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Book Review: Aloft by Chang-rae Lee

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No doubt a little comparison and evocation comes with the territory being mined, but despite a focus in his two previous and much-celebrated novels on the immigrant experience in America, Chang-rae Lee’s indebtedness to his American literary inspirations is readily evident. In declaring that John Updike and John Cheever “were undoubtedly influences,” Lee, born in South Korea but raised in the United States, has declared that “I read them as both a suburban kid trying to make sense of his world, and as a lover of literature.” It shows.

But in his own contribution to the chronicling of upper-middle-class American dreamers in the midst of seeming complacency and ennui, Lee offers reassessment and new insights. Noting how growing up in affluent New York “Cheever country” has shaped him, Lee draws from that experience and contends that “I don’t think I’m re-imagining Westchester as any kind of literary landscape, but I do think in some ways I’m rediscovering the kind of people who live there.”

In 1995’s eloquent and absorbing novel Native Speaker – winner of numerous honors, including the PEN/Hemingway Award – that rediscovery is constituted in a Korean-American corporate spy dealing with love and loss, society and politics, in the wake of estrangement from his wife, the recent death of a young son and troubles at work as he infiltrates a popular city councilman’s staff. Stoic and emotionally stunted in accordance with a family and culture that calls for detachment and the value of appearances, the main character grapples with an Updike-style self-examination as he ponders the validity that he is, according to his American-born spouse, a “surreptitious, B+ student of life, illegal alien, emotional alien, Yellow peril: neo-American, stranger, follower, traitor.”

Just as aloof in his “unblissed detachment” and inability to form lasting relationships is the dignified, emotionally reserved and hardworking Korean-born American businessman central to the equally accomplished and ambitious A Gesture Life (1999). Along with parallels to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, various Cheeveresque allusions occur, as when the narrator, in imagining diving into neighbors’ pools, recalls reading the short story “The Swimmer.” In addition to considering that the Cheever character “perhaps suffers a perennial state of upper-middle-class drunkenness,” Lee’s main character also tellingly allows for the possibility for the “spiritual disillusion” of a “secret swimmer who, if he could choose, might always go silent and unseen” –a fitting Rorschach reading for anyone who always feels like an exile, who may regret the sensation “of being in a place and not being there.”

With the affecting, richly ruminative Aloft, Lee, further entrenched in the Updike and Cheever literary environment–and further establishing himself as a writer of nuanced expressiveness, force and humanity–expands his scope beyond the confines of assimilation and identity. Instead of offering another study of an outsider looking in, Lee presents us with a well-crafted, beguiling study of an insider looking for an out.

Jerry Battle is a white 59-year-old Long Island resident who, with his self-absorption and non-confrontational manner, seeks perpetual diversion from his duties, and disengagement from the multiethnic family he has managed to alienate. Ever since the drowning death of his Korean wife Daisy 20 years earlier, Jerry, though usually civil and decent, has become aimless, indifferent to the long-held family business. He is also emotionally distanced from his adult children–daughter Theresa, a professor of literature, and son Jack, who is running and riskily expanding the staid and steady Battle Brothers landscaping company, turning it into a publicly traded specialty home improvement enterprise, replete with glossy annual reports, website and telephone operators standing by.

Furthermore, much to his especial and immediate regret, Jerry sees his longtime Puerto Rican girlfriend, Rita, who helped raise Jerry’s children, leave him after he repeatedly fails to propose. Add to the mix Jerry’s pugnacious and proud father, Hank, unwillingly stuck away in an assisted-living center, and you have, in Jerry’s blinkered view, some pressing demands on a well-meaning but put-upon victim and his “supernatural ability to short-circuit dealing with the needs of others.”

But these are not inescapable demands. Seeking refuge and escape from his cares and apprehension, Jerry retreats more and more by flying solo in his small plane over the neighboring towns and countryside, gratefully leaving behind the “familiar lingering intimations, allusions, narratives, all that compacted striated terra-firma considerations.” From such heights, he finds solace and “the promise of lift, this hope that I could in my own way challenge gravity’s pull.”

That’s a mighty irresistible force to confront, though, and what goes up comes crashing down. Head-in-the clouds thinking is no match for the inevitable and inexorable earthbound obligations that arise when dire circumstances and family hardship finally spur a concerned and newly conscientious Jerry into action and responsibility. As Jerry deals with such accumulating crises as pregnant Theresa’s serious illness, Jack’s spendthrift and ruinous mismanagement of the business and his father’s disappearance, he reflects more on his life, and attempts to make amends and face up to his failings while assessing the prospect for full reconciliation and understanding.

That is, if such prospects aren’t jeopardized by Jerry’s impulsive recklessness– turning that longing for staying aloft into a threat of running aground.

