World and Town
It is really tough to review Gish Jen’s World and Town. The novel is, on the one hand, drawn through an interesting narrative focalizer who often takes on the “wordspeak” of the characters that the narrator observes the representational terrain through. So when the narrative is concentrating on the Cambodian American teenager Sophy, we have the narrator constantly employing words such as like and whatever. Typical teenspeak, we might say. On the other hand, the novel has an exceedingly complex and varied topography in terms of its character webs, where Hattie Kong, one of the ostensible protagonists, is looking after a new family that has moved to the area, a small town in the New England area known as Riverlake (somewhat reminiscent of the continuing movement of ethnic minority populations to such towns as Lowell, MA).
This family (of surname Chhung) is ethnically Chinese, but they had resided in Cambodia and thus survived the genocide perpetuated by Pol Pot’s reign under the Khmer Rouge. Hattie, having more free time as a woman near retirement age, takes it upon herself to help the family out as they adjust to the relatively austere weather conditions in the area. The family is made up of the aforementioned teenager daughter, Sophy, who Hattie particularly finds interesting, hopes to make a deep connection with, and even offers to tutor Sophy in Chinese. There is also Sarun, who is also a teenager, and struggles to move beyond the gang life he lived before.
The family patriarch, Ratanak Chhung, seeks to carve out a new start for his family, with his wife, Mum, and the youngest member of their family, an infant boy named Gift. Sophy’s two sisters, Sopheap and Sophan, are both in foster homes, due to various instabilities prior to the Chhung’s move to Riverlake; some of their desires for a new start appear in the form of Sophy’s attempt to make amends for mistakes she perceived that broke the family apart.
Hattie’s own family life is complicated as she is a widower and dealing with fragments of a relationship with a former colleague and scientist, Carter Hatch, who in part, as Hattie perceives it, led to her dismissal from academia. Hattie’s adult son Josh is relatively aloof and is only seen in the backgrounds of the narrative as he navigates a relationship with a younger woman named Serena. The plot’s tension takes shape when Sophy begins to get involved heavily in church, where Christian indoctrination serves to cool her connection to Hattie, who finds organized religion both odious and unproductive. Sarun, too, fails to completely cut ties with his gang past.
Perhaps, because I have been teaching Virginia Woolf this fall, I couldn’t help but think of some similar resonances. There’s quite a bit of interior monologue and free indirect discourse that grounds World and Town, which can slow down and obfuscate the actual plot progression, but the interiorities we are given access to are quite unique and engaging on their own. In this way, like Jen’s The Love Wife, the novel seems far more interested in characterization than on actual linear plot progression.
There is also a sense of Erdrich, too, in Jen’s work to explore the importance of a regional location and its connections to racial minorities. With the richness and familiarity of a small New England town, Jen makes us aware of the importance of land and community, especially in the remarkable section devoted to Everett, one of the old stalwarts and touchstones of Riverlake. This novel requires a patient reader and World and Town cannot be consumed at a quick pace. It seems perfect for the upcoming winter season where we’ll want to swaddle ourselves in blankets and stay in bed on Saturday evenings.