“Who’s Jewish?”: Some Asian-American Writers and the Jewish-American Literary Canon
A few years ago, I started writing about Jewishness. This turn in my work was not due to a quest for a lost, more authentic identity, nor was it a sign of a midlife religious conversion. And, given the prevailing winds in the American academy, it was hardly a canny career move. Indeed, it was barely a turn at all—more of a sidelight in what I thought of as the real project, a study of the interplay between middlebrow and academic cultures. But as I began that work, I also started thinking about how oddly obsessed so much of fin-de-siècle American writing is with the figure of the Jew, and how odder still that critics, many of them Jewish, glossed over that fact. I started to give talks on these phenomena and received surprisingly positive responses, responses, in fact, more positive than any garnered by the work I was supposed to be doing. And so, being no fool, I dropped the middlebrow and started writing about Jews (which turned out to be more or less the same thing.)
The result was a book, The Temple of Culture, and along with it a newfound respect for the ability of Jewishness to unsettle my received ideas about everything, including, I found, me. For I discovered myself in the weird position of having an identity for the first time, at least as far as the ’90s academy was concerned. Up until then, that is to say, I felt myself to be a fairly typical academic of the balding, bearded white-male variety. But I noticed gentile colleagues treating me with a slightly different attitude when I started to do this work, an attitude which one of them clarified one day as he was lamenting, in a fairly good-natured way, the problems his own sense of white privilege posed him in writing about matters of race. When I responded sympathetically, he looked at me and exclaimed “but . . . you’re Jewish!!” (I am still trying to figure out what this meant, but guess it must be something like, “you’re OK—authentic, ethnic, ‘real’—and, darn it, I’m still not.”) And I found myself in an even more complicated position with fellow Jews. Whenever I give a talk now, for example, I anticipate hostile questions not from gentiles but from my co-religionists (fellow ethnics?), some of whom attack my understanding of Jewishness as an endlessly complicated, and constitutively complicating, muddle from the Right (what about the Holocaust? Anti-Semitism? Israel?) or the Left (what about Jewish racism? Jewish whiteness? Israel?).
None of this should be surprising to anyone except this Candide-like critic. But it does pose the question of what might logically follow from my interests and positions. For like many critics of my generation—regrettably, given the importance of the subject, too many of them being Jewish—I found that invoking the example of Jewishness enabled me to ask better questions about the issues that stand in the center of our professional, cultural, and social lives. After a generation of simply remarkable work in a number of fields—that, for example, of Sander Gilman, Daniel Boyarin, Jonathan Boyarin, David Biale, Bryan Cheyette, Paul Gilroy—it is or at least ought to be indisputable that Jewishness is inseparable from the ways we think about such crucial issues as sex, gender, race, populations, nations, otherness, cosmopolitanism, Diaspora. The logical next step is to extend this rich discursive matrix to a consideration of contemporary America. For the issues of our moment—how to negotiate an identity for yourself in the midst of social and cultural pressures to define you; what it is like to be ethnic (whatever that means) in a culture that is obsessed with race; how to think about an identity in terms that transcend the lineaments of the nation in which you live; what the relative claims of religion, culture, and community of origin might prove to be in a relentlessly individualistic society—these and more would seem to have deep and even renewed complexity when they are brought into explicit context with the theoretical, historical, and cultural conundrums raised by Jewishness. Exploring these possibilities seems all the more crucial at the current time, at which our society comes to terms with the remarkable changes that the recent waves of immigration have wrought in the body politic and social imaginary alike.
But I see little realization of this potential. To be sure, some moves to engage with the larger discourses of racial and ethnic identity formation have enlarged the terrain of Jewish studies, including an interesting anthology entitled Jews and Multiculturalism and a trenchant study of the same issue, from the perspective of Jewish fiction, by Andrew Furman. And much work has emerged from what one might broadly term American cultural studies, largely focusing on the question of the Jew’s assimilation by means of whiteness. But each, while commendable, has displayed a conspicuous lack of attention to the possibilities raised by the discourses in and around Jewishness for deeper critical and cultural analysis of a multiracial, multiethnic, polyglot America—and, of equal importance, vice versa.
In what follows, I want to advance this process by suggesting that the experience of Jews has a unique, because dialectical, relation to this hybridized vision of the U.S., bearing in mind that this relation is one as marked by divergence as it is by concord. My examples will be drawn from one specific arena: From the response of first- and second-generation East and South Asian-American writers to the representational strategies and structures of Jewish-American writers of a previous generation. My suggestion will be that this literary relation is tangled and intense, crackling complicated cathexes and revisionary energy, for two reasons. The first has to do with the dynamics of literary succession—and, perhaps more cynically, the exigiencies of the publishing industry. These latter-day writers need to surmount the massively successful examples of Henry Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Grace Paley inter an abundance of alia in order to establish their own authority, all the more so in a culture which created in the 1950s and ’60s a box called “ethnic writers” on the basis of the Jewish example. “Perhaps not since the mainstream ‘discovered’ Jewish American fiction in the 1950s has such a concentrated, seemingly ‘new’ ethnic literary wave come our way,” wrote Publisher’s Weekly of Amy Tan, Gish Jen, Gus Lee, Frank Chin, and David Wong Louie’s “arrival” on the literary scene. The bizarre conflation of such disparate writers alone would be enough to make them fretful; all the more troubling, then, was the suggestion that this new “wave” of ethnic writers could be conflated with the previous one.
