Thank You, Mr. Nixon

Gish Jen. Knopf, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-31989-5

President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China provides the context for Jen’s masterly collection (after The Resisters), which explores the cultural wounds and generational gaps of mainlanders and Chinese Americans. In the tongue-in-cheek title story, a riff on Dante’s inferno, a dead middle-aged Chinese woman named Tricia Yang writes from her perch in heaven to President Nixon, who resides in the ninth ring of Hell. Tricia recalls speaking with Nixon when she was a young girl during his 1972 visit and how Pat Nixon’s famous red coat influenced her family to start their own coat manufacturing business, eventually exporting to the U.S., where the “Made in China” label elicits backlash from jingoistic consumers. In this and other stories, Jen skillfully reveals the book’s main theme: is bridging differences ever truly possible? In the satirical “It’s the Great Wall!” Opal Tsu, a Chinese immigrant living in the U.S., reckons with her daughter’s cultural misunderstandings during a trip through China, and becomes the tour group’s unofficial interpreter upon finding out that their official guide speaks little English. In this and other stories, Jen inserts a character who becomes a mediator, reluctantly translating for hapless Americans. “Rothko, Rothko” centers on the ethical dilemmas faced by a Chinese American literature professor who meets a Chinese art forger and deals with an ambitious Chinese student who takes the name Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot’s original name) and commits plagiarism. With wry humor, pathos, and punchy dialogue, Jen’s uncanny stories easily stand up to her hefty themes. This is a stellar addition to Jen’s prolific body of work. Agent: Daniel Kirschen, ICM Partners. (Jan.)