BASS 2022: Gish Jen, “Detective Dog” from TNY, 11/22/21

Photograph by Justin T. Wee for TNY
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.

*  *  *            

  • Gish Jen reads the story at WNYC.
  • Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic compares the story to last year’s “Love Letter” by George Saunders.

BASS 2013: Gish Jen, “The Third Dumpster” from Granta, Spring 2012

Granta Art by Robert Frank Hunter

Granta Art by Robert Frank Hunter

The origins of stories are always murky for me. No doubt my own parents were on my mind when I wrote “The Third Dumpster.” They never viewed assisted living as an option for a million reasons, starting with the food; and it’s true that I felt that the older they got, the more clearly you could see how difficult it was to have come to America – what an opportunity it was, but what a price they had to pay in terms of connection and community. How, though, did this feeling – a feeling that I’ve had for at least a decade – suddenly become story material? How did it suddenly become funny? Painfully funny, of course, but nonetheless funny. Liberatingly funny.
I don’t know for sure….But probably the story behind the story was that I myself had hit some tipping point in dealing with my own real aging parents, where I needed to “throw off the too heavy burden imposed… by life,” as Freud puts it, “and win the high yield of pleasure afforded by humor.” That’s to say I wrote this story because I myself needed to laugh and had somehow found a way to do that.

~~ Gish Jen, BASS Contributor Note

I’ve never faced Jen’s situation. My mother died when I was nine, my stepmother at a relatively young age, and only twelve days elapsed between the time my father realized he could no longer live on his own, and his death; ten of those days were spent in the hospital, eight in the ICU, three in near-coma. Had he been offered a choice on the first of those twelve days between living with one of his children – we were all theoretically willing, and he knew that – and the path to come (complete with two surgeries, five heart attacks, and a respirator), he would’ve eagerly chosen the latter. I’m sure of it. So I’ve never been in her shoes, nor in those of the Lee boys, the main characters of this story.

Maybe that’s why I had trouble seeing the overall humor Jen refers to; while I’m of course aware these situations exist, my experience is of a different parent-child dynamic, thus my story experience was different. The pain, however, came through loud and clear.

Not that I didn’t see any humor:

Morehouse, following them in his car so that he would have a car at the hospital, called Goodwin on his cell phone.
If they ask whether Dad needs a translator, tell them to fuck off, he said.
Does he need a translator? asked the admitting nurse.
He’s lived here for fifty years, answered Goodwin politely.
The nurse was at least a grown-up. The doctor looked like a paperboy.
Does he need a translator? he asked.
Fuck off, said Morehouse, walking in.

… but overall I was enraged at these two brothers, not so much for how they deal with their parents (I find that tragically understandable) as for their overall interaction with the ethics of everyday living.

I had trouble telling them apart at first, though the names are very different; I had to separate out passages later to discover that Goodwin has decent instincts but isn’t strong enough to live them, and Morehouse is just your garden-variety know-it-all seitan-eating hypocrite shedding unwanted responsibility like a duck sheds water. But they, too, have reasons for not living up to my standards of perfection. If there’s one thing literature teaches me, it’s to consider that those who trespass against us have travelled some road to become who they are, and we seldom know what that road is, or what it would have done to us had it been ours.

Goodwin and Morehouse, unemployed contractors, are fixing up a dilapidated house, one even the local “housing shark” had passed on, for their parents. Mom can’t climb stairs any more, assisted living is unthinkable, and this new house, horrible as it is, has a first-floor bedroom. And it’s practically free. They’re contractors, they can do this. Morehouse makes ethically dubious choices; Goodwin sputters but goes along, because, as Morehouse keeps reminding him, there is no choice. Except, of course, there is always a choice we make, and Goodwin finally gives voice to it.

You seem to think we have no choice, but we absolutely do have a choice, declared Goodwin then. We could, for example, take Mom and Dad into live with one of us.
For this was the hot truth; it seared him to say it.
Morehouse, though, gave him the look of a man whose wife brought home the bacon now. It was the look of a man who knew what would fly in his house, end of story.

As I said, I don’t always know the road someone’s travelled, so maybe I’d better keep judgment in check. The dumpster of the title is one of Morehouse’s unethical choices, but, like the situation it metaphorically refers to, it’s one I understand. That confrontation is uncomfortable, but we can only change what we face, and that’s where Morehouse falls short.

I’ve rather deliberately skirted around the issue of ethnicity, though it’s front and center in the story. I am curious about how the sons of such thoroughly Chinese parents ended up with such distinctively Western names, and I wonder if there’s something to think about there. But I chose to leave ethnicity, for the most part, out of this post, because I think it’s a universal story. And there’s this: I usually forget that that I, too, am the child of an immigrant. When the immigration is from Sweden, and the immigrant is more easily able to assimilate because he “looks American” and so he makes it his mission to leave his heritage behind and blend in and never draw attention to himself, never be “different,” there’s not much impact on the next generation. Right?

Maybe I didn’t leave ethnicity out after all.

I’m aware I haven’t talked much about the story itself. That’s because it took me places, places inside myself. Isn’t that the purpose of literature, anyway?