But a second, perhaps even greater reason for the intensity of this engagement is that many Asian-American writers wish to bring a different model of acculturation, with a different ethno-racial dynamic, to the fore. This pattern of response is far from universal in East and South Asian-American fiction, to be sure; I foreground it not to draw conclusions about the phenomenon of ethnic writing or to draw comparisons between the East or South Asian- and Jewish-American experience across the board. (Many accounts of East and South Asians as “the New Jews” circulate in popular culture; they are by and large overdetermined and, frequently, incoherent.) I do so because I want to suggest that thinking through this different model of acculturation/assimilation might just save contemporary Jewish-American culture from its own tendencies toward triumphalism and self-congratulation—and point to a future more fully engaged with that of the nation at large.
Beyond Seinfeld: Jewishness and Multiculturalism in the New Century
All is not well on the Jews-and-multiculturalism front, and it’s perhaps best to begin with the bad news, the revanchiste tendency of much of Jewish self-representation in both Jewish culture and the mass media. To be sure, given the long history of exile and persecution to which Jews have been subjected, given the overt and subtle prejudice they faced in America, and given the recrudescence of the most invidious forms of anti-Semitic slurs in Europe and the Middle East, the triumphant affirmation of Jewishness that Stephen J. Whitfield affectionately traces in his contribution to the first volume of this special issue of MQR, “Why America Has Not Felt Like Exile,” is something that one doesn’t wish to quarrel with—overmuch. Indeed, even more than Whitfield, I think we are living in a Golden Age of American Jewish social and cultural achievement, one marked by a remarkable success of Jews in the public sphere (Cabinet officers, presidents of the Ivy League universities that once tried to limit their admission); a revival, particularly among more youthful congregants, of traditional Jewish practices and beliefs; a flurry of self-identified Jewish cultural production in a number of media (literature, music, art). And this marks a revolution in Jewish self-conception in an America that has oscillated between benign ignorance of and lazy hostility to its Jewish citizens.
To restrict my argument to the cultural sphere alone, consider the difference between the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of 1949, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 2001, Michael Chabon’s The Astonishing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Miller is a New York-born Jew whose most famous work avoids locating its hero in any one ethnic location or identity. Willy Loman’s fate might be seen as a tragic version of the process Ruth Wisse has discerned in comic Jewish fiction of the 1950s in which the schlemiel, the Jewish loser, is redefined as an American everyman, a tragically deluded dreamer of the American dream. Indeed, Miller goes even farther than de-ethnicizing Loman. The play’s very form places him in an irrevocably Christian context: its closing scene is subtitled a “Requiem,” that is, a piece of explicitly Christian liturgy. Chabon’s novel (much of which takes place in the New York in which Miller grew up and lived while writing Salesman) is a fantastical extravaganza based on the Jewish origins of the creators of all-American comic books like Superman. It involves as well the entire sweep of Jewish history in the ’40s, from that taking place in the slums of Brooklyn to that of the Holocaust-shadowed streets of Prague, and references an entire ensemble of Jewish-inflected cultural texts, like the Golem myth, and experiences, like the novel’s trope of escape. To put it perhaps a bit too simplistically, in Miller’s moment a Jew had to be an Everyman; in Chabon’s, Everyman can be, and frequently is, a Jew.
And what’s true in what’s left of high culture in America is even more spectacularly true in popular culture, most notably, its most consummate expression, the television sitcom. As Jon Stratton (among others) has shown, when Jews made their way into mass consciousness in the 1950s via the new medium of situation comedy, their Jewishness was either exaggerated (The Goldbergs) or evaded (in the pilot of the Dick van Dyke Show, Carl Reiner played Rob Petrie but was replaced by Van Dyke at the insistence of a studio that deemed Reiner too ethnic). This situation is the precise opposite of that classic contemporary example of the form, Seinfeld, whose run of five years was exactly the same length as that of The Dick van Dyke Show. The show’s co-creators, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, are both Jewish; most of the stars of the show are Jewish; the milieu—the Upper West Side, Long Island, Florida—is deeply, one might even say quintessentially, Jewish; so too are its situations: neurotic, urban singles with crazy parents.
Indeed, Seinfeld, far more than even other ’90s shows that demonstrated ease with Jewishness (e.g., Friends, in which Monica and Ross Geller or their friend Rachel Green date and mate easily alongside Chandler Bing and Phoebe Buffay—and in which a WASP, Courtney Cox, plays a Jewess rather than, as is more typical, the other way around), pushes Jewishness to the point of ubiquity. The joke of Seinfeld is that with the exception of Jerry and Kramer, the rest of the characters are ethnically marked as non-Jewish even as they are placed in situations coded Jewish. Jerry’s best friend, George Costanza, is, despite his own last name, a recognizable Jewish character-type—the nebbish—and is linked to the stereotypically Jewish practice of masturbation when, in a scene that out-Roths Philip Roth, he is caught masturbating by his own mother. And he is conjoined to two other Jewish stereotypes (the miser, the exploiter of gentile women) when his cheapness causes the death of his WASP wife Susan by poisoned wedding invitation. His parents, played brilliantly by Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris, are recognizable steterotypes, too: quarrelsome, overbearing father, neurasthenic, doting mother. Jewish characters, on the other hand, are represented as being painfully at odds with the world of their fathers (and mothers). Jerry usually dates exogamously, with hilarious exceptions, like the time he is caught making out with a girl at a screening of Schindler’s List and barred from seeing her again by her horrified parents. Kramer, who would seem in appearance to be as Jewish as Jerry, is horrified by the quintessential, one might even say definitional, Jewish ritual of circumcision.
