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Sisters and Resisters

February 21, 2020

Naively, I’m often astonished to discover that, somehow, the Internet seems to know things about me that it has no right to know, and no way to know, either.  I’ll be chatting with some friend as we hike, totally off-line, on an alligator-laden path here in South Florida, about these next-generation high-res TV screens, for example, and when I get back home, I’m instantly bombarded by online ads for TV screens. "How do it know?" as Marvin Barnes once marveled about the ability of Thermoses to keep hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold.


I used to think it was coincidence, but it kept happening too often for that explanation to hold. Can it "sense" when my cursor-arrow hovers over an ad for a TV screen a half-second longer than it would if I were not thinking about buying one?  Does it register when I’m walking through an electronics store and my pace slows down as I walk through the aisle displaying brand-new monitors? Is the model of my ancient low-res TV screen, that I keep waiting to die its natural death so I can replace it with a newer model, known to my cable provider, who then sells info on owners of ancient TV sets to the online marketing companies?  Is there electronic hanky-panky going on that I can’t even imagine, with my limited imagination for techno-skullduggery?


This concept of "the internet" somehow "knowing" things, in general, is central to The Resisters, the new novel by Gish Jen, which came to my attention because it was labeled as a baseball novel. The labelling was accurate, in a sense: it is narrated by the proud dad of a talented lefty pitcher going through the rigorous training required to compete at the highest levels of competitive baseball. But there all resemblance ends to anything you might categorize as a baseball novel. (I would guess, without formal study, that the protagonist of most fiction about baseball is, for some reason, a pitcher. Not sure why that is, exactly, but a disproportionate number of novels, good ones and bad ones, that I’m deeply familiar with are about pitchers.)  And Jen comes by her understanding of pitchers honestly: in interviews, she has spoken about growing up with her brother, a gifted young pitcher, and observing closely his struggles and his accomplishments, which she has inserted into this fictional tale. Fiction writers are exhorted to "Write about what you know," and most good writers find ways to incorporate their own personal knowledge while, at the same time, changing it, sometimes radically, into something magical and strange.


The Resisters is magical and strange. It tells of a dark and disturbing future U.S.A. (rebranded AutoAmerica) overtaken by an intrusive Internet presence that makes my own current befuddlement at its omnipresence seem gentle and quaint. Set vaguely a decade or three ahead in this century, the internet hovers (literally—super-intelligent drones are everywhere) over the lives of every citizen, rich and poor, black and white, Netted and Surplus.


That last pairing is critical to understanding this dystopia, where every part of society has been divided into the Netted (those plugged in to the Net, with full careers, incomes, luxuries, families—basically, the upper class) and the Surplus (permanently unemployed, UnRetrainable subsistence-living consumers of necessities, supported by a state-issued living wage). In Jen’s vision, the economy has become so super-efficient at producing goods and services electronically and automatically that maintaining anything close to full employment has become impossible. Also, as the population has continued to rise, living space has shrunken drastically due to global warming—the U.S. coastline is flooded and is all swampland, at best. The Surplus live on houseboats, and the Netted live on higher ground inland and dry.


The omnipresence of the Internet in everyday life in this world is difficult to get your mind around, so try this: do you remember your daily life before you ever used your first computer? Difficult, I know, but think back that far: no Googling (run to the library, or take wild guesses), no Amazon (walk to the store—exercise is good for you), no email (keep a ready supply of envelopes and pens and stationery and stamps handy, and wait a week or two weeks to get a reply) and a thousand other No Nothings.  Okay, now imagine a world where the Internet is so entwined into your life that 2020 would seem "pre-Internet" to you. Artificial Intelligence, for example, is presumed in AutoAmerica: when you walk into your house, it converses intelligently with you. (The narrator’s house is one of the wittier, more insightful characters in the novel, with a personality and perspective as distinct as any other‘s.)  And talking is no longer really necessary, because telepathic communication has become available, with AI and possibly with other humans. (I say "possibly" because the specifics of how most of these advanced processes work are not explained as they pop up—Jen alludes to all of them in passing, assuming they are so common that her reader is familiar with  all of them. I’ve been able to guess at most of them, but am still trying to figure out others.)


