“No More Maybe”
by Gish Jen
from the March 19, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Though I’ve never read anything by Gish Jen, I’ve read her name for years. Not the same thing, I know! Her short fiction has been in a number of “story of the year” anthologies, and she’s been a finalist for awards I follow. In the first years of the new millennium, she was touted as a refreshing heir to the old guard in American fiction. I feel like it’s been several years since I’ve heard anything about her, though, so I wonder if that’s just me or if her critics are not out there promoting her work like they used to. It could also be that for the last five or six years her work has been mainly nonfiction.

With “No More Maybe,” though, she is back to fiction. Here is how it begins:

Since my mother-in-law came to visit America she is quite busy. First, she has to eat many blueberries. Because in China they are expensive! While here they are comparatively cheap. Then she has to breathe the clean air. My husband, Wuji, and I have lived here for five years, so we are used to the air. But my mother-in-law has to take many fast walks. Breathing, breathing. Trying to clean out her lungs, she says, trying to get all the healthy oxygen inside her. She also has to look at the sky.

Never having read Jen before, I’m not sure if this style is particular to this piece or if she frequently employs these short, bursting sentences. I’ll be anxious to see how it plays out through the story and how you all like it.

Incidentally, a fun fact I learned while looking into Jen this morning. She is a second generation Chinese American, born in Long Island, and I assumed “Gish” was a name from her cultural heritage. But no! Her birth name is Lilian. Gish is a nickname she got in high school, after, for a reason I could not find, the great actress Lilian Gish.

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By | 2018-03-12T13:24:46+00:00 March 12th, 2018|Categories: Gish Jen, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Dan Friedman March 12, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    Trevor wrote: “Never having read Jen before, I’m not sure if this style is particular to this piece or if she frequently employs these short, bursting sentences.”

    Trevor, I’ve read several if Jen’s novels as well as her recent The Girl at the Baggage Claim, which is non-fiction. I suspect that the “short, bursting sentences” represent Jen’s attempt at voicing the narrative style of a relatively recent English-learner. Both in her fiction and in person, Jen can be very, very funny. I remember her earliest novels—Typical American (1991) and Mona in the Promised Land (1996)—as very humorous. Her The Love Wife (2004) I recall as very poignant. I’m looking forward to reading “No more maybe.”

  2. Eric March 13, 2018 at 2:46 am

    My first acquaintance with the work of Gish Jen, I found this to be a fine, pleasant, middlebrow piece about (among other things) cultural assimilation and aging. The author’s obvious affection for her characters, and the insights she offers to me felt real and earned, though not what many would consider brilliant. As for the staccato sentences in the first paragraph, my guess is they were designed to reflect not only the family’s shortcomings in English (Jen says that the story came to her in “Chinglish”), but also the mother-in-law’s restless, extroverted nature–Jen seems to be one of those writers who likes to trick up her prose style as a means for conveying the personality of her characters, and does it reasonably well. Dan’s observation that some of her prior work was humorous and some poignant is interesting, since my favorite thing about the story was how it segued from humorous to poignant. Good stuff.

  3. Roger March 13, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    This story held my interest until the two final paragraphs, which go way overboard into sobbingly sentimental territory. Of course the father-in-law’s worsening dementia is sad, and the story was doing just fine in depicting that till the ending, where we get his melodramatic statement about how one day the narrator’s child will have to manage her. In case the reader still isn’t moved, this is followed by the narrator telling us she proceeded to cry. Worthy of a soap opera.

  4. David March 15, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    Canadian playwright Ins Choi wrote a play called Kim’s Convenience about a husband and wife who own a convenience store in Toronto. The Kims came to Canada from North Korea and have two adult children. There is a lot of humour in the play, but there is a serious side to the story as well. The play has been adapted as a TV series, now entering its third season. In both the play and an early episode of the series, there is a scene where the father tries to explain to his college-age daughter how he can tell by profiling customers who will shoplift (or, as he puts it, “steal or no steal?”) it is all based on racist and other stereotypes and gets very quickly so absurd it is quite funny. I saw the play first and watch the TV show and they are both very good. I was reminded of the Kim family as I read this story.
    .
    I don’t think, for the most part, “No More Maybe” compares favourably. It’s ok, but it mostly seems to just plod along. But the part where I thought it got a lot more interesting was when Jeff comes to the door. There is so much going on in this scene and it is an intricate blend of a number of things. First, you have the prior mentioned worry about how absurdly litigious Americans are, making Jeff’s simple desire to just say “thank-you” suddenly complicated and a predicament to get out of. Then there is the lovely situation where the father-in-law really is being racist, but in a completely different way than Jeff thinks. The idea of trying to clear up that confusion and whether it could possibly help rather than hurt the situation is a funny bit of irony. Mistakes, misunderstandings, suspicions, and worry all collide in a remarkable way. That part of the story was very well done.

