Mr. Crime and Punishment and War and Peace

Gish Jen

 

Roger Rabid, we called him. Jabbertalky. Evermore. But mostly we called him Gunner–Gunner Summers. And it wasn’t just the Asian Americans. It was pretty much all his fellow 1-Ls–the immigrants from Azerbaijan and Poland and Brazil. The students who were born here but who had been brought up to be respectful of others–kids of cops, farmers, teachers. We analyzed Gunner en masse: It was his upbringing. His genes. His ego. It was his insecurity–related, perhaps, to the fact that this was not exactly Harvard Law School we were attending. I was not of the persuasion that it was Gunner’s looks, too, that gave him the idea that he was entitled to more air time than other human beings, but others maintained there was a chart somewhere showing correlation if not causation: rugby build plus blond locks put you at risk, especially if you played tennis, sailed, and had really wanted to take Swahili but in the end had been forced to admit it wasn’t as useful as French. In truth, there weren’t a lot of people like Gunner in our ranks–people born with silver spoons in their mouths and their hands in the air. This was a fourth-tier school. But he inspired an expansion of our vocabularies anyway. By the end of the first month, everyone in our section could not only define but spell logorrheic. Pleonastic. Periphrastic. Indeed, you might have been forgiven for thinking we were strangely supersized contestants, preparing for the Scripps Spelling Bee.

            As for the sesquipedalian adjectives, those were courtesy of Arabella Lee, of course–Arabella who was born in China but who had grown up here and who everyone knew was smarter than Gunner, and more prepared, too. For example, in Property Law, when Professor Meister asked for examples of disabilities protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Gunner immediately supplied that significant myopia constituted “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” And such was the spell of his utter self-confidence that even normally perspicacious Professor Meister agreed until Arabella lifted her elegant hand.

            “What about Sutton v. United Airlines, 1999?” she asked.

            “Yes?” said Meister.

            “This was an employment discrimination case involving two myopic individuals who had applied to be airplane pilots, were rejected for failing the eyesight requirement, and then sued United Airlines, alleging discrimination on the basis of disability.”

            “And?” said Meister.

            “And they were found by the Supreme Court not to be disabled for purposes of the law,” said Arabella.

            “Ah. Well. That is indeed relevant.” Meister flushed so pink that were it not for his white hair and love of “screw-the-syllabus-let’s-really-talk” moments he could have been a grad student. “What a great example of how critical it can be to look up the leading interpretations of the statute,” he went on. “Especially those by the Supreme Court. Thank you.”

            Gunner scowled.

            But would Arabella ever wield the oomph she really should in society? Or out in the real world would the Gunners somehow always triumph? She was, to begin with, most impressively unimposing. When the Red Cross came through asking for blood donations, she couldn’t give; she didn’t weigh enough. Rumor had it she was a size 0. Worse, she not only thought before she talked, she never seemed to forget that there were forty of us in the section, so that if everyone talked for five minutes straight, the way Gunner did, classes would be two hundred minutes long. Did this not spell defeat?

            Of course, it bugged a lot of us, not just that Gunner was the ideal and knew it, but that he was the ideal to begin with. It bugged a lot of us that the professors wanted us to talk like him even if we were bound to get off topic and end up having to finish covering the material on our own. And it bugged a lot of us that Arabella’s being judged “too quiet” was potentially professionally disastrous.

            But this last injustice bugged me especially. Not that I was her boyfriend–she was practically engaged, of course. I was just your garden variety five-foot-nine friend who was also born on the Mainland and also named Lee, and who was also raised in the States by brave, illegal parents, as a result of which I could appreciate as others perhaps could not just how special she was. A lot of us immigrants had the test scores and the work ethic, after all. She had something else. This clarity. This poise. This touch. Things I no doubt noticed because I was what my parents called “the good-for-nothing-artist type.” She knew how to argue without hammering–something our Constitutional Law professor was always trying to teach us. Professor Radin would never have singled out anyone in public, but when she talked about how it really was possible, even at our level, to be deft, we knew she was inspired by the example of Arabella–that Arabella had sparked a flicker of hope in her for us all. Arabella was, what’s more, the only member of our class who could ever admit she didn’t know something. And she was kind. When people were at one another’s throats, she sang funny songs like “So sue him, sue him, what can you do him?” Once she drove three hours to collect a depressed classmate’s cat from her house. It took another hour to smuggle the animal into her friend’s apartment. But that night the friend did find the cat under her covers, purring.

            I don’t mean that Arabella was an angel. She did bribe the super to let her into her friend’s apartment. And what’s more, she had been known to sign up for two slots on the treadmill at the gym when you were only allowed to sign up for one. Like she’d use her initials in the right order for one slot and reverse them for another. AL then LA. It was such a pathetic ruse you had to think she was going to get caught, especially since she did it all the time. But this was Arabella: though everyone at the gym knew, no one wanted to bust her.