The effect of Seinfeld, then, is to render a world in which every other form of ethnicity has collapsed into Jewishness, in which Jewishness has become the baseline condition of contemporary, urban life—something that non-Jews aspire to and Jews rebel against. Or at least of white ethnic life. For the flip side of Seinfeld’s creation of an entirely Jewish white world is the evocation of a uniformly hostile one composed of Latino-, African-, Asian-, and Middle Eastern-Americans. And more: these ethnic others are all as stereotypical in their manifest Otherness, to the point of embarrassment: an Indian named Baboo whose immigration papers Elaine loses and who returns from deportation to testify against Jerry and crew; a Johnnie Cochran look-alike named Jackie Chiles; the entire Puerto Rican population of New York, whose Independence Day parade frustrates Kramer so much that he ends up inadvertently burning the Puerto Rican flag. In all of these cases, a white New York in which everyone is Jewish comes problematically face-to-face with a non-white world in which no one is—and whose sole purpose would seem to be to frustrate the efforts of Jerry and friends to get a good table at a restaurant, to make it across town, to date.
The show has been condemned for its racial and ethnic insensitivity, which I too would find offensive if it weren’t thoroughly misanthropic with respect to its own characters (self-defeating neurotics who end up, in the final episode, in jail) and particularly satirical of white desires to escape whiteness: Elaine, for example, dates a white man thinking he is black, only to find that he is dating her because he thinks she is a Latina; Jerry becomes obsessed with a woman named Donna Chang then finds out that she is a Long Island Jew formerly known as Changstein. But what I do find problematic here is what Seinfeld tells us about Jewish experience in the United States in the late ’90s: a sense of Jewish disconnect not only from the experience of African-Americans with whom Jewish popular culture has long been complexly and problematically intertwined, but also that of the “new immigrants” (as Gayatri Spivack calls them)—those who have come, largely from Asia and Latin America, since the revised immigration laws of 1965—whose experience chimes (at times harmonically, at times discordantly) with that of immigrant Eastern European Jews. It’s perhaps not too surprising, in the context of the closing-the-door-they-just-passed-through behavior of successive waves of immigrants to the United States, to see the children of generations afflicted by the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924—whose quotas limited possibilities of escape from the Holocaust—making light of the situation of a figure caught in the INS bureaucracy. But it’s sad nevertheless, and provides an ironic counterpoint to the triumphalism Seinfeld enacts.
Interestingly, and tellingly, this complex relation between Jews and newer modalities of immigrant experience has not been kept alive by contemporary Jewish writers like Nathan Englander or Allegra Goodman. Although their focus on traditional Jewish communities in contemporary America rejects the assimilation plot that has long been the focus of Jewish-American fiction, their work has the tendency to isolate Jews from the American ethno-racial hurly-burly in ways that are analogous to Seinfeld’s triumphalism. Rather, it is in contemporary writers of color—particular people whose family of origin are from East and South Asia—who have turned to thinking about the relation between Asian diasporas and the Jewish ones in ways that are provoking for both. To be sure, this very conflation is worrisome. It disguises the ways Jews and Asian-Americans are equally the victims of the model minority myth; discredits the tremendous diversity of each community, downplays their economic and social reticulation; and constructs oppressive identity strait jackets for both. But a remarkable degree of work gets done through the invocation and parsing of this relation—work which can locate the endeavor of this generation of Asian-American writers more precisely and, more relevantly for my concerns, can help overcome the more complacent sorts of Jewish self-conceptions that Seinfeld both hilariously critiques and problematically promotes.
The Discourse of Diaspora and (vs.) the Anxiety of Influence: Bharati Mukherjee
A fine example is provided by the Calcutta-born novelist Bharati Mukherjee, now Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, author of a number of novels about the trans-locational experience of exiled, hyphenated migrants in a world of loss, exile, political revolution, terrorism: in short, the world we have always lived in, and now, post-September 11, know we live in. Particularly in the early phases of her career, Mukherjee frequently defined herself in relation to Jewish-American writers. “The book I dream of updating,” she writes in the introduction to her first collection of stories, Darkness, “is no longer A Passage to India—it’s Call It Sleep.” Darkness is dedicated to Bernard Malamud (a teacher of her husband, the Canadian novelist Clark Blaise), and she consistently mentions Malamud as a prime influence on her early writing, the one who gave her her new, true subject, the lives of immigrants:
I see a strong influence between my writing and Bernard Malamud’s, in spite of the fact that he describes the lives of Eastern European Jews and I talk about the lives of newcomers from the Third World. Like Malamud, I write about a minority community which escapes the ghetto and adapts itself to the patterns of the dominant American culture. . . . Immersing myself in his work gave me the self-confidence to write about my own community.
