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.
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...
(The entire section is 2129 words.)