Analysis

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Last Updated on June 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2133

In this first novel, Chang-rae Lee, who teaches writing, discovers provocative strategies to describe what seems to be an inarticulate sense of unease permeating the psyche of the narrator and protagonist, Henry Park, the son of Korean immigrants. One theme, captured simply and eloquently by the title, has to do with differences in the way language is used. Another much more disturbing and original metaphor is that of spying.

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The nonlinear narrative of the novel begins on an intimate, personal note, as Lelia, married to Henry for several years, is leaving him. In a muted parody of a list of goals and achievements to strive for, she leaves Henry instead with a list of his characteristics, most of them flaws, that she has compiled over the previous year. The list, it turns out, represents an intersection of the personal and professional in his life, including such descriptions as “emotional alien,” “Yellow peril: neo-American,” “stranger/follower/traitor/spy.” Later, he discovers another scrap of paper with the phrase “False speaker of language.”

Since none of these terms makes much sense in the first five pages, they serve as a wonderful hook to pull the reader in, searching for their meanings. The story of the Parks’ marriage starts in El Paso, Texas, at a party, where Henry’s extreme self- consciousness and anxious behavior attract Lelia. She drives a pickup truck delivering canned food and clothes for a relief agency; she gives English lessons to the many Mexicans and Asians on her route, for in that town everyone wants to learn English. Lelia and Henry are conscious of each other as speakers. Henry is attracted to her because she can really speak; he finds himself listening closely to her and pictures her “executing the language” word by word, every letter with a border. Lelia, in turn, tells him that he looks like someone listening to himself, very careful, attentive—not, she guesses, a native speaker.

The theme of the incredible challenge and power of language is handled with deft skill throughout the novel. Lelia becomes a speech therapist, making it her life’s work to help children learn to speak English and thereby participate in the culture. The Parks’ marriage is rocked by at least one obvious tragedy, the accidental death of their only child, Mitt, but flounders because of Henry’s inability to articulate his devastation in a way that Lelia can understand. He, meanwhile, struggles with the cultural and generational difficulties of language use.

The portrayal of Henry’s parents, particularly his father, blends into what might be described as the sociological coloring of this novel. His father, a highly educated Korean, comes to the United States, joins a Korean money club, opens a fruit and vegetable stand, works long and hard hours, uses his family to help him, prospers and expands, and provides generously for his family’s comfort. Yet he must be watchful and suspicious of members of other ethnic groups who come to his stores, and the more he prospers, the fewer close friends he has.

Oddly, this father and Henry’s love-hate feelings toward him sound like literary clichés even before there is enough fiction about Korean American families to allow for any portrayal to be a cliché. In part, such familiarity is a tribute to the universality of the father-son theme, the immigrant-making-good theme, and, more unhappily, the unfavorable media attention focused on the conflict between Korean American and African American communities.

Ironically, the father himself recognizes the extent to which his account of his personal story may simply pander to or reiterate the public narrative: “Knowing what every native loves to hear, he would have offered the classic immigrant story, casting himself as the heroic newcomer, self-sufficient, resourceful.” Within the family, language is used to conceal and lie, with the deadliest affection. The mother’s liver cancer and treatments are covered with various stories as the disease progresses, with talk of regular Saturday meetings and finally of an incurable Korean fever, to protect their son from the tragic knowledge.

The degree to which speaking and silence can be viewed so differently as a cultural and gender issue crystallizes in the depiction of the father’s relationship with the poor Korean woman who comes to run the household after Henry’s mother dies. She does not speak English; indeed, she hardly speaks at all and is even nameless. Henry refers to her as Ahjuhma, a form of address to an unrelated woman, and knows her by no other name. Lelia finds it utterly appalling that the two men can be so cavalier about the identity of the woman who serves them for twenty years. Henry cannot explain it to her, understanding only that it is an appalling situation for Americans who live on a first-name basis. In the regimented and rigorous Korean language, he thinks, there are no moments when the woman’s name would come out naturally; even his parents addressed each other by titles, not personal names.

Apart from these specific cultural differences in the ways language is used, Henry acknowledges changes required by context. Koreans, he recognizes, “depend too often on the faulty honor of silence, use it too liberally and for gaining advantage.” He himself, not unnaturally, has inherited the facility to use language to meet the expectations of others. It seems almost inevitable that he drifts into working for an espionage firm with the name Glimmer and Company. He is recruited by the founder, Dennis Hoagland, who claims to have recognized a growth industry when he saw one in the mid-seventies: The new wave of immigrants at the time created a need for a firm specializing in “ethnic coverage.” The firm handles requests for information about immigrants in the United States from multinational corporations, foreign governments, and interested individuals. Henry becomes a skillful operative, “contriving intricate and open-ended emotional conspiracies” with selected subjects and writing extensive reports analyzing their background and psychological profiles and providing sundry bits of information.

The theme of the use—as well as misuse, abuse, and withholding—of language is thus seen to spiral outward into the communal, political arena. The metaphor of espionage is striking, strongly evoking the sense of paranoia, cynicism, betrayal, alienation, and loneliness so familiar in twentieth century life and literature and perhaps even more endemic among those transplanted into an alien culture.

The artistic skill Lee demonstrates in integrating the notion of the “native speaker,” with all that it evokes of belonging in the language one speaks, with the larger communal and political action of spying is both wonderfully creative and puzzling. The inevitable question arises, what motivates this basically kind and well-intentioned man to make a living sidling up to strangers, befriending them only to betray them?

