Gish Jen’s “Detective Dog” is a miracle of both timely and enduring storytelling. In it, our present situation provides the tension that forces the characters to action. That tension is of a Chinese émigré family living in New York City in the era of COVID and anti-Asian bigotry. Their locked-in life brings a teenaged son’s rage to a boil, accusing them of not caring about protests in Hong Kong; he takes up and leaves them in disgust. Jen writes of his mother, Betty, our protagonist: “What is a mother but someone who cannot stop anyone?” That helplessness surfaces when their boy Robert asks for help with his homework: explaining a family mystery to a pet. The kind of Zoom homework so many parents have helped with. Robert calls himself Detective Dog. Quietly, lovingly, Betty answers his questions. And, in answering them, a moment in time is captured perfectly: the past that precedes it, the anxiety that shapes it, and the unknown future that undoes every effort to keep it safe.
Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022
And again, I’m faced with writing about a story that, although packed with interesting moments, I can’t fully grasp as a whole. That’s three out of six so far.
So let’s start with the basics, the things I’m sure of. Betty, the POV character, was born in Hong Kong but moved to New York with her husband and children just in time, thanks to the advice her mother gave her:
“No politics, just make money,” Betty’s mother, Tina, liked to say. And when it came to China: “See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. Do you hear me?”
“I hear nothing,” Betty had wanted to say something. Or, well, many times, really. But instead she’d said nothing and, as directed, made a lot of money. After all, she was the good daughter.
And that was how it was that when umbrellas took over Hong Kong she had a nice place in Vancouver. And that was how it was, too, that when racism took over Vancouver she could up and move to New York. It was convenient to be rich, you had to say. In New York, she didn’t even have to buy an apartment. She and her husband and the boys just moved into her sister’s old place, which they liked so much that they bought the apartment next door, and then the apartment on the other side, too. They figured they’d turn the extra kitchens into bathrooms.
We learn early on that Betty’s older sister Bobby had taken a different path, that of a dissident; a recent letter, sent through an uncle but destroyed to prevent its use as evidence, gives Betty the strong impression that Bobby has been arrested and very possibly executed.
Betty’s children are central to the story. Theo, at seventeen, shows signs of adolescent rage at the Chinese regime; he remembers people he knew in Hong Kong before the move, and considers his mother to be complicit in the anti-protester violence, watching on TV from her lilac leather couch in New York instead of being on the front lines. I often feel the same way, sans the lilac leather couch. I wonder why I’m not in the street protesting all that seems to be wrong, or at least something, one thing. By the same token, sometimes I’m surprised when I get off Twitter and notice people laughing and talking and enjoying lunch on the sidewalk outside the taqueria across the street, or walking by with bags and bundles, living lives unrelated to shootings and protests and the end of democracy in America. The irony that Theo is able to throw such tantrums safely because of his mother’s actions is lost on him. He buys a car with money he made gambling online, and takes off. Not forever, she hopes.
It’s interesting that the story doesn’t use this as a focal point, but more as background to the central drama of the story: a homework assignment the younger son, Robert, adopted as a baby in Hong Kong, needs Betty’s help with: solve a family mystery.
I’m always wary of stories featuring children. Too often they’re shown as victims, in a way that feels exploitive and manipulative to me. On the other hand, they can be overly precocious, bringing a little too much wisdom from the mouths of babes to be believable. The photograph TNY paired with the story didn’t help.
It does help that the story is set during the COVID lockdown (or what we called a lockdown; we never had a real lockdown, no matter how many times we call it that). This provides some ballast, material still very real to the readers. There’s a description of remote learning that might give some parents flashbacks. Robert himself has a blend of goofy childishness and precocity that saves him a bit:
Whether Theo would have been so riled up were it not for the ambulance sirens going and going was hard to say. It shook Betty up, too, that even nine-year-old Robert knew “ventilator” was spelled with an “or”; she was just glad he wasn’t sure how to spell “morgue.” Although, as imaginative and intense as he was, he was writing a story about dancing morgues for the mystery unit in his English class. It was a murder mystery, he told her, in his quiet, unnerving way. He was not like other boys at all. The last story he’d written was about mind reading hats that looked like regular fur hats but then stole your thoughts right through your scalp. How they did it was the mystery.
The morgue story is hilarious: when the morgues stop dancing they let all the people out and they’re alive again, complaining, “Hey, what happened to my phone?” It’s kind of the opposite of magical realism, where you’ve got realism with a single instance of magic; here you’ve got fantasy with a single touch of realism (would that be realistic fantasy?), because that’s exactly the first thing people brought back to life would say. I had to remind myself the story is the product of Jen’s mind, not an eight-year-old. I’d love to see a graphic version, a sort of dark humor companion to the pandemic. Some future day will be ripe for that sort of thing. But not yet; too soon.
But Bobby is also a kid who refers to getting a new dog as an “upgrade.” Makes perfect sense if you think about it. I asked Jake, to be sure (I rarely consult him before posting, but I was unusually at sea with this one so I needed to make sure I had some basic plot points right) that Bongbong, the original dog, was an actual dog and not Aibo, the robot dog companion from Sony.
It’s the homework assignment about the mystery that brings the story to its climax. Prompted by Robert, Betty tells him the story of her sister Bobby, and of the letter that was sent but not received, and what it could mean. In the last sentence of the story, literally the last word, she reveals a mystery I didn’t even realize was a mystery, which may be why I missed it so many times. The mystery to me is why I’d assumed it prior to that last word.
I find many parts of this interesting, mostly in what is underplayed. Theo’s departure. Betty’s husband, who is barely a character as much as a way to allow Betty to talk about her concerns. The means by which Betty, and/or her husband, made so much money.
But at heart, it’s a story of a family struggling with history and history-in-the-making, and again, a story about storytelling, and its role in creating the family’s history.
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