Gestures of literary affiliation are, however, complicated, and Mukherjee’s are especially so: this is, after all, a woman who wants to displace first Forster, then, in her 1993 novel The Holder of the World, Hawthorne. So it should come as no surprise that Mukherjee invokes Malamud’s example in order to challenge it. In the same interview she is asked how her writing differs from his and responds: “When you are from the third world, when you have dark skin and religious beliefs, mainstream America responds to you in ways you can’t foresee. My fiction has to consider race, politics, religion, as well as certain nastinesses that older generations of white immigrant writers may not have had to take into account.”
Fair enough—and as we shall see, not only Mukherjee, but also Gish Jen uses the example of Jewish-American fiction to measure the ethno-racial and religious nastinesses that dark-skinned, non-Judeo-Christian immigrant communities face. But there’s another moment in this interview that suggests just how complex Mukherjee’s engagement with the Jewish-American tradition is. Mukherjee claims that the title story of her signature collection, The Middleman, developed as follows: “When I was working on [an uncompleted novel], a character with a minor role, a Jew who has relocated from Baghdad to Bombay to Brooklyn, took control and wrote his own story. He attracted me because he was a cynical person and a hustler, as many immigrant survivors have to be.”
As this language may suggest, Mukherjee’s character Alfie Judah is about as far away from Malamud’s protagonists—and, more important, those common to Jewish-American writing—as can be imagined. From Henry Roth’s David Schearle through Saul Bellow’s Herzog through Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, the archetypal Jewish-American narrative has been of the assimilation of a sensitive Ashkenazic man, tied to the world of his parents but struggling to find his place on the bustling, commercial American stage upon which he is too fine by nature to flourish. That Jewish man, moreover, is defined by a powerful sexuality but loaded with guilt for his expressions of it—largely because that guilt is incestuous, or miscegenating, or both, in nature. And, finally, that figure is frequently, if not triumphantly, victimized by those less morally scrupulous than he, a victimization which grants him a moral superiority even as it denies his practical efficacy. Alfie is the polar opposite of this figure of the Noble Schlemiel. He is Sephardic—Iraqi-born, and dark-complected (a fact which makes him acceptable to the Central American revolutionaries among whom he finds himself: at least he is not a gringo). And rather than assimilating, he is in flight from America by virtue of some shady deals which have landed him on the wrong side of the law. Alfie is deeply amoral, both in his business practices (“there’s just supply and demand running the universe,” he muses) and, perhaps more pointedly, in sexual ones as well: indeed, he is remarkably free of the sexual guilt that defines the Jewish-American quasi-hero. “I must confess my weakness. It’s women,” announces Alfie, and the story details his dangerous, and adulterous, lust for Maria, the consort of his American host, Clovis T. Ransome, and former mistress of the unnamed country’s President. Alfie’s amoralism crosses between his business and his bedroom practices, as does Maria’s. Indeed, she uses him to help her deliver some of the supplies to the guerillas, led by her lover Andreas (“I have no feeling for revolutions,” Alfie muses, “only for outfitting its participants.”) then rewards him with sex. Afterwards, Alfie listens to Maria detail the multiple violations of her life, responding with pragmatic comfort. The story ends with Maria killing Ransome in the midst of a guerilla intrusion, then briefly pointing a gun at Alfie before lighting out for the jungle with her lover; he realizes that only his intimacy with her—his compassionate response to her in bed—has saved his life. It closes with Alfie plotting his next move: “someone in the capital will be happy to know about [the guerilla attack]. There must be something worth trading in the troubles I have seen.”
A more un-Malamudian/Rothian/Bellovian Jew I cannot imagine. Indeed, Alfie is not just unlike, but the polar opposite of, the sensitive Ashkenazic Jewish man: he is the embodiment of the worst nightmares of the generation that produced that figure. After all, the specter haunting assimilating American Jews of this period was not only the Holocaust, but also the anti-Semitic projections of the Jew as the horny trader standing outside national and moral borders alike. Memorialized not only by anti-Semitic pamphlets of the 1890s but by the spirited endeavor of Henry Ford—whose Dearborn Independent editorials on Jews and Jewishness were collected in a widely-circulated tome called The International Jew in the 1920s—and high-art literature by the likes of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the concept of the hyper-phallic, dark-complected Asiatic or non-European Jew as morally corrupt and corrupting cosmopolitan, frequently associated with exotically corrupt (and hence covertly attractive) sexual practices, suffused Middle America and high-art modernism alike. If Alfie Judah seems like a literal embodiment of such a figure it is surely not because Mukherjee wants to revive the Ford- or Eliot-sponsored anti-Semitic notions of the Jewish man, but rather because she wants to invoke—if not make her own—all that the Great Tradition of Jewish-American fiction had to expel in order to make its successful march into respectability.
