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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Gish Jen’s stories often blend tragic and comic elements. In this story, the omniscient narration allows the reader distance enough to see Art Woo as both profoundly tragic and touchingly funny. His mind is powerful and continually inflates the trivial into consequence. A brass sign about injuries suffered in the hotel evokes his speculation on the hotel’s potential dangers and leads to his reflection on the tendency to invest signs with significance. He recalls that his wife read the end of their marriage in the experience of seeing a tree split by lightning. Funnier still, as he sets off for the trade show, Art’s anticipation of breakfast leads him to protracted rumination on his resolve to never eat a croissant in public because its awkward shape makes its consumption not only messy but vaguely emasculating. To this principle and others like it, Art attributes his ability to survive in the workplace.

However clever, articulate, and observant Art seems, the narrative discloses his is a mind that resists connection to other people and denies impulses to explore profound issues of love, pain, and loss. Jen acknowledges using her own pain at the loss of a child before birth as the seed of Art’s most extreme instance of emotional denial. Art exists in the story in a world without clear coordinates in time and space, in a kind of private universe of unacknowledged pain at once denied and endured. Art Woo’s social identities as a Chinese American, a businessperson, a former husband, and a father without a child are lost in the final grim landscape of a soul in emotional isolation. The narrative inside his mind is symbolic of how trapped he is and how little connection he has ever made to others. He says little to other people in the story although he fantasizes saying important things to Lisa, Cindy, and Billy. He has disconnected himself for protection just as he disconnected that telephone handset in his room.

The title “Birthmates” arises from Art’s identification with his business rival, Billy Shore, who was...

(The entire section is 524 words.)