|The Resisters by Gish Jen.|
Published February 4, 2020.
This review contains spoilers.
Baseball and knitting are two subjects that do not interest me at all. Unfortunately the usually wonderful author Gish Jen chose them as a centerpiece of her newly-published book The Resisters
. Well, I made the best of it, and tried to enjoy the dystopian world Jen has invented. I managed to like her main characters despite how much time is spent describing their love of baseball and knitting. I even tried to be positive about baseball trivia. I did like many little jokes such as characters named Beetle Samsa and Joe March— and I was sure I missed many more of these jokes, especially the baseball ones.
What do we fear will happen to our world? You name a fear, it’s already happened in Jen’s dystopian world. The members of the family at the center of the novel belong to a despised class of people who no longer have jobs, but whose obligation is to eat industrial food from food trucks to keep the economy going. As a family they grow their own vegetables and avoid the probably poisonous food truck food — in fact they are active in protesting some of its worst excesses, and attempting to adjust to the many ways they are excluded from education, culture, and an all-around satisfying life. Their view:
“We would not eat the food purveyed by the ubiquitous mall trucks. Of course, the mall-truck food—NettieFood, as we called it—was free. In fact, we Surplus received Living Points for eating it, as we did for consuming generally: what with the efficiency boost of Aunt Nettie, the Netted overproduced wildly. But might those endless trays of dumplings and calzones and taquitos contain a mood-and-mind mute that amounted to a love sap—the ultimate aim of which was to reduce our numbers or, as we Surplus put it, to winnow us? Let’s just say that our household grew our own food, thank you, and that we shared it with our friends, who viewed it as lifesaving.” (Kindle locations 164 ff)
Another fear in our world, climate change, has already happened in The Resisters
. However, the characters have adapted to it, finding seeds that will grow in their small garden in the heat, protecting their skin from the sun, and figuring out how to deal with to constant gusts of wind, temperature changes, and huge storms at sea.
More fortunate than some of the other members of their disadvantaged class, the central family have a house to live in, as well as a garden. However, the house is constantly under surveillance by a semi-intelligent system that they call “Aunt Nettie.” Needless to say, she’s a greatly extended version of Siri or Alexa, and embodies all the worst potential that pundits are projecting right now. Aunt Nettie can read the characters' minds, sort of, but they complain about "how little an algorithm understands people." (Kindle Locations 3278-3279).
Many technology fears experienced by members of our society (now, in 2020) are fully realized by theirs, which seems to be around a century in the future. Everyone is constantly watched. Punishment for not going along with the authoritarian system can be small or can be extreme. The worst is semi-disguised euthanasia. Moreover, the ever-present household robots are part of the reason why the underclass members have no jobs: automation has taken over. They don't even have the satisfaction of making their own beds.
The privileges of the upper classes aren’t fully described, though they have rewarding jobs, better living conditions, and access to education. Nevertheless, they also seem to live with omnipresent computer control. In fact their work is designed to expand it. The main example of this extreme technology, beyond the surveillance and the terrible industrial food situation, is rampant medical experimentation including things like embedded chips and “enhancements” to one’s body and one’s mind, mostly involuntary or forced by manipulation of one’s will.
That’s pretty much the dystopian situation in the book. Gish Jen does a great job of bringing to life all the dysfunction that our own pathetic future might hold. She vividly creates examples of excessive totalitarianism, nationalism, classism, racism, capitalism for the sake of making money with no respect for human life, institutionalized protection of sexual predators, medical misdeeds, thuggish characters flaunting their guns, and above all the tyranny of computers gone amok.
In contrast, the courage of the main characters and their friends in finding secret meeting places where they can play baseball and creating a sense of community with pot-luck meals, a variety of deliciously described pies, and more, is impressive. Or as the Washington Post reviewer says: "At its heart, the novel is about the act of resistance and its attendant forces of courage and hope." (Review by Diana Abu-Jaber, February 17, 2020
Overall, Jen's dystopian world is only a kind of background to the plot, which is entirely about playing baseball. I read it tolerantly, but I couldn’t get excited about all the descriptions of how the central character learns to be the world’s greatest pitcher, and about the detailed presentation of the games she pitches, her admiration for other pitchers of the past: I did know the name Satchel Paige, but so what. It’s just not really my kind of book, which is sad because I really liked Gish Jen’s earlier novels.
Another great thing about the book's vision is how so many news articles reinforce its vision of a dystopian future in our computerized world. Somehow, for example, the following paragraph about the way that AirBnB has made people in Cuba unhappy reminded me of the way the characters in the book suffered as they tried to avoid being swamped by smart robots and surveillance devices —
"In 2018, when I reached out to Airbnb's customer support and tried to discuss these issues related to emotional labor, the answer I received was that these issues were actually caused by the lack of proper access to the internet; that access to the internet was increasing and Cuban hosts would have a better experience when interacting with guests. This response shows us exactly how Silicon Valley operates — it operates on techno-solutionism, in which the solution to people's problems is actually more technology, as if technology that people use were not embedded in a network with different power structures." -- From Salon.com: As Airbnb grows in Cuba, locals suffer the emotional burden of entitled tourists by David Nemer.
This review by mae sander copyright © 2020 for maefood dot blogspot dot com.