Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Native Speaker Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Native Speaker is a Korean American narrator’s probe into who he is. The probe is begun when the narrator’s Caucasian wife leaves him. Native Speaker takes place in New York City during a time when Korean markets are being boycotted by black customers, and a Korean American councilman, John Kwang, is a possible candidate for mayor. The narrator, Henry Park, works for a private, CIA-style agency. Henry’s current assignment is to investigate John. Park does not know the purpose of the investigation or who is paying for it; he imagines the client to be a xenophobe.

Henry was close to his father, who is dead. Henry’s father was an immigrant who did well with a chain of produce markets and believed above all in family. John, onto whose staff Henry insinuates himself as a volunteer, sees his staff as a family. Henry finally betrays John, who feels close to him because he is Korean. John urges him to yell at him, to be disrespectful, to not treat him as a revered father figure. When they are sharing a drink, Henry almost forgets the reason he is with John.

The narrator’s child, before his death, was being reared American-style, “untethered,” allowed to walk all over Korean customs. Henry wanted his child to have “the authority and confidence that his broad half-yellow face could not.” In a sense, Henry was rearing his child to have the confidence he does not have. Henry is devastated by the child’s death, but he...

(The entire section is 463 words.)