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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

In his third novel, Aloft, Chang-rae Lee moved even further away from his reflection on contemporary Asian American immigrant life in New York City that established his literary fame. Aloft begins similarly to Lee’s second work, A Gesture Life, with an older male character apparently in full control of his life.

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Flying in sunny weather above the suburban landscape around New York City, Jerry Battle congratulates himself on his decision to turn over his family landscaping business to his son Jack and retire, freeing up his time to fly or work as a part-time travel agent. At first there is only a hint at his immigrant experience when he confesses to having Americanized his Italian last name of Battaglia to Battle.

With his own cranky father in a nursing home, his son and his materialistic wife and two spoiled children the heirs to his business, and his daughter Theresa engaged to a Korean American writer in Oregon, Battle does appear to enjoy retirement; his children treat him amicably. The only trouble is the fact that Rita, his Puerto Rican girlfriend of twenty years, has recently left him because of his emotional detachment.

Battle’s tranquil life is shaken up by his attempts to win back Rita, Theresa’s pregnancy and simultaneous diagnosis with cancer, Jack’s failure in business, and his own recollections of the death of his wife when he was in his thirties. The reader suddenly learns that Battle met his wife, Korean American Daisy Han, when she squirted him with the cologne that she was hired to promote in a department store. Fascinated by her personality and exuberance of life, Battle married Daisy when such marriages where still rare in America.

It is in Battle’s recollections of Daisy’s slow slide into mental illness that Lee gives Aloft its darkest atmosphere. When she finally commits suicide by drowning herself naked in the family pool while Battle is away, Lee successfully raises the question of the extremely tentative nature of all human bonds, including that of marital love. Aloft reveals through Daisy’s fate the difficulty to ever fully connect, engage, and understand another human being.

While Battle remains relatively stable and succeeds to raise his children with Rita’s help, his growing emotional detachment makes him lose his connections to them. Confronted with Theresa’s refusal to allow cancer therapy that would kill the child she is carrying, however, draws Battle out of his emotional reserve. In a stunning, albeit not realistic, climax, Battle, who has never flown in anything but good weather, flies Theresa in an instrument flight through severe weather and lands with almost zero visibility in time for her to get to the hospital. There, her child is born as she herself dies.

Aloft successfully realized Lee’s desire to create an American novel that only touches on ethnic issues. The plight of Battle to reconnect with his growing children and to win back Rita’s love is told compellingly, even though the plot is not always realistic.

Review Sources

Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2004, p. E10.

The New York Times, March 9, 2004, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (March 14, 2004): 7.

The Village Voice, March 16, 2004, p. 89.

The Washington Post, March 21, 2004, p. T7.

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