The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
The Asian Reporter's
Author Chang-rae Lee (Photo/Marion Ettlinger)
Never coming down
By Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead Books, 2004
Hardcover, 343 pages, $24.95
Chang-rae Lee earned his Master of Fine Arts not long ago at the University of Oregon. In the few fast years between then and now his two novels, Native Speaker (1995) and A Gesture Life (1999), earned him all kinds of praise from all sorts of sectors, including an Oregon Book Award, a Hemingway/ PEN first fiction prize, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, and a Before Columbus Foundationís American Book Award.
"In Native Speaker," Andrew OíHagan wrote for The New York Times Book Review, the author "displayed an admirable, lyrical restraint in the face of an emotional subject: the Ö perilous process of becoming an American. A Gesture Life," Mr. OíHagan went on to say, "is even more of an achievement. Itís a beautiful, solitary, remarkably tender book that reveals the shadows that fall constantly from the past."
In both earlier novels, Mr. Lee seduces readers as smoothly as his immigrant characters insinuate their way into America, as furiously as his imposters forget their pasts, and themselves. The author and his characters, always in tight control. Understatement. Korean.
Aloft takes off from the other shore. Things Asian happen to an American. The novelís main character, Jerry Battle, is two-thirds through the relatively successful life of a pretty regular Long Island white guy. Jerry lost his older brother to Americaís Oriental nightmare (Vietnam). Jerry married a Korean immigrant, but she lost her mind, then her family lost her in their backyard swimming pool. His two hapa kids couldnít be more of a contrast: his son married platinum then took their family business to scary excesses; his daughter married ethnic and teaches college literature.
Jerry Battle loves to fly. "From up here, a half mile above the Earth, everything looks perfect to me."
Jerry is at his best aloft. Heís at peace at this distance, from living. "From up here, all the trees seem ideally formed and arranged, as if fretted over and over again by a persnickety florist god Ö" Mr. Lee is no doubt enjoying his fanciful flight as much as his man Jerry does. He is wonderful with words. In Aloft (in contrast to his denser earlier novels), he is light as a feather. Thereís effortless sentences, some a half page long, before hitting a period. Chang-rae Lee has earned this leave from gravity. No one should begrudge him some ease.
Having said all that ó Aloft was harder to enter than Mr. Leeís tougher works. It never seems to touch down long enough. Like Jerryís Long Island friends, lovers, co-workers, I cannot get a good grip on the guy. Try and try as I might, I am not convinced by him as an authentic character. And while that may be the point of the story ó Jerry is at armís-length from real lifeís reach ó I just could not accept the long and smart swirls of self-talk attributed to Jerry Battle, a landscape businessman groomed by the elder Hank (The Tank) Battaglia, and his popís paisano bookkeeper "Sal" Salvatore Mondello.
Ruminating on his Korean almost-son-in-lawís literary labor, Jerry B. says, "heís the sort of writer who can put together a nice-sounding sentence or two and does it with feeling but never quite gets to the point. Not that Iíve figured out what his point might be, though I get the sense that the very fact Iím missing it means Iím sort of in on it, too Ö he writes about The Problem with Being Sort of Himself ó namely, the terribly conflicted and complicated state of being Asian and American and thoughtful and male, which would be just dandy in a slightly different culture or society but in this one isnít the hottest ticket."
Now thatís fun. But is it the voice of the 60-year-old stiff who took over Battle Brothers Brick & Mortar, or that of a 38-year-old graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University and, of course, Duck U.
Chang-rae Lee will make several Pacific Northwest appearances next month. On Sunday, March 14, he will hold a 5:00pm reading at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, Wash.). The same day at 7:30pm, he will appear at Town Hall (Eighth Avenue & Seneca Street, Seattle). On Tuesday, March 16, he will read at Annie Bloomís Books (7834 S.W. Capitol Highway, Portland) at 7:30pm.
For information about the Third Place Books events, call (206) 366-3333. For the Town Hall event, call (206) 624-6600 or visit <www.elliottbaybook.com>. For information about the Portland reading, call (503) 246-0053 or visit <www.annieblooms.com>.