           And one more imperfection. She was, it must be said, a little unliterary. I once told her that Crime and Punishment was my favorite book, to which she answered that today someone would no doubt help poor Dostoyevsky, and that if talking weren’t enough he would probably be put on something nice. Also, she said she didn’t like the word punishment, as she strongly believed rehabilitation to be the appropriate point of all sentences, especially incarceration. It’s true that when I pointed out that Crime and Rehabilitation lacked a certain je ne sais quoi she conceded I was probably right. But she maintained that she didn’t like the title anyway and thought Dostoyevsky should have gone back to the drawing board and come up with something completely different.

            “Like War and Peace?” I said.

            To which she replied that I could make fun of her but honestly? That was a great title, and while the historical record could not, of course, prove this conclusively, it did lend support to her contention.

            If you were looking for help for a title for something, in short, she might not be your go-to.

•   •   •

To return to her cardinal flaw, though–her failure, according to the professors, to be more Gunner-like–she said it was a species of Western hegemony that people like her and me were always being pushed to do something fundamentally at odds with our culture. It stressed her out, she said. It stressed us all out. She said that as a rule she just listened to her body and talked as much as felt comfortable, and that if her breath shortened up, suggesting a certain pulmonary preset, then she stopped. And if that kept her from getting a good grade, while people like Gunner were equipped with some manner of embarrassment override, well, so be it. She didn’t need to finish first in our class, she said. She was only in law school to learn to help ordinary people with their ordinary problems anyway.

            And that was the truth. She really did just want to help people with their immigration problems. She did not want one of those fancy paneled offices with the in-house cappuccino and the million-dollar view. She wanted the kind of office you saw in forties movies, with worn wood floors and frosted glass doors. She wanted to tilt her head and give a kindly look to clueless people sitting on the edge of their chairs and ask, “What brings you here?” People like her parents and mine. She wanted to teach immigrants how to become citizens. She wanted to teach them how to stick up for themselves.

            Other people, though, wanted her to be a judge. In fact, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to see her on the Supreme Court. The first Asian American on the Supreme Court! Or didn’t she want to work for the ACLU? I asked her once. Talk about making a difference! Not just for one family at a time, but for lots of families, for all time. Of course, to even begin to think about it, you had to have a minimum of six years of litigation experience–that’s what it said on their website. And to get litigation experience you had to get a public defender or prosecutor job. Or if you had loans and needed to make more money–as she did, perhaps? (she nodded)–you needed to do the litigation track at a top-notch firm, from which spot you could then go to a U.S. Attorney’s Office or DOJ, the whole sleep-no-more slog.

            “Sell my soul, you mean,” she said, but I could tell she was thinking about it. The ACLU.

            “No, no,” I said. “You wouldn’t have to sell your soul.” Never mind that all I knew about a life in law came from Scott Turow novels; still, I sagaciously went on. “You’d just have to talk enough in class for Professor Radin to stop describing you as quiet. You’d have to channel your inner Gunner and, you know. Gun a little.”

            She looked at me and crossed her eyes.

            “Have you always fastened on the utterly quixotic?” she asked. Then she uncrossed her eyes and smiled and said, “Actually, Eric says the same thing. About talking more, I mean.”

            As Eric was her boyfriend, this was and wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But the next day, she began to try, and that was what I wanted to see.

•   •   •

Not being a big-name law school, we were not exactly overrun with visits by Am Law 100 firms. A smattering of powerhouses did come through, though—typically because someone had some connection to the university–and every once in a while, a student subsequently landed a big-deal summer associate job. Once in the known history of the school, too, it had happened that, after the big-deal summer associate job, a person from our school had gone on to land a permanent position at the firm–to become an honest-to-God big-deal associate. That was a decade ago, it was true, but still. Why shouldn’t the second person be Arabella?

            She scoffed. But when the class rankings came out, and there she and Gunner were–number 1 and number 2–she did wonder if maybe, when the time came, she should interview?

            “Yes!” I all but yelled at her. “Yes! You have to do it! You do! You have to do it for all of us!”

            “Whoever ‘us’ is,” she said. “It sounds to me like somebody needs to do something for himself, starting with you.”

            In the end, though, she agreed that I was no lawyer. As for why, then, I was in law school, I didn’t have to explain. For while she herself wasn’t in law school because her parents made her go, she was here at Podunk Law because they wanted her nearby; she knew very well how Chinese parents could be. But never mind. When an on-campus interview sign-up sheet was posted, she did it. She signed up.

•   •   •

It started out that three Biglaw firms were coming. But first there was a hurricane and Westfall & Howe canceled. Then Berger, Berkman and Leebron canceled, too, also because of the storm. That left Goodman, Thompson and Pierce, who were scheduled to come a week later than the other firms. I helped Arabella prepare, combing the internet for advice, and found that most of it fell into three categories. The first was existential–Be positive! Be assertive! Be confident! The second was gnomic: Show that you are agreeable but show that you are no pushover. Show that you are unique but show that you fit in. And so on.

            The third, toughest category was spatial. Take up room with your arms, went this advice. Especially if you are a woman, take up room with your voice. Take up room with your manner. Take up room in your chair.