The plot of The Resisters is fairly straightforward: the gifted young Surplus-born pitcher gets recruited by the Netted class to join its next Olympic baseball team, competing against ChinRussia’s team. This change in status is rare, almost on the order of a pre-1863 slave being recruited to join the All-Alabama Polo Team and getting to hobnob with all its pampered lily-white members for the first time—in addition to being set free, as well. But that’s how talented the young pitcher is—rules get broken, just for her. (And yes she is a "her"—her gender is probably the least surprising thing about this strange new world.)  All of the members of Netted class, by the by, are in fact lily-white—they are informally called the "angelfair," and all of the Surplus are a mongrel mix of every other race and creed in AutoAmerica, where racism is not only the accepted norm but is institutionalized. Surplus couples are limited by strict law to having only one child, while the Netted are encouraged to have as many offspring as they like, presumably as part of a long-term plan to build up the Netted population and virtually drive the Surplus into extinction.


My style of reading, not for everyone, is Advanced Skimming—I race through books, on my first reading, not troubling to re-read passages and concepts and terminology that baffle me. I figure I’ll pick it up later on, but sometimes I don’t, of course, so a lot of books’ content gets lost on me. If I enjoy the passages I do understand, then I’ll dwell on those baffling passages my second time around, or my third (I’m a great re-reader) and eventually I’ll decode the entire work. Or else I’ll give up on the book as being "difficult" or "boring" or just "not for me." A lot of science fiction gets lost on me, because of the barrage of brand-new terminology it necessarily introduces to explain the plethora of new concepts or ways of thinking that beats at the heart of scifi. And dystopian fiction, like The Resisters, is not exactly scifi but is part of the same larger genre, "premise fiction," that I usually find it off-putting.  If there weren’t so much baseball here—it is filled with close descriptions of pitching strategy, techniques, training methods—I might have given up on it, but I’m glad I didn’t.


The structure is unusual, and perhaps ill-advised. Jen begins the novel by plunging us straight into AutoAmerica, dropping names of all the new concepts so as to alert us to their strangeness without telling us what they are exactly. Later on, for those brave pioneers who continue plunging into the book, some of these terms do get explained or contextualized, and a few can be decoded on the fly. The terms are marked by capital letters—a "SpritzGram" for example is apparently an electronic message that conveys a smell rather than an image or a sound. Other terms (SwarmDrone, AutoJudge, CareBot) are less transparent. Even the setting, in time and place, must be intuited, which is fun of a sort but sometimes onerous. I’m a fan of clear exposition, even of too-clear exposition, but some authors lpitch their tents on the obscure side of that Great Divide.  I couldn’t tell if The Resisters was set in 2030 or 2050 or 2070, for example,  until I came across my first temporal hint on page 143: Gwen, the young pitcher, is told that the pitcher whose repertoire hers most resembles is a skinny, crafty old-timer whose hesitation pitch was "outlawed in 1948," and may well be "still barred over a century later." (The old-timer is Satchel Paige, naturally.)  So I was able to deduce that Gwen’s career is set after 2050. I prefer learning which year a novel is set in 100 pages earlier than page 143, or even 143 pages earlier. A title like "1984" isn’t too soon for me. Orwell’s novel, incidentally, a model for all dystopian novelists, comes up in conversation between Gwen and her roommates, who compare "Big Brother" to "Aunt Nettie," the Surplus’s nickname for the omnipresent AutoNet.


And the plot isn’t that dissimilar from 1984: the struggle to maintain one’s humanity even as the state grinds its bootheels into everybody’s soul, finally snuffing out the life of the novel’s main Resister (not Gwen nor her dad) is the object lesson of The Resisters. Before that climactic point, there are moments of hope, of joy, of pleasure for the resisters. Many of the technological advances—houses that clean up after you, driverless cars available on demand, health care provided (by CareBots) for the elderly-- are appealing, of course, which is how the entire society buys into the deal. Scary as the Netted/Surplus world may seem, it really isn’t so far from our own, more in degree than in kind. The climax is more understated than Orwell’s horrifying torture-scenes, but no less horrific –the novel’s chief resister is harried to death by the state (for challenging its program of secretly drugging the Surplus class into docility) but the state never admits to doing the harrying, so the other resisters are constantly questioning their own suspicions. Isn’t this the likeliest course for an oppressive state to take?  Insidious, sometimes friendly-seeming, intrusion into every aspect of an ill-informed population’s lives, rather than a Stalinesque intrusiveness that creates an effective resistance in the first place?