In this light, Mukherjee’s desire to “update” Call It Sleep takes on a new salience. She doesn’t so much bring its immigrant narrative into the contemporary scene as suggest, from a contemporary perspective, all the things that were missing from that narrative in the first place. I will have more to say about this effect and its implications in the conclusion to this essay; for now I want to suggest what Mukherjee gains from this transaction. For she gathers not only a revisionary purchase on the tradition she is “updating,” but a base upon which to build her own career. It’s no coincidence that she moves forward from The Middleman to conflate Maria and Alfie, in her most commercially successful novel, Jasmine. For in that novel’s morphing protagonist Jyoti/Jane/Jasmine, she constructs a Maria-like woman who kills her rapist, dumps her crippled husband, and lights out for the territory—California instead of the Central American jungle—who is also an Alfie-like survivor, looking for and finding something to leverage in the multiple troubles she has seen.
In Mukherjee’s 1980s work, I am suggesting, the discourse of diaspora manages what might be best described in Harold Bloom’s tropology as the anxiety of influence: it allows her both to place herself in a powerful tradition and to remake it. And, as Bloomparadigm would suggest, Mukherjee seems to have successfully internalized and then moved on from the tradition of Jewish-American immigrant writing she invoked early in her career; her most recent fictions, like Dutiful Daughters (2001), juxtapose Indian and American destinies in the trans-national, postmodern, globalized economy stretching from Silicon Valley to Bombay. But her path in the 1980s, it seems to me, has important salience for a new generation of Asian-American writers, not only South- but also East-Asian, not only immigrants, but also first- and second-generation Americans, many of whom engage themselves in rewriting the immigrant narrative in ways that deal with Jewishness with the same revisionary energy that Mukherjee so fiercely displays.
“The New Jews” in the Promising Land: Gish Jen
The classic example of this tendency is the work of Scarsdale-born, Harvard-educated Gish Jen. Jen often speaks of the mixed generic and experiential relation between Jewish-American fiction and her own. Sometimes this expresses itself as a kind of a benign inspiration: “The biggest influence on my work has come from Jewish-American writers. . . . It’s partly Scarsdale and partly the sympathy I see between the Jewish and Chinese cultures.” Sometimes, on the other hand, her attitude seems to be touched with irritation: “What we [Asian-American writers] don’t want is to be lumped together, ghettoized. I hope that twenty-five years from now, we’ll achieve the kind of standing that Jewish American writers have—that is, we’ll just be judged as writers.” Throughout, there is a sense that both as a writer and as an ethnic writer—especially one who has parsed the interconnection between Chinese-American and Jewish-American identities in Mona in the Promised Land—the relevant judges of her work for better or worse are Jews: “I was very happy when Cynthia Ozick reviewed [Mona in the Promised Land] and presented, really, a banner take. I was thrilled just to have attracted the notice of a writer whom I admire as much as I admire Cynthia Ozick. But in addition I was thrilled to have passed muster with her.”
This mélange of conflicting affects—admiration, resentment, competitiveness—structures Jen’s fictional response to her Jewish-American predecessors as well. Her first novel, Typical American, as Rachel Lee has nicely noted, draws “upon a hodgepodge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary references; [her protagonist] Ralph Chang emulates Benjamin Franklin, believes in Emersonian Romantic individualism, encounters a Melvillian confidence man, and lives a rags-to-riches life made familiar by Horatio Alger.” But on the structural level, it seems most deeply engaged with fictions like Saul Bellow’s, particularly that of the classic phase of the 1950s and early 1960s (the period Typical American describes; the period in which Gish Jen grew up in Scarsdale). The plot of Typical American is familiar from Bellow’s great picaresque fiction The Adventures of Augie March (1956). A callow, relentlessly optimistic outsider on the fringes of American society undergoes a number of comic misadventures on the way to becoming a fully credentialed—a typical—American. In Jen’s novel, as in Bellow’s, these adventures turn on the protagonist’s encounter with a number of ambiguous, and at times outright hostile, mentors. In Bellow’s early work, these are as likely to be women as men; in Jen’s (as in Bellow’s later work) they are almost always older and male. The first in Typical American is, significantly, a thoroughly assimilated Jew: his aristocratic, cane-carrying, mansion-inhabiting thesis advisor, Pinkus, who having heard an erroneous rumor about his student, transforms poor Ralph into a walking embodiment of the Yellow Peril, even to the degree of accusing him of stalking Pinkus’s daughter. (The irony here, of course, is multiplied by the fact that precisely this language and these allegations—that they lusted after “white” gentile women—were made against Jews as well as Asians as late as the 1930s.) But, tellingly, Pinkus is less important for Ralph’s fate than two Chinese-American men: Old Chao, a slightly senior colleague, and, even more important, Grover Ding, a rascally entrepreneur. Both, in some sense, cuckold Ralph as they help advance his career. Old Chao, although married, is in love with Ralph’s beloved sister Teresa. He uses her concern for her hapless brother to seduce her: feeding her information that helps him earn tenure as he advances, inexorably, toward a sexual relation with her. Cuckoldry is more explicit still in the relation between Grover and Ralph. Grover is a classic self-made entrepreneur cum petty crook who fills Ralph’s head with Dale Carnegie-like nonsense, enmeshes him in criminal schemes, and even sells him a building for his restaurant that is quite literally falling apart—all in the hopes of seducing Ralph’s beautiful, sensible wife Helen, as Grover ultimately does.
