Chang-rae Lee

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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...

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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 open up new views and present new ideas, Riverhead fared very well with Lee’s novel, which became an instant critical and commercial success and launched its author’s career.

The novel begins when its first-person narrator and young protagonist, well-spoken and well-educated Henry Park, accepts a new assignment from the shadowy commercial spy agency he is working for in New York City. Because of his ethnicity and his ability to blend into a multicultural environment, he is chosen to try and collect information on the ambitious, rich Korean American businessman-turned-mayoral-candidate John Kwang. Joining Kwang’s campaign undercover, Park has to make up for a previous botched assignment in which he came to sympathize with his target, a Filipino psychiatrist.

At the same time, Park has just been left by his Caucasian wife Lelia, who blames him for utter emotional coldness in the aftermath of the accidental suffocation of their seven-year-old son, Mitt. She has handed him a long list of all his faults, among them being too alien and detached from life.

As Park slowly makes his way into Kwang’s organization, Lee enriches his narrative with Park’s mental reflections and physical observations of what it means to be a first-and second-generation Korean American immigrant in contemporary New York City and the United States. Reflections on the importance of language, language acquisition, and identity are given broad play in Park’s musings. The price paid for being a native speaker, the protagonist believes, is a serious risk of losing one’s cultural heritage and identity and of becoming deeply alienated from one’s parents. At the same time, there is a lingering suspicion that mainstream America does not really accept Asian Americans as fully American.

Rather than living as a detached observer of American life, Kwang wants to obtain actual power, which causes hostility from the Caucasian establishment. When Kwang learns that one of his closest friends, a colleague of Park, has been hired to spy on him, he reacts violently to this betrayal in his own ranks. He secretly orders the bombing of his own campaign headquarters, and his life spins out of control, leading to his eventual departure for Korea. Disgusted with his job, Park quits the agency and reunites with his wife, and they jointly run a speech clinic for immigrant children.

Native Speaker stresses the author’s point that mainstream politics are jealously guarded by the establishment that is unwilling to accept democratic competition from recent immigrants. His portrayal of Kwang is that of an ambitious but ultimately flawed man, one who is partially responsible for his own downfall that is cheered on by his rivals. Park manages to pull back from the brink and reconnect to a meaningful existence with his loving wife.

A Gesture Life

First published: 1999

Type of work: Novel

In his seventies, a Japanese American gentleman of Korean birth must come to terms with his wartime experience and his rebellious adopted young daughter.

Originally meant to tell the story of a Korean “comfort woman” during World War II from her point of view, A Gesture Life was eventually changed by Chang-rae Lee to focus on a potential tormentor of the comfort women. The novel begins as the first-person narrator, Franklin “Doc” Hata, is apparently at ease with his life in his seventies. Well-accepted, integrated, and esteemed in his fictional suburban New York community of Bedley Run, he owns a large home with pool and appears to be an immigrant success story. After selling the medical supply shop he has run for more than thirty years to a young family, he looks set to enjoy tranquil retirement.

It is after a minor fire accident sends him to a hospital that Hata’s exemplary life begins to unravel as he reviews his existence in a series of sustained flashbacks. Born in Korea, as a young child he was adopted by a Japanese family and raised in Japan, assimilated into Japanese culture and language. Having lost his Korean birth name, he was called Ziro Kurohata. Introducing the historical fact of the assimilation of Koreans into imperial Japan serves Lee an interesting counterpoint to the assimilation of Asian Americans in the United States and makes his protagonist twice removed from the place where he lives now.

Drafted into the Japanese army as a paramedic in World War II, he finds himself in 1944 in a remote outpost in Burma. Suddenly, five Korean “comfort women” are brought to camp. Historically, the Japanese army forced or tricked women from conquered Asian territories, particularly Korea, to submit to sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers. The protagonist bonds with the most attractive of the five, elegant Kkutaeh, who was raised like him in Japan and reserved for the commanding officer. Their common Korean heritage and language reinforce their bond, but the protagonist fails to save her from death.

After the war, the protagonist immigrates to the United States, shortening his name to Hata and adopting Franklin as first name, thereby substituting one assumed identity for another. He attempts to live an exemplary, cultivated life but refuses to emotionally attach himself to anyone. A lifelong bachelor, his American girlfriend, the kindly widow Mary Burns, eventually leaves him because of this emotional coldness; she dies while he is recovering in the hospital.

Hata’s adoption of a young orphan girl of partial Korean heritage, Sunny, serves as his gesture of atonement for his wartime failure to save his lover. However, his decision to raise his daughter with the highest standards fails as she rebels against what she calls his empty “gesture life,” a life designed only as a gesture to impress society. In a telling scene, Sunny asks her father to let her help him with home improvement, only to be told not to bother and to continue practicing the piano.

Hata’s refusal to let Sunny bond with him leads her to become wild. By the time the novel opens, the reader learns later, Sunny has run away with a drug dealer and is pregnant.

Shocked after his accident, the death of Mary Burns, and his mental assessment of his life, Hata decides to change. He finds Sunny and promises to support her with the baby. Thus, A Gesture Life ends on a hopeful note of redemption, as Hata is seen to cast off his armor of emotional detachment that has alienated him from his loved one.

Aloft

First published: 2004

Type of work: Novel

Fifty-nine-year-old Italian American Jerry Battle learns that he has to reconnect with his family if he wants to live a meaningful life.

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.

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.

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Lee, Chang-rae