Chang-rae Lee Essay - Critical Essays


Language itself is a top concern of Chang-rae Lee. All of the first-person narrator protagonists of his first three novels use language very deliberately and eloquently in order to relay the results of their acute physical and mental observations to the reader. Their thoughtful and well-crafted sentences in which they convey information about themselves and their world correspond well to the emotional detachment and inner solitude felt by all of them regardless of their differences in age and ethnicity. The power that language can bestow on the person who uses it well and the function of language to determine identity and social standing is a main subject of Lee’s widely acclaimed first novel, Native Speaker.

Native Speaker focuses on the price paid by Asian American immigrants as they assimilate into mainstream American culture. As the novel underlines, one of the first tasks of assimilation is English-language acquisition. This issue also tends to divide the immigrant generations. While the first generation has to struggle to learn English, the second generation, such as the novel’s young protagonist Henry Park, is often able to become true native speakers, although at the risk of losing part of their heritage. However, as Native Speaker indicates, for a non-European, second-generation immigrant—who speaks English as perfect and accent-free as Henry Park—there is still the physical difference from the Caucasian majority that makes assimilation more problematic.

Ostensibly told as a spy story, Native Speaker depicts the young and well-educated Park, who works for a shadowy private agency that collects incriminating information primarily on non-Caucasian persons of influence who threaten New York’s establishment. Thus, Park is given the assignment to infiltrate the mayoral campaign of affluent city councilman John Kwang, who, like the narrator and the author, is a Korean American.

Lee deliberately wanted to write a first novel that was not openly autobiographical, even though there are autobiographical touches to his Korean American characters and their communities in Native Speaker. He felt that the profession of a spy worked well as a metaphor for the position of both the writer and the second-generation non-Caucasian immigrant who tends to blend in and observe life and power, rather than attempt to actively wield it. The latter is the choice of Kwang. Lee portrays Kwang’s downfall as an ambiguous mix of personal failings and dirty politics directed against non-Caucasian challengers to the city’s white establishment.

A Gesture Life and Aloft, Chang-rae Lee’s next novels, broaden the scope of his fiction and are distanced from the theme of the Asian American immigrant in conflict with mainstream society. A Gesture Life features Franklin “Doc” Hata, a well-liked Asian American gentleman in his seventies living in a tranquil suburb of New York. However, Hata’s own life is in turmoil, as he reveals in flashbacks that tell the story of most of his life. He is a double immigrant, revisiting Lee’s earlier theme from a new angle. As a Korean child, he was adopted by Japanese parents and assimilated into Japanese culture, a forcible act juxtaposed to the American immigrant experience.

Hata is eventually drafted as a paramedic into the Japanese army in World War II. His 1944 encounter with five Korean sex slaves—the “comfort women” of the Japanese army—constitutes one of the primary themes of the novel. Originally, Lee wanted to write the novel from the point of view of one of these women, but he felt unable to capture their true voices. Thus, A Gesture Life examines the historic crime perpetrated against Korean women by the Japanese from the position of the ambiguous Korean Japanese protagonist who falls in love with one of these victims but fails to save her. To atone for his sins, in the United States Hata adopts a Korean orphan, Sunny, and develops a troubled relationship with her. Initially he tries to force her to lead an exemplary life that she rejects as a mere “gesture life,” an inauthentic posing for society’s sake.

Aloft moves even further into the direction of a mainstream American novel. The protagonist is Jerry Battle, a fifty-nine-year-old Italian American retired from his landscaping business and enjoying flights in his private plane, high above the ongoing troubles of his family. Again, Lee creates a protagonist who is visibly alienated from his own self and the people closest to him. While critics have felt that Battle’s language is too eloquent for a landscaper and more similar to that of educated Henry Park and the genteel Franklin Hata, the topic of detached, alienated observation resulting from excruciating past personal pain is a main subject in all of Lee’s fiction. Battle’s pivotal trauma came when his Korean American wife, Daisy Han, slowly descended into mental illness, culminating in her suicide in the family’s swimming pool.

The themes of alienation and emotional detachment unite all of Lee’s protagonists of his novels. Indeed, each protagonist has been left by his lover at the beginning of each novel for failing to show more human warmth. All are in danger of losing love, and each novel has a strong side plot describing their ensuing actions.

With his first three novels, Chang-rae Lee has managed to move deeply into mainstream literature while keeping a strong thematic interest of alienation, either caused by immigration and assimilation or by personal loss. Lee’s novels insist that in order to truly live, his protagonists have to leave their comfortable shell of detachment and re-engage with life. So far, all of Lee’s protagonists have done this by the end of his novels.

Native Speaker

First published: 1995

Type of work: Novel

A young, well-educated Korean American man is hired to spy on an ambitious Korean American politician but resigns from his job and reunites with his wife while the politician self-destructs.

Native Speaker was the thesis written by Chang-rae Lee to earn his M.F.A. degree from the University of Oregon in 1993. In 1995, the novel became the first book published by Riverhead Books, a subsidiary of what became Penguin Putnam. Committed to books that...

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