Even more than her plots, then, Jen’s dramatis personae fit into the pattern of Jewish-American writing, most specifically that perfected by Bellow not only in Augie March but also Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift: the schlemiel, his head in the clouds, encounters a number of near-criminal rascals who teach him valuable lessons about life in America even as they bamboozle him. Bellow’s term for these figures is “reality instructors, [those who] want to teach you—to punish you with—the lessons of the Real,” and in Bellow’s case, as in Jen’s, these figures frequently cuckold the protagonist not only as an act of sexual domination, but as part of the latter’s reversal of the Horatio Alger story (“how I rose from humble origins to complete disaster,” is Herzog’s description of his own life, one which more or less applies to Ralph’s as well). In Bellow’s case, this narrative turns quite rapidly to the comic in the deepest sense of the term. Augie concludes the story of his life with a deep, affirmative laugh of the animal ridens; Herzog ends, purged of anger and hate, in his house in upstate New York, there to revive his life beyond the neurotic if brilliant kvetching in which he has been indulging for most of the novel. Ralph Chang, too, is by and large a comic character, one whose own bumblings are orchestrated by his seeming friend, Grover, and part of the fun of the novel is to witness his sublime cluelessness as Grover leads him to one harebrained scheme after another while his wife and sister attempt, loyally, to clean up after him. And, near the end of the novel, Ralph snaps, as does Herzog (who stalks his ex-wife and her lover with a gun). Ralph drives off with his wife, threatening her until she confesses her relation to Grover. Returning to the house, Ralph attempts to run down the dog he has named after Grover but hits his beloved sister Teresa instead.
Jen claims in an interview that this swerve from the comic high spirits of the rest of the novel to its sober conclusion (Teresa remains in a coma for much of the novel’s final chapters) has much to do with the miscarriage she suffered while writing it. But it seems to me also a willful swerve (in Bloomian terms, a clinamen) from the kinds of ideological structures that Bellow’s text exemplifies. For in Bellow’s novel, the ultimate service of the reality instructors is to return Herzog to his roots, restore him to his family. After he is arrested and his gun—significantly, his father’s weapon—confiscated, Herzog calls his estranged brother to bail him out, reestablishing a relation that he had severed long before. In Typical American, the situation is precisely reversed. Ralph’s murderous rage at his wife and Grover leads him to eliminate neither of these two tormentors, but rather his own sister who has in typical immigrant style been living too closely with the family for anyone’s comfort.
Swallowing up the Jewish-American example, in other words, Jen proposes a tragic variation on it: she uses the comic plot of transcendent schlemielhood to tell a profoundly different kind of story, one at once more sinister and more troubling than the one that Bellow has to narrate. Ties to the traditional family have to be severed, however violently; the “reality instructors” pass over the edge into outright criminality and threaten to bring the assimilating outsider with them; the bumbling protagonist actually does harm. Jen’s lesson would seem to have as much to do with the inadequacy of the Jewish immigrant narrative to her Chinese-American protagonists. That narrative, however ironically represented (as it surely is in Bellow’s hands), has become just one more fallible American construction, like Emerson’s or Melville’s or Dale Carnegie’s, that exists as a bane and a lure the Changs must overcome—as, one senses, must Jen.
A completely different take on this issue is suggested in Jen’s next book, Mona in the Promised Land, which offers a delightfully comic series of riffs on the Asians-as-the-New-Jews topos (Jen invokes it directly on the first page of the novel). But here, Jen’s thematic interest is in complicating the idea of ethnicity tout court. When Mona Chang converts to Judaism, that act puts into stark relief not only the complexity of Jewishness but also, as her rabbi suggests to her, her own Chinese-ness. “The more Jewish you are, the more Chinese you will become,” says the hip if not hippie Rabbi Horowitz, by which he means many things: that she will come to recognize her own ethnic identity by affiliating with that of others; that she will discover her own difference from Jews by affirming religious solidarity with Jews; that being Jewish means being something—anything at all—in a culture which enthusiastically deracinates its participants. As Mona says, fliply, at one point: “In America, you can choose to be whomever you want, and I choose to be Jewish.”
But it turns out to be not quite so simple—and the complexity rapidly extends to what it is to be Chinese-American. For these questions of voluntary vs. involuntary identity (consent vs. descent, in Werner Sollors’s typology) become yet more complicated when race is factored into the ethnic mix. Bearing out the truth of Rabbi Horowitz’s words, Mona confronts her own sense of inhabiting a racialized body when she begins to think about her nose, skin color, and breasts as ethnic markers as her Jewish friends discuss their own nose jobs, or when the customers at her family’s pancake house chant, “Grow your nose! Grow your nose!” after she announces that she is now Jewish. And, similarly, her increasingly Chinese-identified sister’s Harvard roommate, an African-American woman named Miranda, identifies Mona as a person of color—”yellow,” not white—an identification Mona first accepts, then balks at, then edges away from. But other, angrier African-Americans like Alfred, the cook in the pancake house, identify Mona as white, much to Mona’s chagrin. While Alfred may be wrong in the sense of skin color, he is clearly onto something when he starts to twit Mona for being from a family that keeps a black gardener and relegates all the African-Americans in their restaurant to the kitchen.
