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'The Resisters' Could Use A Little More Resistance

President Warren G. Harding once urged the American people to "strive for production as Babe Ruth strives for home runs."

In Gish Jen's inventive but muddled dystopian novel The Resisters, production is no longer the problem, though home runs are still in demand. In the country Jen calls "AutoAmerica," AI and automation have created such a glut of stuff that the underclasses exist to consume — "[n]ot that charges of underconsumption couldn't be fought in the courts," Jen writes. "This was AutoAmerica, after all."

Living on water or swampland, they receive basic income and endless free food, which contains a sedative, a "mood-and-mind mute that amounted to a love sap" meant to curb population growth.

The privileged are called the "Netted" and are "angelfair" land dwellers, while the rest, known as "Surplus," comprise the "coppertoned," the "odd-bodied," and the "odd-godded."

"It's like Jim Crow gone digital," explains one character.

The novel's protagonist, Gwen, is coppertoned, Surplus, and gifted with a ferocious pitching arm. Recruited to play in the Olympics against "ChinRussia," AutoAmerica's geopolitical foe, Gwen is offered the chance to become a member of the elite caste. The book's main moral question is whether "resistance" is worth giving up the opportunities of Netted life.

Gwen's ethical deliberations are obscured by the fact that Jen tells the story from the point of view of her lackluster father, Grant. Half of the book's action takes place out of his sight, and is laboriously constructed in letters home, speculation, and, finally, a bug he plants on Gwen when she goes away to university. As a result, Gwen has little interiority.

Gwen's resistance has all the heft of a "Nevertheless, She Persisted" coffee mug.

The contours of Gwen's "resistance," too, are fuzzy. Mostly, she seems to take part in various pleasant activities: knitting, gardening, baking, pitching in an underground baseball league. These activities seem intended to suggest a form of resistance. But it seems closer to the habit, in sectors of the modern left, of pretending that lifestyle or consumer choices (farmer's markets, yoga) are meaningful political actions, so long as they are done with the right intention. Gwen's resistance has all the heft of a "Nevertheless, She Persisted" coffee mug.

There is a better model in Gwen's lawyer mother Eleanor, who sues the government for human rights violations. But Gwen's own actions never attain the same moral stakes, and the novel's ethics ultimately feel confused.

There is another problem: baseball. Over the past century, it has provided an endlessly flexible metaphorical vocabulary for almost every aspect of American life. The allegory is so apt, Jen could almost have made her heroines bake apple pies (they also bake apple pies). But baseball is also a real sport, and The Resisters finds no tactile joy in it, nothing that would call up glove snaps, bat cracks, or the smell of grass. The games themselves feel interminable, metaphorically weighted but bloodless. (It seems pedantic, too, to note that Jen seems confused about when foul balls count as strikes).

Jen will occasionally write a perfect sentence: "Her head curved back down, her attention contracting so exactly to the size and shape of her screen that it was as if someone had selected 'Attention' and then hit 'Fit to screen.'" But more often, the internet language feels artificial: Would teenagers really consent to calling texts "GreetingGrams"?

Jen's most perceptive points come out in worldbuilding. This dystopia was not the result of some cataclysmic event like an invasion or a coup, but rather of millions of individual trade offs — convenience for privacy, or wealth for the environment. The citizens of AutoAmerica gradually gave up freedom, privacy, and the natural world in order for life to go a little more smoothly. "...[N]o one would have chosen the extinction of frogs and of polar bears, or the decimation of our pine and spruce forests...And yet it was something we humans did finally choose," Jen writes. It's a stark condemnation for a novel so curiously invested in letting its characters off the hook, so long as they're cheering for the right team.

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Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.