            Take up room in your chair? Arabella tried man-splaying her legs; it hurt her hips, she said. As for thrusting her chin out and squaring her chest, she simply could not do these things with a straight face. But she could, she figured, wear her roommate’s size 4 jacket and, under it, a vest for bulk. And after a few tries, she found that pretending she was Gunner helped with her manner. Suddenly she could respond at length to what we agreed were lamer-than-lame prompts like Tell us about yourself and Do you have any weaknesses?

            She answered, answered, answered, answered. I nodded, nodded, nodded, nodded.

            “Anything else we should know about you?” I asked finally.

            “I broke up with Eric,” she said.

            “Ah.” I jotted that down on my clipboard.

            “Also,” she said, “since I know we don’t have a lot of time, I’d just like to make sure you realize I’m available for dinner after the interview.”

            “Six o’clock?” I said.

            “If that’s how business is done in your firm.”

            “It is,” I said. “I mean, I hope it isn’t. But it is. It is.”

            “Good,” she said.

            As for what she was supposed to do if the interviewer threw his clipboard up into the air for joy, I decided not to test her.

Instead I just said, “You’re going to be great, Arabella.”

            “Thank you for your time,” she said. And, “You are most generous person I have ever known.”

•   •   •

The day of the interview, I did one more thing. I greased the seat of Gunner’s bicycle with Vaseline, and for good measure greased his handlebar grips, too. Not so much that he would have an accident, but enough that he’d have to spend twenty minutes in the men’s room trying to get the grease off before he could shake anyone’s hand. And then, of course, there would still be the issue of his crotch. Were anyone’s interview chances ever dashed because he had grease in his crotch? Of course not. Still, I hoped that it would disconcert and distract him. As for whether this was my finest moment as a human being–? Well, no. Still I did it. Then I waited.

•   •   •

Arabella’s interview, she reported, went well enough. No surprises–for which she had to thank me, she said. I really had prepared her beautifully. But she did think the interviewer a bit inscrutable.

            “Or maybe I should say guarded,” she said. “He looked like he had the nuclear codes and thought I might ask for them.”

            “Hmm.”

            “He did smile at the end, at least.”

            “That’s good.”

            “Then he asked me how tall I was.”

            “Oh no. Did you tell him?”

            “Yes. And then I said that if he was wondering, I weigh ninety-one pounds.”

            “You didn’t.”

            “You’re right, I didn’t. But I almost did.”

            We laughed. I had picked a hippie restaurant nearby with every variation of tofu and brown rice possible, and with four kinds of kale smoothies. We tried all four, and then three of the Buddha bowls, and then an udon-miso thing, and all the world glowed with warmth and happiness and antioxidants until I told her about the grease.

•   •   •

Gunner did not get a summer associate position even though his great-uncle, it turned out, was the “Goodman” in Goodman, Thompson and the whole reason they came to campus. Gunner was so crushed he missed a week of classes; people said he was thinking about transferring to business school. Was that true? Who knew. What was clearer was that classes were not the same without him. We missed having someone to irritate us, and the professors–the poor professors–were suffering. Indeed, they were getting so discouraged, having to cold-call people for every single question, that after a day or two we started to put our hands up more, just to help out. They were nice people who already wished they had better jobs, after all. We felt sorry for them. And so a bunch of us tried gunning–even me–until we were all gunning and gunning and gunning. It wasted a lot of time, to be honest. But it was fun, and it did make the professors perk up.

            As for Arabella, she, too, got a thumbs-down from Goodman, Thompson. Still, she was glad she had interviewed, she said, because it helped her figure a few things out. For example, it helped her figure out that she should try to transfer to a higher-ranked school. She was going to apply and see what happened, she said, and if she got in, she was going to bring it up with her parents.

            “I am also going to start lifting weights,” she said. “I am too small.”

            “Isn’t that selling your soul?” I asked.

            “No,” she said. “It’s strength training.”

            Meanwhile, I got thrown out of school altogether. Arabella had called me a reprobate and a miscreant for the Vaseline business, but she hadn’t reported me. It was Gunner who eventually figured out who’d smeared him, so to speak, and though I apologized and had his suit cleaned twice, he nonetheless filed an official complaint.

            Of course, my parents were apoplectic.

            “I don’t think you’re even sorry,” observed Arabella, however.

            “About Gunner?” I said. “Because I am sorry about Gunner.”

            “About school,” she said.

            “Well, about school let’s just say I’d rather be punished than rehabilitated,” I said. “I’m not about law.”

            “No, you are about crime and punishment and war and peace,” she agreed.

            “And justice for the people I love,” I added–which was kind of an overly venturesome thing to say, really. I didn’t think before I said it; in fact, you could say I was just gunning. But she turned and gave me a kiss, and when I plunged on and said I was going to try and find a job near whatever school she ended up at, she looked serious.

“Rich Lee,” she said thoughtfully. “Mr. Crime and Punishment and War and Peace.” And then, deft as ever, she didn’t tell me not to.

GISH JEN is author of several novels, including Typical American and World and Town. Recently The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap appeared from Knopf. Her upcoming novel, The Resisters, will be published by Knopf in early 2020.


image: Albert Weisgerber, Self Portrait (detail), 1911