  5. Eric March 16, 2018 at 3:07 am

    Well, one person’s moving poignancy is another’s gushing sentimentality, I suppose; I have always had trouble pinning down the difference between the two. As best as I can tell, if the author makes you feel all gishy inside, then that’s poignancy, while if she strains to do that but falls short, then that’s sentimentality.

  6. Eric March 16, 2018 at 3:11 am

    “… it is all based on racist and other stereotypes and gets very quickly so absurd it is quite funny. ”

    Could you get away with this on American TV, or even in the pages of the New Yorker? I have the vague impression that this would unleash quite a storm in this country, at least if it was played for laughs.

  7. David March 16, 2018 at 9:31 am

    Eric, to be honest I did not see what was supposed to be so gushingly sentimental, nor do I think there is a moving poignancy in the story. It is also worth remembering that people sometimes use the phrase “overly sentimental”, which suggests there is a level at which something can be called “sentimental” but it not be problematic. Your distinction sounds to me more like the one between being sentimental and being overly sentimental. Poignancy might be more about conveying sadness but without being particularly manipulative about it. Bad sentimentality is usually manipulative, if by no more than presenting us with a stock example of a very sad situation.
    .
    As for whether you could show a racist scene on American TV, it is worth noting that while many scenes from the first couple of episodes of the TV version of Kim’s Convenience are not only based on scenes from the play, but taken almost verbatim, they did modify the “steal or no steal?” scene to make it a little less racist than the play version. I think the worry was that if the TV audience thinks Mr. Kim is too racist in traditional ways (rather than in odd and silly ways) he might not be likable enough to sustain a TV audience. As for American TV, I have no doubt you could do it on a cable show. But even a show like the recent The Carmichael Show (which was inspired, in part, by shows of the 70s like All In The Family) shows it can still be done. It’s a harder needle to thread now, but a clever enough mind can find a way to make it work.
    .
    Although this was more than 20 years ago now, I remember Jerry Seinfeld talking about how they were worried about doing the episode where Jerry and George are “outted” as being gay. They were not sure at first how to pull it off without it coming off looking like the show was homophobic. When they came upon the idea of having the various characters repeating the line “… not that there’s anything wrong with that” they had it figured out. It both affirmed that there really is nothing wrong with being gay and highlighted the absurdity of the paranoia of the characters at being perceived as being gay.

  8. Dan Friedman March 17, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    Gish Jen, I hear you! Jen manages to pack so much into “No More Maybe”’s few pages: harsh paternal judgment on the perceived failure of a successful son; the difficulties of recent immigrants trying to learn a difficult language and understand an alien culture; worries and pride over a first pregnancy; fears—fears of strangers, of governments, of strangers; and the cognitive decline of a once fearsomely intelligent parent. Jen’s characters and their situation are believable and familiar, perhaps too much so. But with its intermixing of humor and pathos and its multiple layers, “No More Maybes” strikes me as a fine, enjoyable short story.

    Yes, “No More Maybes” has its flaws. Progressing through it feels uneven, with too many words devoted , for example, to the library visit and the mother-in-law’s menu planning. But even the delicious menus add to the credibility of the narrative.

    In reading the comments currently here and thinking back to earlier comments that magically disappeared, I wonder if Jen intentionally intended to provoke her readers with “No More Maybes.” If so, Jen certainly succeeded. After all, the comments left me thinking about the classification of Jen’s story as “middlebrow” (a term with its own unfortunate racist backstory), evaluating whether Wuji’s father’s interaction with Jeff was racist, and parsing the differences in meaning between gishy, sentimentality, gushing sentimentality, overly sentimental, and poignancy.

  9. Eric March 17, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    FWIW, I consider my own tastes to be unabashedly middlebrow, so my calling this story that was by no means an insult. Although I’m well aware of the term’s pejorative history, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a story (or movie, or other form of entertainment) that unabashedly targets a big, non-“highbrown” audience. There are a number of pieces scattered around the Internet promoting this point of view; here are a couple of good ones from 2011, one in TNY, the other in Slate from the magazine’s then-online literary editor:

    https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/on-middlebrow
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2011/10/12/middlebrow_origins_and_insults.html .

  10. Dan Friedman March 17, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    Eric, thank you for your helpful clarification and citations.

    I just read Deborah Treisman’s interview with Jen “Gish Jen on the poignancy of an adopted language,” which I highly recommend (https://www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-fiction/fiction-this-week-gish-jen-2018-03-19?mbid=nl_Fiction%20031718&CNDID=18283241&spMailingID=13138904&spUserID=MTMzMTc5NjgxNjYxS0&spJobID=1361539790&spReportId=MTM2MTUzOTc5MAS2). Gen made a couple of points about “No More Maybe” in the interview that I found especially interesting: first, the story was originally conceived of for an ACLU anthology and Jen intended to highlight racism; and second, she’s acknowledged that the story reflects “a willingness to seem to wander quite far from the action of the story—to digress, in an associative fashion, into the story of what happened to the narrator’s clothes store.” And not surprisingly, Jen humbly acknowledges her debt to Alice Munro in the structure of the story.

