Gish Jen is certainly one of the most awarded and respected living American authors and yet she flies relatively under the radar in comparison to some of her peers. Bibliophages and AP Literature students will surely recognize her writing, if not her name, as her short stories have been widely anthologized, particularly “Birthmates” which was included in John Updike and Katrina Kenison’s The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Her fifth novel, The Resisters, is a dexterously imagined and yet firmly grounded near-future baseball novel. The book’s blurbs compare it to 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, and while those are certainly valid, The Resisters is most exciting because its dystopian world is relayed in Gish’s trademark style, with her crisp, vivid prose and occasionally vicious, often lovable and completely human characters.

The Resisters is set “not so long from now” in AutoAmerica, a nation facing extreme conflict both within and outside its borders. Inside, the battle is between the wealthy, land-dwelling Netted and the poor, swamp-housed Surplus. Outside, AutoAmerica is at odds with its differently terrible rival, ChinRussia. Jen’s protagonist, Gwen, a talented athlete from the Surplus side of things, is drafted to play ball for AutoAmerica in the Olympics, where she will take on ChinRussia and have a chance to elevate herself to the Netted class. The set-up is a bit Hunger Games and a bit Gladiator but its told through a wry familial lens that allows us to see domestic struggles in addition to societal ones.

Because much of the book is told through the eyes of Gwen’s father, Grant, we see her from an arm’s length. But we also get to spend time with Gwen’s mother Eleanor, a lawyer who is taking on the government over human rights. We’re able to observe Gwen’s softer, subtler acts of resistance up against Eleanor’s more hardened tactics. This, of course, is right in Jen’s wheelhouse; she is an expert at writing about parents and children, about how the expectations of one generation can influence the actions of another. And that this influence is a loop; influence isn’t simply passed down from elders to children, it goes both ways.

One of the more satisfying elements of the world that Jen introduces here is how easy it is to extrapolate our current world into it. It’s less of a “what if” and more of a “we’re already here, we just can’t see it yet.” Other near-future novels make us wonder what would have to go wrong for us to get there; Jen holds up a mirror and allows us to see where we’re wrong right now. Though a character in the novel compares AutoAmerica’s class system to a digital Jim Crow, Jen’s writing to an audience who are very aware of the segregated society in which we live. She has fun with the dystopian elements of The Resisters without undermining her purpose, which appears to be a commentary on the ways we’re ruining the world and each other. It’s particularly satisfying to see her place the blame firmly in the reader’s own hands, forcing us to acknowledge that the damage we’ve done to ourselves has been a choice rather than something inevitable.

The baseball is fun, too, though the sport seems to be here as much for its richness as a metaphor for American exceptionalism rather than sheer love for the sport. Like the rest of the world she’s built, it’s the clarity that works so well here. If Jen would have chosen a more global sport or a more individual one, the novel would have lost some its clean and exacting edge. The America of The Resisters is cars, guns, sports, computers and money, which sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World: by Elif Shafak

Though she’s certainly well-regarded on these shores, your everyday reader may not know th…