It's also a surprisingly insightful book about parenting.  Many of its keen observations concern the changing and delicate relationship between the young pitcher, as she grows between late adolescence and early adulthood, and her watchful parents, a relationship that stays constant across societies, across cultures, across centuries. The finely told baseball content provides a hook for most of the conflict to hang upon: AutoAmerica wants its best pitcher to face off against the awesome team from ChinRussia, so it offers all sorts of incentives (some of which backfire) for Gwen to betray her parents, and her own values, by helping AutoAmerica as she helps herself (and sometimes helps her family and friends)—at times, she seems to find resistance futile, and at other times she regards it as her sacred duty, and Jen makes each argument between Gwen and her parents, between Gwen and herself, between her parents and between her friends ring true. No one understands what’s going around them, but everyone has theories and suspicions and coping mechanisms, which are all to AutoAmerica’s goal of keeping the population and its resisters and potential resisters doubting themselves.


The teen/parent struggles, and the baseball struggles (culminating in a literal World Series 7th game, a baseball-novel cliché that works here) serve to connect Gish Jen’s dystopia neatly to our (milder) dystopia, so with a little bit of effort to earn your pleasure, fans of premise fiction should not resist enjoying The Resisters.


COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

I wanted to check Rosten's "Joys of Yiddish" to see what this semi-ultimate authority might have said.
I can't find my copy, which may not actually exist any more, but from what I can gather online, it seems he preferred the spelling you first used, i.e. without the c.
"Shlep" apparently is how he spells it in the word's main entry, although the version with the c does get at least 1 mention in the book.

I would actually go more liberally than what you said about Yiddish spelling in general: I'd say that for many if not most examples, there's not only not a "correct" spelling but also not a "standard" one either.

Although, I don't mean that the spelling doesn't matter.
Like, if someone gets called a "smuck," it probably doesn't bother him as much as if it's with some of the extra letters. :-)
1:59 AM Mar 2nd
Steven Goldleaf
I don't know if there is a 'correct' spelling of Yiddish, just a standard one. I usually prefer the "sch" myself. For years, I thought that Lenny Bruce's in Yiddish was spelled "Label" until a friend pointed out to me that it was the diminutive for "Leib," i.e. "Leibel."

I think Bill might have told the story about Reggie Harding, or maybe another tall hoopster robber other than Harding or Barnes. Does anyone remember where he told it? Barnes wiki entry says that "he was a senior at Central High School.[6] He was part of a gang that attempted to rob a bus. Barnes was quickly identified, as he was wearing his state championship jacket with his name embroidered on it."
4:58 AM Mar 1st
(I see that my second version of "szlep" came out just the same as the first. My copy/paste of the other kind of Polish L didn't take. It was supposed to have a little diagonal slash through it.)
4:03 PM Feb 28th
Where my forbears came from, it was probably "szlep."
Actually maybe usually "szlep."
Such things are what-you-will, but, as the rabbi on Seinfeld said, that is perhaps a subject for another day. :-)
4:01 PM Feb 28th
Since we're correcting each other, I couldn't resist going down the rabbit hole (though anyone with the last name Jeffers should really avoid trying to correct someone else when Yiddish is involved) to see if "schlep" (as in "to Coral Gables") should be spelled "schlep", which resulted in further exploration of the one- "p" or two-"p" variation and no definitive answer.
11:25 AM Feb 28th
Fireball Wenz
The story of the basketball player who held up a store only to be recognized immediately is usually told about Reggie Harding, a seven-footer who thought he could escape detection while robbing his neighborhood gas station by wearing a ski mask. He was a nasty piece of work who is said to have raped Florence Ballard of the Supremes at knifepoint.
8:47 AM Feb 27th
Steven Goldleaf
Wow! I should send this review, with your comment, to her publicist to show my influence on the book-buying market. Let us know how you enjoy it, Marc. Are you a fast reader?
7:36 AM Feb 26th
Marc Schneider
I bought the book based on your review. It better be good . . . :)
3:40 PM Feb 24th
.....and also forget that I said that the nickname was 'only' about Jim.
To make sure, I looked it up, and saw that indeed Marvin got called it too.
5:48 PM Feb 22nd
Steven: My bad.
My extremely bad!

Indeed "Bad News" was only about Jim. (As far as I know.)
I hardly know anything about this Marvin guy. He played during a time when I wasn't following basketball at all and his name never registered for me, except I guess that I had a slight impression of it being about a basketball player; so, when I saw "Marvin Barnes" in the article I did think 'basketball,' which then immediately made me think of Bad News, and it didn't occur to me to realize that Bad News's first name was something else.