Mona’s conversion to Judaism leads to a failed or unsuccessful translation into Jewishness, and the force of the ironies that both generate is useful to Jen in the ways it brings, simultaneously, all forms of racial and ethnic identity-formation to the fore, there to play uncertainly against each other. To answer the question with which Jen begins the novel—are Chinese-Americans the New Jews?—they are not, except insofar as they, like the Jews, are struggling to reconcile divergent predications of identity (religion, culture, skin-color, physiognomical accouterments like noses) in a culture intent on classifying them according to simple, if not simplistic dichotomies. Near the end of the novel, Mona says to Seth/Sherman that she’s having trouble figuring out what it is to be “not wasp, and not black, and not as Jewish as Jewish can be; and not from Chinatown, either.” Seth/Sherman responds in classic American terms, telling Mona that she’s best defined as an individual (“a sore thumb . . . sticking out by yourself”), but the point remains as true in relation to ethnic identity as it does in relation to individual identity: Chinese-Americans like Mona fit into none of the available boxes our culture has created; neither white nor black nor “jewish as Jewish can be,” and not even, for that matter, Chinese-American, at least in the terms in which the cultural imaginary creates Chinese-ness. But this is not to say that she isn’t Chinese-American in some compelling and important way; it is to suggest, rather, that that Chinese-Americanness is defined only in differential terms, in relation to all these other, equally factitious, identity boxes.
In order to communicate this insight, Jen turns to a different representational structure than the one she used in Typical American: to Shakespearean comedy, with its rapid-fire transformations of costume, identities, and affiliations. What Shakespeare does with and to gender, it might be said, Mona does to ethnicity—a nexus made clearest in Seth’s successful wooing of Mona in the guise of Sherman, a feat worthy of one of Shakespeare’s trickster heroes. What this would seem to represent is a move similar to the one that Mukherjee makes, through Jewish-American fiction and beyond it, to other representational forms and agendas. One would therefore predict, as with Mukherjee’s work, that Jen’s work would move beyond the narrative that this form engages with—the assimilation/acculturation narrative—to ones that stress hybridity, free-floating recombinant diasporism. And this indeed is where it seems to be headed: her most recent collection, Who’s Irish?, as its title indicates, seek to interrogate the relation between Chinese-American and other, non-Jewish ethnic identities. But the connection with Jewishness, I want to conclude this section by suggesting, endures here in a different guise—in that of form, which, like Mona, raises questions of ethnic identification on the terrain of race but in a deeper, more troubled guise.
I am thinking here of her acclaimed story “Birthmates,” first published in 1995 and included not only in the Best American Short Stories volume for that year, but in the Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999). Jen’s protagonist is Art Woo, a fifty-one-year-old traveling salesman for a company in an unnamed “dinosaur” industry. Ambitious but frustrated, facing racist taunts by his boss (who blames the “Japs” for everything wrong in the industry but then consoles Art by telling him he knows he’s a “Chink”), worrying obsessively about a white colleague, Billy Shore (who shares his birthday but seems to be doing better at the firm than he), mourning the loss of his girlfriend and of the fetus they aborted, Art is mistakenly booked into a welfare hotel next to a convention he is working. Entering the hotel, he is first greeted by an enormous black man at the desk, then mugged by a crowd of children as he goes up to his room. He wakes up while being tended by an African-American woman, a nurse turned heroin addict named Cindy, who keeps him safe from the crowd outside. After feeling a pang of desire for her, he returns to his work, only to find that his birthmate/competitor has moved on to a more promising job in California. His sense of loss and his confrontation with his own mortality combine at the end of the story, where he too contemplates a move West, and, seemingly for the first time, expresses his sense of loss for both his lover and their almost-child, aborted, we now learn, because it would not have been viable outside the womb.
There are no explicit references to Jews, Jewishness, or the canon of Jewish literature in the story, but in many ways this is the one work of Jen’s that engages most intensely, and with the greatest degree of contestable energy, with that tradition—and in such a way, I think, as to make us read it differently, just as Mukherjee does. The tale of the failing salesman who is being passed over by the Home Office, for example, inevitably recalls Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a text rich in family dynamics that resonate, ironically, against the context of Art’s family-lessness. Even richer effects are created by the story’s echoes of Grace Paley’s The Long Distance Runner. In that story, Grace’s pseudonymous protagonist Faith goes for a run in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up and returns to the apartment house in which her family lived. There, she is at first an object of curiosity, then an object of anger and potential mob violence until she is rescued by the woman who occupies her former apartment, Mrs. Luddy, who hides her under the bed until the crowd disappears. She stays with the family for many weeks, until finally she returns to her own grown children who have barely noticed her long disappearance.
