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Reading Gendered Nationalisms in Chang-Rae Lee's a Gesture Life
For many in contemporary culture truth resides in the traumatic or abject subject, in the diseased or damaged body.
Doc Hata, the protagonist and narrator of Chang-rae Lee's 1999 novel, A Gesture Life, begins his narrative by describing the typical greeting he receives while strolling around the small town he lives in, Bedley Run. "People know me here," he claims, "whenever I step into a shop in the main part of the village, invariably someone will say, 'Hey, it's good Doc Hata'" (1). Despite Hata's claims, however, his narrative soon becomes riddled with internal contradictions and the novel tells a story quite different from the typical tale of immigration and assimilation Hata wants to tell. Hata's narrative of successful assimilation becomes the story of a profound self-deception, the telling of which is structured around two relationships, each defined by a profound trauma, that haunt Hata despite his attempts to defray their costs by living a life free from affect. These two relationships—one with Kkutaeh (whom Hata calls "K"), a comfort woman he meets while serving as a medic in the Japanese army during [End Page 592] World War II, and the other with Sunny, his adopted daughter—soon overtake Hata's assimilation narrative, exposing the gendered constructions of citizenship on which Hata's masculinist national enfranchisement relies. In the novel, Lee constructs a doubled narrative register in which the stories of Sunny and Kkutaeh consistently undercut Hata's assimilation narrative. This overturning of the novel's primary narrative marks, I shall argue, a shift in perspective from a nationally oriented, patriarchally centered, narrative of immigration and cultural assimilation to a fragmented, transnational narrative driven by the stories of Kkutaeh and Sunny. In spite of Hata's every attempt, A Gesture Life does not narrate the production of a fully constituted national subject, but the failure of that subject to constitute himself within the bounds of hegemonic US citizenship.
A Gesture Life marks a significant intervention in the literature of assimilation. In Lee's novel, Doc Hata orients his attempt to write himself into citizenship around the narrative conventions of the bildungsroman. Significantly, however, A Gesture Life cannot be understood as a bildungsroman proper because, despite Hata's attempts to replicate the form through his first-person narration, the novel becomes a traumatic narrative that consistently displaces Hata's tale of successful assimilation. Lee deconstructs the basic form of the bildungsroman and, in doing so, allows us to examine the pernicious logics of race and gender at its core. Lisa Lowe has argued that "the bildungsroman emerged as the primary form for narrating the development of the individual from youthful innocence to civilized maturity, the telos of which is the reconciliation of the individual with the social order " (98; emphasis added). The bildungsroman narrates the incorporation of the individual within the sphere of the nation through the telling of a narrative of the loss of particularity. Because of this, the form has become an important genre in the literature of immigration and assimilation. The identification of the citizen with the nation narrated in the bildung narrative provides agency as the immigrant subject becomes, through this loss of individuation, unmarked and uncontested. To become a citizen is to lose one's uniqueness in the face of a communal national history and character one can take, indeed must take, as one's own.
In its refusal of the standard trajectory of the bildung narrative, A Gesture Life continues a significant intervention into American letters by Asian American authors who, as Lowe suggests, often "explore alternative forms of memory, history, and collectivity . . . [by] challeng[ing] the concepts of identity and identification within a universalized narrative of development" (101). In contradistinction to the relinquishing of particularity Lowe describes as the original function of the bildungsroman, Asian American literatures of assimilation [End...