Posted in Short Stories

Gish Jen: Birthmates

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 12

I think I found a fictional soulmate in Art Woo, the protagonist in Gish Jen’s short story “Birthmates”. He’s a soulmate at least in the sense of his frustration with business trips and business conferences. I would never have guessed that this could be the setting for such a wonderful story.

Mild-mannered Art Woo winds up at a “well-fare” hotel when he attempts to save money while attending a conference for his job. Some unusual incidents occur at the hotel but Art’s inner thoughts about his job, the trip and the conference resonated with me the most. Such as this paragraph where he grapples with the issues of eating a croissant:

In truth, he had always considered the sight of men eating croissants slightly ridiculous, especially at the beginning, when for the first bite they had to maneuver the point of the crescent into their mouths. No matter what a person did, he ended up with an asymmetrical mouthful of pastry, which he then had to relocate with his tongue to a more central location, and this made him look less purposive than he might. Also, croissants were more apt than other breakfast foods to spray little flakes all over one’s dark suit.

Usually on business trips, I would have to eat lunch and dinner with colleagues in a suit so if at all possible I always wanted breakfast to myself. A business breakfast was never pleasant – the above quotation being an example of why.

I would also guess that Art is an introvert forever frustrated with the likes of his extrovert colleague Billy Shore who shares the same birth date with Art but not the same year. In the most fake manner, Billy always knows exactly what to say to people. Yes, I relate to Art’s frustration here, too.

And then there’s the upside down wisdom that Art realizes a little too late. Keeping your nose to the grindstone doesn’t always payoff:

There was Art, struggling to hold on to his job, only to discover that there were times you didn’t want to hold on to your job, times to maneuver for the golden parachute and jump. That was another thing no one had told him, that sometimes it spoke well of you to be fired. Who would have figured that? Sometimes it seemed to Art that he knew nothing at all, that he had dug his own grave and didn’t even know to lie down in it, he was still trying to stand up.

I’m pretty sure Art Woo will rank up there as one of the more memorable characters from my reading in 2020.

“Birthmates” is included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century¬†edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Eight of Spades for Week 12 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Has anyone else read anything by Gish Jen. I’m very interested to know your thoughts!



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