By turns drolly incisive and elegiac, penetrating and poignant, Aloft, though a departure for Lee and more stylistically colloquial than Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, is as provocative as it is evocative. Wonderfully curmudgeonly at times, the novel is peppered throughout with keen social observations (or old-fogey vilifications–take your pick) couched in Jerry’s stinging bon mots and potshots aimed at “the attendant signs of our cultural march”: Technological advances in “instant and ubiquitous connection” signifies that “you don’t communicate so much as leave messages for one another, these odd improvisational performances, often sorry bits and samplings of ourselves that can’t help but seem out of context.” These kids today dress “as though the whole society has embraced dereliction and criminality as its defining functions.” Planned obsolescence in American consumerism just leads to “byproduct from the start, slickly marketed and apotheosized as essential,” indicating that “we’ve somehow abrogated that particular law of thermodynamics concerning the conservation of all energy and matter.”

Not even Jerry’s loved ones get spared some critical assessments, though more tempered, good-natured ones. The opulent lifestyle and extravagance of Jack’s family gets some ribbing with his “Lady Sub-Zero” wife who schedules for their children “endless ‘enrichment’ exercises and activities … that are undoubtedly brain-expanding but must be as fun as memorizing pi to twenty-five places.” But Theresa comes in for bonus brickbats for her politically-correct sociobabble, sententious gaseousness and propensity to “hand-wring and wallow in self-pitying angst and consult countless other liberal overeducated professionals.”

In a more self-effacing and presumably thinly disguised manner, Lee characterizes Theresa’s fiance Paul, a Korean-American novelist, as one who “writes about the Problem With Being Sort of Himself–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 isn’t the hottest ticket.” He is also referred to “The Artist Formerly Known as Publishable.”

Nothing that Chang-rae Lee, aloft with this hot ticket of a novel–itself containing conflicts and complications but also a few answers and a lot of hope –needs to worry about.


… increasingly it seems I’m not a mystery to anyone, the very fact of which, as it has been made more than clear to me on a number of occasions, is part of my so-called life problem. This from Theresa, mostly, though also from my son Jack (in Surround Sound silence), and from my once-loving Rita, each of whom holds to a private version of the notion, furious and true. The only one who seems unable to fathom my evidently patent, roughshod ways is my ailing father, who continues to misread my every motive and move, with the resulting accrual of enmity and suspicion steadily drowning out the few remaining vitalities of his mind (yet another mirthless progression to be considered and acted upon, and alarmingly soon). If anything, I’m afraid, he and I are long steeped in a mystery without poetry, a father-son brew not just particular to us, of course, though ours is a special recipe enough, and like the rest warrants further parsing, which I must try, try.

As soon as I aim my sweet ship in line with the field, I can just barely glimpse the X in the distance, faded enough from these brief seasons that it reads like a watermark on the broad, gently pitched roof of my ranch-style house, and the temptation is to interpret this muted-ness as muteness, my signage ever faint, and disappearing. This is probably true. I am disappearing. But let me reveal a secret. I have been disappearing for years.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • chancelucky

    Thanks for the thorough thoughful review. Native Speaker is still sitting on my shelf at home waiting to be read. You mention the kinship between Lee and Updike/Cheever. What are your thoughts on the similarity between Lee and Ishiguro?

  • chancelucky

    I should have said, could you expand on your thoughts about the parallels between Lee and Ishiguro :}.

  • GoHah

    Glad you liked the review, chancelucky–thanks. To address your question (hopefully): Probably the best representative parallels are constituted in the main characters in Lee’s “A Gesture Life” and Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day,” with the facades of circumspect reserve and detachment that characterizes the “model citizen” in America and the British “stiff upper lip” varieties masking and denying deeper emotional touchstones, an unexamined life, and love lost and found. Psychological smokescreening and denial snowballing until “the past was close behind” (to quote Dylan), bringing forth regrets (he’s “had a few, but then again too few too mention” to quote Sinatra–sorry, my inner monologue consists almost solely of song snippets), belated introspection, and near-epiphanies (no, no song there) and hoped-for ch-ch-ch-changes (Bowie, sorry again). Anyway, you can see how “Aloft” marks a departure for Lee–I think I mentioned somewhere in the long-winded verbiage in the review about a change from “an outsider looking in” to “an insider looking for an out” for protagonist’s increasing aloofness and irresponsibility–and it is almost like reading Cheever or Updike.

    Sorry I lapsed into thesis-speak and song. By the way, I was just reading about Ishiguro’s newest, “Never Let Me Go”–looks good, and like a good review prospect. I hope someday you’ll get around to reading “Native Speaker”–though I know how hard it is to find the time.