing the book back and forth. But whether talking about salvation through faith or the biases of science or the vanities of women of a certain age at yoga class, Jen blends these various strains with endearing finesse.
What doesn't work so well, though, is the way the plot turns upon the wickedness of a born-again Christian. Particularly in a novel about tolerating and respecting people's beliefs, it's disappointing to be led down the straight and narrow way toward the holy grail of liberal cliches: the hypocritical Christian, clutching her baby Jesus while spouting a doctrine of hate. Late in the novel Jen inserts a whole chapter -- "What Went Wrong" -- to explain how someone might fall into such bitter religious fervor, but to the extent it demonizes fundamentalists, it's fundamentally condescending.
And yet it's that very temptation of condescension that Hattie overcomes by the novel's end, when she finally finds a way to harmonize her own rationalism with what she considers others' nutty superstitions. We need "vision with a small v," Jen suggests. "Something more Inuit-like -- more oriented toward the living. Something more Confucian." As this humane novel shows, that has nothing to do with giving up one's most cherished beliefs, but it requires acknowledging that others hold their beliefs just as firmly and that only active compassion will build a better world and town.
Charles is The Post's fiction editor.