The echoings of Paley’s story in Jen’s are subtle but unmistakeable: the plot arc is the same, the incidents chime with each other. But the effect of those echoings, as it is in the explicit invocation of the black/white divide in Mona, is to suggest how complex the position of Asian-Americanness is on the American terrain of race. The point of The Long Distance Runner is to emphasize the curious admixture of intimacy and distance that exists, between Jewish characters and those African-Americans who now occupy their former terrain. When an Art Woo enters a welfare hotel—already a significantly different space from an apartment—he is treated, like Faith, as if he were white by the hostile African-American inhabitants, even though at work he is treated as if he were not by his complacently racist bosses. And when he encounters Cindy, these shifting definitions collide:
“This ain’t no place for a nice boy like you,” [she says]. That stung a bit, being called boy. But more than the stinging, he felt something else. “What about you? This is no place for you, either, you and your kids.”
“Maybe so,” she said. “But that’s how the Almighty planned it, right? You folk rise up while we set and watch.” She said this with so little rancor, with something so like intimacy, that it seemed an invitation of sorts.
Complex as the moment may be in terms of defining the shifting racial identification of Asian-Americans vis-à-vis African-Americans (a dynamic which resembles in many ways the half-racialization of Jews in the first decades of this century), it gains further intensity through Jen’s echoes of Paley’s story. As with Faith and Mrs. Luddy, a kind of intimacy seems to be established between Art and Cindy; and as with Faith, Art moves out to some kind of reconnection with his own would-be family, even if that family consists of his ex-girlfriend, whom he thinks at the end of the story to call and invite to move with him to California. And as with Faith, this act would seem to happen through his encounter not just with an African-American, but with the complex historical and ontological facts of black experience itself. But the point of the echoings in the story, it seems to me, is to measure the difference between Art’s and Faith’s experience: the one defining the long distance that Jewish-Americans have run from their past, the other suggesting that, just as Art has not yet come to terms with his own personal trauma, he has not yet come to terms with historical ones as well. At the end of the story, his rivalry with his jocular birthmate Billy Shore, and the inability to imagine a new life for himself symbolized not only by his dead child but also by his failure to mourn for that child continue to press on Art, even if he seeks to solve the problem by moving to California. Faith can return from her ghetto experience to her family. Gish Jen measures Art’s greater alienation by having him (like Mukherjee’s Jasmine) light out for the territory, assimilating to Americanness only in his desire to flee from the site of personal and historical humiliation, loss, and pain.
Mukherjee and Jen, then, reference Jewish-American writing and respond to it in ways that, I have been suggesting throughout and may now explicitly say, comport to Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence model, and these, I want further to contend, are productive for cultural as well as literary analysis. That is, their struggle (the term is Bloom’s, and the suggestion is that it is inevitable, not contingent) for creative authority involves them in a match with powerful precursors whose example they play with, transform, and ultimately transcend, in two different ways: in Mukherjee’s case, toward a discourse that stresses diaspora rather than assimilation; in Jen’s toward an interrogation of the up-for-grabs racial identity of the Asian-American in a field of definition hitherto inhabited by narratives associated with Jews and African-Americans.
The point of invoking Bloom here, however, is ultimately in the service of something Bloom resists: that is, in contributing to the sociology of literary influence, of the study of engagements these writers perform as well as the kinds of literary interventions they wish to make. There’s much more to be said about this development in Asian-American fiction and criticism. But of more importance, I think, is what the revisionary example of writers like Mukherjee and Jen can do for Jewish-Americans’ understanding of their own cultural situation at the current moment. One of the effects of the resolution of the anxiety-of-influence scenario, Bloom suggests, is that organized by the trope of metalepsis, the trope of reversal of cause and effect—one in which the belated poet switches places with the precursor, in which we hear the echoes of a successor in his predecessors: Wordsworth in Milton, or Keats in Shakespeare. Something similar happens when we rethink the Jewish-American precursor texts—and the cultural arrangements their narratives shaped—in the light of the revisionary narratives I’ve been describing here. When Alfie Judah gets layered against David Schearle or even Alexander Portnoy, all that got repressed in assimilating Jewish fiction and in Jewish culture—the image of the “black” or Levantine Jew, the association of the figure of the Jew with sexual license and financial chicanery—comes flooding back into our accounting of that fiction, exerting a presence and a pressure on it by its very absence. Similarly, when Mona Chang affirms her racial identity as a Chinese woman in the presence of Jewish women discussing their nose jobs, the effect ought not only to make us think about Asian-American difference and the costs it exerts, but also that confronted by Jewish women whose bodies—and psyches—bear the scars of assimilation.
All these and more—violence, the multilayered and problematic racialization, a persistent and even structural anti-Semitism in the cultural imaginary that caused even the most cutting-edge Jewish fiction to repress its most problematic avatars—are elements of the Jewish-American experience that its rise to social respectability has caused it to ignore, marginalize, silence, or forget, and that the fictions I have foregrounded have forced it to remember. As America slides toward recognizing its multiracial, multicultural future, the recognition of the salience of those elements of the Jewish-American experience might help lower the barriers to an honest dialogue between Jewishness and the larger culture that seems to be erected on all sides at precisely the moment when they are least needed. And it might do something more: it might return Jewish-Americans to that state of structural alienation in which they can find, I hope, a proper sense of community with a culture struggling to encompass the alienness of its own increasingly multiple populations. Even if America has not for most Jews felt like exile, even if America has palpably not been for most Jews a place of exile, the salience of these narratives to American Jews at the moment may be to remind us of how complicated a relation we have—and ought to maintain—to the idea of home.