Cliff's Notes: Never mind. :-)
(And sorry!)
5:46 PM Feb 22nd
Steven Goldleaf
We have vastly different memories of Barnes--as I recall, he was known only as Marvin, and "Bad News" was a sort of tribute to the original Bad News Barnes, who was also 6"8", and whom I know only because (going on memory here) he was a rookie on the Knicks when I first started following the NBA, and drafted I believe around the same time as Willis Reed (also 6' 8", though listed higher). He and Reed competed for the same big forward position, and it was thought to be a pretty even competition, except that--well, he was competing with Willis Reed, which never goes well for anyone.

Anyway this Bad News Barnes, real name "Jim," fizzled out of the NBA right soon, but I remember him and his odd, colorful nickname because he was Reed's early competition for a job. Maybe he played for some expansion team for a few years, but basically not very memorable except for the nickname. Now I'm curious if any of this 50+-year old memory is right, but I think most of it is.

Much as I hate to label anyone "dumb," I think Marvin qualified by doing one of the dumbest things in dumbdom (dum-dum): he's the guy who held up a store while wearing his team jacket with his name on it (like being 6"8" wouldn't be a pretty good identifier.) I think Bill told a similar tale of dumbness, though it might have been another felonious basketballer.

I love being punctilious about usage--it's one of the best markers for separating smart people from hoi polloi, though I fail a test or two, such as "stationery/stationary" on occasion. As to "Gish" it doesn't sound Chinese or Korean or anything really, but not like an English first name, either. It's just such a wacky thing to do, give yourself the last name of an actress from xx years ago for your first name. Can you think of anyone who did anything like that? I'm sure there is a story there, and since Ms. Jen is on a book tour and will be in SoFlo next week, I could ask her about it. But Coral Gables is a bit of a shlep, so maybe not.

4:07 PM Feb 22nd
She is first generation Chinese. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
2:17 PM Feb 22nd
BTW, I wasn't sure if the Marvin Barnes you were talking about was Bad News. I figured most likely it wasn't, especially because as far as I ever heard, he wasn't called Marvin that often.

I'm pretty surprised that you, as an "English" person (I know you're not English; you know what I mean) :-) don't love those different forms of similar words, even though it makes us have to pay attention to the spelling.
Like, don't tell me you like how "disinterested" is mostly replacing "uninterested," and threatening to completely rob the language of the concept of "disinterested"! Although it does have the advantage, I suppose, of letting us not have to think about which word to say, always just say disinterested.....
BTW, I do know that most people are both disinterested and uninterested in such things. :-)


I don't think most readers would think "Gish" was Asian in origin.
I had no idea, but indeed my only association was Lillian.​
1:45 PM Feb 22nd
Steven Goldleaf
Honesty, markj111, I tried to look up the quote, which I have always heard attributed to Marvin Barnes, decided the attribution was apocryphal, and went with it anyway. It just sounded too good in the mouth of a huge dumb basketball player for me to resist. Besides which, since he's dead, he isn't going to complain.

And speaking of dead, I'm glad the word and the concept "stationery" is becoming obsolete because that will give me fewer chances to misspell it. Thanks for catching that, Maris. I'll fix it on an edit, if you don't mind your comment being turned into nonsense.

One interesting irrelevancy that I learned in the course of writing this is the derivation of the author's first name, which I took, as did you, I'm sure, to be Asian in origin. Not so. Her first name is really "Lillian" but she adopted "Gish" in honor (?) of the actress Lillian Gish. Maybe we all should consider following her model--I've got dibs on "Boyd." (And, Maris, no need to tell me that the actor spells his first name with a "ph.")
4:26 AM Feb 22nd
I love this article. Beautifully done.

I wonder if the parenting aspect is meant partly as a reassuring bit of detail to show that some of what we know as "culture" could persist and was persisting.
And similarly, if the baseball stuff was meant similarly. It sounds like baseball-as-we-know-it, basically exactly as we know it, was still present.

BTW, stationery, not "stationary." :-)
But you've got some company. There's a stationery store around here whose sign outside says STATIONARY. I always feel like going in and telling them, we know that your store isn't in motion, you don't need to have a sign about it....
3:53 AM Feb 22nd
You attributed a quote to Marvin Barnes. I have always heard that the source was Weyman C. Wanamaker, a great American (aka knowns as Lewis Grizzard).
9:33 PM Feb 21st
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