- A Classic in the Making
Following the dazzling 1995 debut with Native Speaker, Chang-rae Lee has published three more novels, all of them of comparable quality: A Gesture Life (1999), Aloft (2004), and The Surrendered. As one reviewer offered in a comment reprinted in Aloft, Lee belongs to the rare breed of "writer[s] who...fee[l] expansive enough in [their] spirit and ambitions to encompass not just [their] close kinsmen but [also] the infamous Other." In Native Speaker, this expansiveness is pointedly Whitmanesque—a staple of college curricula these days, the superbly crafted spy thriller in which Glimmer & Company employs "ethnics" like Korean American Henry Park to gather information on immigrants, the recently "hyphenated," and other "others," can be read, indeed, as a conversation with Walt Whitman and his ebullient pathos of inclusiveness. In A Gesture Life, a similarly cross-cultural and cross-canonical dialogue involves, no less conspicuously, Benjamin Franklin. Tracing the discourse of "accommodating" America past Whitman all the way to Franklin, the 1999 novel forefronts this complex notion in Ben Franklin's name, as it were, onomastically, but also ideologically, in the name and life story of Korean Japanese American narrating protagonist Franklin Hata. If the first book's insightful genealogy of nativism dwells critically on Whitman's euphoric intimations of the American multitudinous self, A Gesture Life cuts deeper, to this self's liberal-individualist, self-reliant bedrock to ask how instrumental this quintessentially Franklinesque conceptual matrix is to a narrative of Americanization—Hata's—that spans the better half of the twentieth century and has still to come to grips with the traumatic memory of Hata's pre-American past.
The 2004 book returns to Whitman but, once again, not without salient qualifications. To make more room for the "infamous Other" in the house of American selfhood, Aloft too falls back on Whitman's "encompassing" logic and at the same time queries it. Not unlike A Gesture Life, this "expansion," this culturally valiant home improvement, plays subtly on the realty/social reality trope, which in turn revisits Whitman's "Mall of America"—the ethno-cultural allegory as well as the actual, New York state outlet nirvana. Ironically enough, Aloft's people flock to Long Island's Walt Whitman Mall to bask in the discount emporium's simulacrum of conviviality and blend into the "like-mindedness" of shoppers. The aging father of Jerry Battle, the storytelling hero, is one of them—in a nominal sense, of course, for neither the mall nor the affluent suburbs its stores cater to afford the participatory ethos grounding authentic community. Landscaping in particular and real estate in general here serve as critical metaphors of the cosmetic-proprietorial dilution of the values historically bound up with home, family, mom-and-pop business, neighborhood, and other traditionally homogenous—or so perceived—socioeconomic formations. A Gesture Life and Aloft both chart the surreptitious, global-age erosion and transformation of the communal, local, and tightly knit, with the main heroes' given names—Hata's first name was Jiro originally—hinting at the thematic continuities between the two books.
But family names are equally significant. If Jiro Kurohata becomes Franklin Hata, Jerry's Italian grandfather changes his name from Battaglia to Battle, hence the family-owned Battle Brothers Brick & Mortar masonry and landscaping company. Decades later, though, the venture looks more and more like a lost fight as the firm is going under fast. And yet somehow the Battles become a stronger, more caring bunch—almost a family—in the bargain. Hata too battles against the socioeconomic and cultural-linguistic tide, but his soldiering is also literal. World War II, specifically Japan's brutal Burmese campaign and the unspeakable plight of Korean "comfort women" are closely intertwined with the major, contemporary plotline. Hata's "problem," in effect, is not so much that his American neighbors ignore him politely—and in this A Gesture Life carries on Native Speaker's deft riffs on Invisible Man (1952)—but that it takes him too long to recognize that their behavior mirrors his own failure...