In the story In the American Society, Gish Jen glosses over the family’s backstory and skips to their success. I think this is why, for me, the beginning felt rushed and the narrator’s initial tone seemed braggy. It was like Jen jumped to the successful part without showing the struggle first. Looking back, I needed to see the struggle.
I had trouble relating to the family from the start. Going back to Prose and the chapter on narration I analyzed in my last post, it may be that Jen wasn’t writing this to me. I certainly don’t consider junior high too soon to start saving for college. If anything that feels too late. Things like this made the family’s struggle fall flat for me.
Regarding dialogue, the term “you people” didn’t feel sincere or authentic either. While I get what Jen was trying to show, I just don’t believe that Mrs. Lardner would use it like this: “Why, I’d be honored and delighted to write you people a letter.” I’m just not buying it. It felt contrived and over the top. Then when the family mocks her in private it made me dislike them, not Mrs. Lardner.
But as I read further, I started to think that may have been her intention. Perhaps the narrator wasn’t trying to get me to like or even feel for the father and his family but, rather, maybe she was trying to get me to feel even more sympathy for the workers. If that was indeed her intention, it worked. When Booker enters the story on page 666 was the first time I felt any emotional connection whatsoever. His arrival, for me, also made the father feel real to me but only briefly. But then it all fell apart again with the way he treated his workers and then again later with talk of bribing the judge. In the back and forth between Jeremy and the father in the final pages, I felt like I was being strong-armed into feeling pity. The only thing I felt badly about was the fact that I felt no sympathy whatsoever for this man.
If this was a much longer story, I think I might have been able to grow more with the characters and my feelings would have had the chance to flow organically but, again, it felt rushed from the start. This is the lesson I’m taking away for my own writing. Don’t rush the important stuff!
Prose says if you know who you’re speaking to then it’s okay to “skip over slow parts” or even “hurry the narration along.” But I had trouble connecting to this story. In fact, I think it’s a prime example of how as Prose puts it: “The truly problematic question is: Who is listening?”
I tried to “listen” but I just didn’t get it. To use Prose’ words again, Jen “tossed this heartfelt confession out into the ozone” for all to experience but the tone simply wasn’t for everyone. It didn’t work for me.