  11. Sid March 22, 2018 at 8:19 am

    This is Gish Jen’s style and she doesn’t veer from it much. I found this piece brilliant, as usual, although was rather taken off guard by the tender moment at the very end. I don’t think it was sappy. It definitely brings closure to the story. Very cleverly she weaves elements together. She mentions (through a callous comment from the mother) the “intersection” of the father’s decline and the mother’s mastering of something new, and then later works the foreshadowing into a scene like magic. The car wash incident is cleverly orchestrated to highlight several elements: each race’s (self-righteous) contempt for the other, the father’s contempt for his son’s capabilities, his mental decline, a glimpse into each character. This is the kind of story where not one word goes to waste. Gish jen is a master storyteller and she proves it.

  12. Greg March 25, 2018 at 10:34 am

    Thanks everybody for your takes on this story….you have made it special for me!

    And David, thank you for sharing why the Jeff episode was so well written…him angrily putting his finger in the cake will stay with me forever! Also, the author says the following in the interview that Dan was kind enough to share which I believe you would agree 100% with, and perhaps Gish was ‘winking’ at you while stating it:

    “Yet I heard this story much more than I wrote it. And, for whatever reason, this is the voice that I heard it in—a voice speaking Chinglish, which was, in many ways, my first language. Of course, the writer in me is aware that, however a story comes to you, it’s ultimately up to you to decide whether to keep it in that form or not—a cold-eyed decision that involves technical appraisal and writerly judgment.”

    Lastly, I really enjoyed the following passages from the story:

    “If my father-in-law likes to make points, my mother-in-law likes to score points.”

    “Because this is what we know how to do. We know how to say something true enough to hide a bigger truth. We know how to hide people’s weakness. How to protect them.”

    “My mother says I do not realize I will end up a servant to everyone. “Soft and capable, the worst combination,” she says. “You will serve everyone, and no one will serve you.””

  13. Larry Bone April 1, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    All the previous comments are interesting because them seem to discover everything Western that the story seems to convey or that one could pull out of it. And it seems that is the most politically acceptable way to perceive it as it was published in the New Yorker.

    To me the short bursting sentence style of “No More Maybe” is like English words crafted into an Asian or Chinese form of expression or way of thinking or looking at life’s details. Even in the short story title each of the three words stands alone like three single Chinese Mandarin script letters.

    A key out of context sentence for me is, “Maybe they’ll miss China and want to go back. Or maybe they’ll go back and forth. A lot of people do that. Go back and forth.”

    Jen’s prose style throughout this piece goes back and forth between a Chinese and Western way of looking at things. There is “what did you see and what happened” and there is “”what did you learn or what does it all sum up to.” To me the first is Asian and second is Western.

    Also nonfiction is more concerned with what did you see and fiction is more concerned with artifice or what one could make out of what one saw. Too much detail can be seen as lack of focus yet too much significance in too few details could seem to support too much artifice.

    The beauty of this story is in the stylistic counterpoint of two viewpoints expressed internally and verbally back and forth and then colliding a little like separate musical details in Mozart.

    Many second generation Asian-Americans become fully American and disassociate themselves from their original roots and culture. Writers like Jen weave back and forth between the two while noting where the two might meet and where they collide.

    The brilliance of this story is how different points of view even interwoven internally within the mother-in-law are counterpointedly played detail for detail off the wife, the husband, the father-in-law, mother-in-law and even the unborn son’s point of view.

    The neighbor Jeff coming over with the cake is the biggest collision with the gratitude of the cake flawed by the cake-giver (maybe justifyably) muddling its message by disfiguring it with a contrasting thought.

    The best part of this story is the irony of the most intelligent most well-educated, most high-achiever father-in-law making the worst mistake of uttering a single rascist sentence. Dementia onset takea a little away from that impact.

    Also, that the DVD they are watching is “The Sound of Music” not “Straw Dogs.”

    And middle-brow to me means middle class where people can own a Toyota or a Nissan and they can park it in their own driveway. Jeff made it into the middle class like a 2nd generation Asian family also did. The irony is that they cannot recognize the similarities within the disparities of one another.

    And Jen internalizes that within the stylistic structure of this story.

  14. Greg April 1, 2018 at 11:36 pm

    Thank you Larry for introducing these additional things the author was doing with this story! My biggest takeaway from your post is the Asian vs. American interplay….worlds colliding and the associated perceptions.

  15. Larry Bone April 2, 2018 at 2:06 pm

    Greg:
    Thanks. A great short story can be seen from multiple perspectives and just grows richer with meaning recognized and shared. The comments above take one back to the story to see what else there is.
    Larry

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