Speculative fiction is having a day. Readers are diving into the horrors of our current moment through literature with a fantastical gaze from authors such as Margaret Atwood and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Gish Jen is the latest writer to take this task to heart in “The Resisters.”
Jen has written novels, short story collections and nonfiction that have often engaged with issues of belonging, such as American-ness, multicultural identities and the East/West divide. In her latest novel she tackles these topics within a dystopian realm, empowering readers to ruminate on our current political climate in a defamiliarized reality that brings home how the world she presents is already our own.
In “The Resisters” we meet the Cannon-Castedas: father Grant, mother Eleanor and daughter Gwen. They live in a hyper-capitalistic society overseen by Aunt Nettie, an internet-based force that runs the United States of AutoAmerica. Most things are run by technology, such as AutoHouses that contain seemingly helpful devices, but they “reported to Aunt Nettie as dutifully as any spy network — recording our steps, our pictures, our relationships, and ... our careers.” Characters ignore the technological creep into their privacy for the sake of convenience.
Some of the features of AutoAmerica — including its ongoing surveillance that gauges everything from loans to college access based on following Aunt Nettie’s rule — echo stories about contemporary Communist China. In this way, Jen, as she has done in previous writing, questions the approach of both the U.S. and China. In the plot, “ChinRussia” is the other major world power, and they both escalate their draconian policies to outdo each other — making them more alike — with little thought for their citizens. They are powers with no sense of public good.
This book is narrated by Grant, whose first-person point of view replicates the invasive, spying atmosphere that pervades the novel. Access to Eleanor and Gwen’s thoughts would add to the narrative’s complexity, but Jen world-builds effortlessly. Newly coined words become part of your own parlance within pages as you come to understand this world divided into the Netted — those who have jobs — and the Surplus — those whose only job is to consume. The Surplus are also marked as inferior, and their enforced workless status is tangled up in racism, ableism and religious exclusivity.
The US of AA is a hierarchical, product-driven society where individuals must make more and more stuff to be endlessly consumed while little care is given to people themselves.
In the midst of all this is Gwen, a stellar baseball pitcher. When her parents see her talent, they create an underground baseball league for Surplus children. Games create a space to unify the disempowered not just to play but to fight for their autonomy, environmental justice and racial equity. The story develops as we watch their resistance.
Jen takes us on an entertaining ride in a new yet familiar world as we contemplate that “it was we who made our world what it was. It was we who were responsible.”
Abby Manzella is a writer and scholar in Columbia, Mo. Her book “Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements” was named a Choice Reviews Outstanding Academic Title.
By: Gish Jen.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 301 pages, $26.95.