I read and reviewed this book on Goodreads a while ago, but I decided to flesh it out for a recent job application (though I ended up choosing a different one to submit), so I thought I’d share it here, for anyone who cares. Not sure how much people want to read a less-than-five-star review, but I’m posting it anyway. And I do like Gish Jen.
The Resisters: A genre-bending accomplishment that doesn’t quite hit a home run
The strength of this book lies in its original premise and style, which deserve the same respect Jen has earned as an author over the last decade and more. The fact that the story could hold my attention despite being so much about baseball — a sport which I have never much enjoyed watching — is commendable. These days, any novel I can finish deserves a mostly positive review. However, there are a number of criticisms to be made.
Despite Jen’s well-deserved place among writing teachers — her advice and instruction in What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers stuck with me beyond my time as an undergraduate student — she seems to write around all of the difficult, detailed stuff in The Resisters: the legal cases, mostly, but also the world itself and the specific, exemplified struggles of being “Surplus.” Every writer knows the advice to “show, not tell,” but there seemed to be a lot of “telling” in this book, and I found myself wanting to see more of the landscape.
It was also difficult to believe the narrator was male. Every person is different, of course, and voices are not always gendered, but something about Grant’s seemed off. Now, Jen could have chosen to make the narrator androgynous and let readers’ assumptions guide their understanding of him, which may have made the narrative easier to accept and immerse oneself in. But she didn’t do that, and as a result, there is some unexplainable disconnect between how the father speaks and who Jen wants him to be.
The narrator also oversells Eleanor, a bit. The way he talked about her made me think there was something particularly special about her, but I’m not sure that there is. Obviously, she’s important to the story, and her husband’s love for her is relevant, but there was a sense of foreshadowing in his descriptions of her that never came to fruition. He was almost too much in the story, taking away from Gwen and Eleanor’s. Which perhaps begs the question, is The Resisters really a feminist novel?
The sometimes strange dialogue was another distraction. The main family members, for example, talk to each other in these sort of question-statements that were a bit jarring. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say it’s unrealistic or unnatural, but the thought did occur to me. We are encouraged to see the family as unique, but the change in speech patterns may not have been the most effective way to achieve that impression.
Overall, the concept of Auto-America and a class struggle precipitated by technology that is all too conceivable at this point of time is interesting, and the occasional witty aphorism or insight gives the reader good pause. Perhaps self-identified feminists who enjoy sci-fi or dystopian novels, and baseball, would perceive this book more positively, and I hope they do. I certainly don’t regret having read it. But if you, as reader, fit the bill for just one or none of those aforementioned qualities, and you have a long to-be-read list, maybe don’t prioritize The Resisters.