MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 637-667
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Impersonation and Other Disappearing Acts in Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee
And yet you may know me. I am an amiable man. I can be most personable, if not charming, and whatever I possess in this life is more or less the result of a talent I have for making you feel good about yourself when you are with me. In this sense I am not a seducer. I am hardly seen. I won't speak untruths to you, I won't pass easy compliments or odious offerings of flattery. I make do with on-hand materials, what I can chip out of you, your natural ore. Then I fuel the fire of your most secret vanity.
—Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man [End Page 637]
Henry Park is an invisible man. Like the nameless protagonist of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, he suffers from the refusal of others to see him. However, unlike Ellison's character, his invisibility is both a matter of the refusal of others to see him and the logical effect of his occupation. In Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker, Henry Park is a spook, haunting those against whom he is paid to spy. That Lee's protagonist is a spy is no coincidence: Henry's vanishing acts, a professional opportunity to enact the spy's "multiple roles," are a logical extension of his personal history as a Korean American struggling to negotiate the divide that separates how others perceive him and how he sees himself. Native Speaker weaves an intricate web of intrigue in order to examine the multiple forces that form Henry as a spy who gets caught up in the messy tangle of his many deceptions. Lee writes about a spy, yet the novel is not a typical spy novel. Henry's stories about his spying—lyrical, cryptic, introspective—do not conform to the conventions of the spy story. The disjunction between the teller and his tale marks the ways that Lee deliberately reworks the genre of the spy story, altering it to accommodate the exigencies of a spy whose racially determined invisibility signals not license but a debilitating erasure of self and power. Although Henry's spying is a metaphor for his uneasy position as a Korean American trying to figure out his place in American society, spying in Native Speaker moves beyond metaphor and provides Lee an opportunity to criticize formally the generic conventions that make the telling of Henry's story such a difficult thing. By rewriting the generic conventions of the spy story, Lee designates Henry as a postmodern operative whose troubles with language and performance lead him to question the roles he has been given to play and the ways in which he has been encouraged to speak.
Native Speaker explores its preoccupations—with the conventions of genre and of narrative, with racial invisibility and disappearing acts, with linguistic fluency and rhetorical style—on levels both formal and thematic. Henry's own exploration of what it means to be a spy and a storyteller represents not only the self-examination of a man who is afraid he has lost his identity but also the chronicle of immigrant success and failure, and the price exacted by the immigrant practice of "gently and not so gently exploit[ing one's] own" (50). The tensions that structure Henry's stories, both the ones he tells others and the ones he tells himself, make their telling a difficult enterprise. His lyricism and eloquence [End Page 638] falter into strange silences, broken narratives, cryptic phrases. Such problems with how to fashion narrative...