Gish Jen

A Review of Gish Jen’s “Thank You, Mr. Nixon”

A Memorable Book

“Thank You, Mr. Nixon” Book Cover
“Thank You, Mr. Nixon” Book Cover

I’ve read only one other book by Chinese American author Gish Jen (which is a pen name; her real name is Lillian Jen), and it was about 10 years ago that I read it: the novel World and Town. However, the book was memorable enough that I recall that there’s a discussion about the benefits of eating brown rice, not white rice if you’re diabetic. That might sound like a flippant comment or a wild thing to remember, but I mean it with respect. After all, if I remember anything about a book after reading it 10 years ago — I sometimes have trouble recalling the book I read last week (because I read a lot) — saying that I remembered something about World and Town is bound to be a compliment, backhanded or not. Well, Jen’s latest book, Thank You, Mr. Nixon, is bound to be, perhaps, even more of a memorable read for me — it’s that good. Being a book about relations between the U.S. and China, the publisher also wants you to remember this collection of 11 interlinked short stories, too, by releasing it on the eve of the 50th anniversary of former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening-up of diplomatic relations with China. It also comes not long before the Winter Olympics are set to open in Beijing, as well. Clearly, this is a book that the Knopf Publishing Group wants you to be talking about, which is why it is coming out now.

Thank You, Mr. Nixon is a collection of tales spanning 50 years (in chronological order), taking readers from Nixon’s visit to China all the way up to COVID. The stories are linked in that minor characters in one story will show up again as major characters in another, and the inverse is true as well. This is a story collection that rewards the reader for having a good memory because a fair number of characters are introduced: you’ll meet a four-year-old girl in one story, and then she’s all grown up in another. This tactic helps the book sidestep the problem with most collections — that there are always stronger pieces and that there are always weaker pieces. While that holds true for Thank You, Mr. Nixon, the weaker pieces in the batch are still valued because they’re part of telling a much larger story on a broader canvass. In other words, they need to be there — which is a genius move on Jen’s part. The story that everyone will be talking about, likely, is the first piece, the titular tale of a young, bubbly girl who lives in heaven who writes a letter to Nixon, who is in the bottom-most pit of hell. My favourite, though, just might be the second piece in the collection, “It’s the Great Wall!” That story is about a tourist trip that a Chinese American family takes with other Americans to China once diplomatic relations between the U.S. and that country finally thaw. It’s a funny tale about stereotypes, and it is an absolute pleasure to read.

Thank You, Mr. Nixon is about a lot of things, but it really boils down to a few themes: how the Chinese view Americans (and vice versa), how the Chinese view Chinese Americans (and vice versa), and how non-Chinese Americans (including people of colour) view Chinese Americans (and vice versa). As it turns out, these views haven’t really changed all that much over the past 50 years, even though cultural ignorance isn’t, perhaps, as much of a problem as it used to be — though prejudice still is. As a result of these themes being interwoven throughout these 11 stories, the threads form a rich tableau, turning this collection into something of a masterpiece. It is said about masterpieces that they teach you how to read them, and Thank You, Mr. Nixon is no different in this regard. You’ll wind up piecing together the characters and different viewpoints as the stories progress from the 1970s to the present day. It’s a fascinating ride through culture that Jen takes you on. Not one stone or idea is left unturned.

If there’s a fault with Thank You, Mr. Nixon — it might be voiced by audiences who are not Chinese or are non-American. This book presupposes a lot of things as a reader: that you know something about Chinese history since the end of the Second World War and know something about China-American relations — business, political, and personal — in the timespan covered here (roughly 1972 to 2022). If you’re an outsider to all of this (I’m a Canadian writer), you might be sometimes lost in the weeds a bit as Jen doesn’t really stop too much to give explanations for why things are the way they are. In fact, the book glosses over things such as SARS, Tiananmen Square, and the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese by moving these events into the far background. This is more a novel about personal relations against a political or business backdrop. Thus, if you’re looking for a history lesson, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

Still, there’s more than enough to recommend with Thank You, Mr. Nixon. Despite being serious in nature topic-wise, Jen has a playful tone and doesn’t let things get too intense. In fact, she unearths the absurdities in terms of how both the Chinese and Americans view each other. In the end, I think Jen is saying that we’re all pretty much the same when it comes right down to it. However, there are nuances to this view in the collection, so these stories have been carefully thought out. It’s a real joy to put together the puzzle pieces of these stories together and see how they interlock and combine in delightful ways. This is a fan book, as much as it is a literary one. Put another way, Thank You, Mr. Nixon is an unforgettable read. It may be some time before I forget the events described between its covers, and I hope to remember as much as I can about this book 10 years from now — and for better reasons than a discussion about the colour of rice. It is a mesmerizing book, and it comes highly recommended.

Gish Jen’s Thank You, Mr. Nixon will be published by Knopf Publishing Group on February 1, 2022.

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Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.