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  • Consumable Bodies and Ethnic (Hi)Stories: Strategies and Risks of Representation in A Gesture Life
  • Suk Koo Rhee (bio)

[T]he figure of the Asian immigrant has served as a “screen,” a phantasmatic site, on which the nation projects a series of condensed, complicated anxieties regarding external and internal threats to the mutable coherence of the national body: the invading multitude, the lascivious seductress, the servile yet treacherous domestic.

—Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts

What is the nature of the relationship that a novel such as A Gesture Life establishes for itself with its U.S. readership? In a sense, Chang-rae Lee’s portrayal of an ethnic minority immigrant’s life, especially his eventual failure to achieve a definite status for himself within the hegemonic culture, demands a reassessment of the interracial relations of a U.S. culture that sees itself increasingly, but uneasily, as “multicultural.” Friendly critics have suggested that A Gesture Life represents a call for the critical reevaluation of the model minority [End Page 93] paradigm or even a protest against a white society that continues to discriminate.1 And yet these verdicts do not exhaust the interpretative possibilities of Lee’s novel, especially when one considers the unfriendly criticism that immigrant literature represents merely “an opportunistic kind of Third-Worldism.”2 According to Aijaz Ahmad, the representations of the East created by immigrant writers mostly serve to gratify the jaded tastes of a Western cultural market for exotic goods. Critics such as Sheng-Mei Ma, and Minjeong Kim and Angie Chung have noted the uneasy alliance of the diasporic Asian writer with the Western cultural market.3 In this context, it is hardly coincidental that the Chicago Tribune, the leading U.S. daily, calls A Gesture Life “a tragic, horrifying page-turner,” the description borrowed for the blurb on the Riverhead edition.4

From the perspective of the so-called hermeneutics of suspicion, however, the eye-catching label of the Chicago Tribune is as misleading as the friendly reviews. The label may reveal the tendency toward a kind of Orientalist niche marketing that accounts in part for the U.S. consumers’ fascination with Lee’s novel. Yet it does not suffice to capture the novel’s subtlety and complexity; the label especially fails to address the latter’s rhetorical and aesthetic dimension, a dimension that is crucial to understanding its racial politics. But in their own way too, the friendly critics misrepresent what is ultimately going on in Lee’s novel. In Ricoeur’s terms, one needs to approach the text “with willingness to suspect” so that our critical preconceptions and moral certainties do not mask the truth.5 Thus, the meaning of Lee’s novel can be decoded when its textual surface, namely its rhetorical features, are placed under scrutiny.

If Lee’s narrativization of East Asian history may be said to cater to a dominant Western image of the exotic, dangerous Orient, its narrative belies this by attempting to promote a progressive politics, albeit one that eschews aggressive soliciting. In A Gesture Life, while not ceasing to pique its imagined readership with certain figures of exoticism, the raw material of ethnic history is modified or transformed. This strategic reconfiguration of ethnic material is facilitated by such diverse narrative techniques as romancing, aestheticizing, and delayed decoding. With its narrative transparency compromised, Lee’s novel seems to hide as much as it reveals. Or one may as well state that it hides in the very act of uncovering. Although details about an event are provided, the rhetorical— often contradictory and elliptical—nature of the employed language distorts the reality of what it is supposed to disclose. It is this politics of style that must ultimately be understood in any attempt [End Page 94] to provide a satisfactory response to the query concerning Lee’s novel and its U.S. readership.

Chivalric Romance and Imperialist War Crimes

This study will first address the manner in which the colonial history of East Asia is represented in the memory narrative of the protagonist, Franklin Hata, a (Korean) Japanese immigrant who has settled in a suburban town near New York after participating in the Pacific War as a Japanese imperial...


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pp. 93-112
Launched on MUSE
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