Henry’s insights result from failure. The major job described in the novel, the culminating act of Henry’s career, is his infiltration into the political organization of John Kwang, a Korean American preparing to run for mayor of New York City. Before that, however, Henry dwells much on a failure that haunts him: his investigation of Emile Luzan, a Filipino psychoanalyst who ultimately dies in what is termed an accident, after Henry’s reports have been presented. His “failure” as a professional is that he allows himself to get too close to his prey. Though the operatives are encouraged to create personas close to their own lives, they cannot afford to cross the thin line between using the details of their lives for a job and living those details.

Getting too close to Luzan, revealing intimacies of his troubled relationships, forgetting, in short, that he is acting as a patient of the psychoanalyst and instead becoming a patient—this is the cardinal professional sin Henry commits. Dennis and his friend Jack watch over him vigilantly thereafter to prevent any more “breakdowns.” In Henry’s investigation of “his own kind” there is a strange echo of Henry’s father’s success, and the success of other immigrants who exploit fellow immigrants.

An eerie connection between “native,” “speaker,” and “spy” begins to emerge. The last job Henry can stand to do is to report on John Kwang, a charismatic leader, whose initials, J.K., and political fortunes mirror (though less successfully) the political vicissitudes of an illustrious, longer-established Irish American family. Henry joins the band of dedicated young people who have committed their political energies to Kwang. With its multiethnic makeup, this group of supporters is an accurate microcosm of the kind of coalition needed to elect him. Struggling to refute the limiting label of “special interest” candidate, Kwang also must “tell the story” of the grocers and small businessmen, many Korean, who send in the small contributions that add up to pay his campaign expenses. The connection between Kwang’s experiences as a politician in a major multiethnic American city and Henry’s father as a newly arrived immigrant grocer is obvious. Yet Kwang must transcend the story to appeal to other groups if he is to survive politically.

This particular story fails. Perhaps Kwang is not the “native speaker” he needs to be, not tuned in enough to political customs and ways of doing business. His political downfall comes from both his own weakness and the weaknesses of cultural systems in competition. Driving drunk with a young woman, an illegal alien, in the passenger seat, he is involved in an accident. The scandal grows with the suggestion that the contributions to his campaign, functioning very much like the ggeh or money club that enabled Henry’s father and many other Koreans to succeed, are a matter of concern to both the Internal Revenue Service, because of tax issues, and the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), because the contributions help identify unregistered aliens. An INS sweep effectively kills Kwang’s career, for it is the ultimate betrayal in his community.

Father figure though he may be, Kwang also serves as a doppelgänger, or double, for Henry. Adroitly using the “they-all-look-alike” stereotype, the author suggests the spiritual connection between the two men. Henry finds himself mistaken for Kwang when he scouts neighborhoods prior to a campaign effort. Like the other campaign workers, Henry is mesmerized by Kwang, perhaps enchanted by this revelation of how a Korean American male can function in American society. For the narrator/ protagonist of Native Speaker, the aspect of the double in John Kwang is ultimately therapeutic. Though seemingly in shock at the tragic reverberations brought about by his reports, Henry benefits by letting go of his job as a cultural spy. He leaves the firm and, momentarily adrift, joins Lelia in her work as a speech therapist for young children who are not native speakers. He becomes the Speech Monster, a job he likes. As the novel ends, Henry seems to be on the way to working through his demons, the cultural in the personal.

Henry and Lelia’s story ends on a somber note. The classic immigrant tale his father told to please the “natives” does not work right now, if it ever wholly did. Henry and Lelia’s story proceeds differently because it is not about making money, not about becoming prosperous or making it at all costs. In a way, it is the aftermath of the first story, about what it means to be a “native,” about belonging—to oneself, one’s love, family, friends, community.

The city, embodying the larger community, has hired Lelia to teach English as a second language, but Lelia has too many children in her class to be able to make a difference in their speech. All she can do is show them something that Henry needed to learn growing up, that language is fun and it is perfectly fine to “mess it all up.” For these newcomer children, the native-born Henry is a wonder. To them, he perceives, his voice moves in time with his mouth, truly belonging to his face. In the last phrase of the novel, “I hear her speaking a dozen lovely and native languages, calling all the difficult names of who we are,” Henry may be passing along an epiphany about the varieties of “native” and of “speech.”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, February 15, 1995, p. 1059.

Boston Globe. April 16, 1995, p. 27.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XLI, April 7, 1995, p. A6.

Goldberg, Jeffrey. “The Overachievers.” New York 28, no. 15 (April 10, 1995): 42-51.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Witness to Strangeness—Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee.” The New Yorker, July 10, 1995, 76-77.

Library Journal. CXX, February 1, 1995, p. 98.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 19, 1995, p. 3.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, August 25, 1995, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. C, April 9, 1995, p. 24.

The New Yorker. LXXI, July 10, 1995, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, January 9, 1995, p. 54.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 27, 1995, p. 23.

USA Today. May 12, 1995, p. D5.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on June 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 95

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, February 15, 1995, p. 1059.

Boston Globe. April 16, 1995, p. 27.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XLI, April 7, 1995, p. A6.

Goldberg, Jeffrey. “The Overachievers.” New York 28, no. 15 (April 10, 1995): 42-51.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Witness to Strangeness—Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee.” The New Yorker, July 10, 1995, 76-77.

Library Journal. CXX, February 1, 1995, p. 98.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 19, 1995, p. 3.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, August 25, 1995, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. C, April 9, 1995, p. 24.

The New Yorker. LXXI, July 10, 1995, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, January 9, 1995, p. 54.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 27, 1995, p. 23.

USA Today. May 12, 1995, p. D5.

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