|Outsiders on the Inside: Suburbia and Narrative Distance in the Novels of Chang-Rae Lee
by Robin Aufses
J. F. Kennedy High School
Bellmore, New York
||The Narrative Voice of a "Regular Guy"
Every article about Chang-Rae Lee -- and lately there have been many to celebrate his new novel, Aloft -- talks about what a regular guy he is. He lives in a New Jersey suburb, loves to play golf, and is an involved father of two young daughters. The success of his three novels has not made him less accessible to friends or reporters, despite the fact that Princeton's Council of the Humanities (where he now teaches alongside Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates) wooed him away from New York City's grittier Hunter College.
In 2002, Golf Digest published Lee's account of getting tee time at Bethpage's Black Course (Long Island, New York) the summer that Tiger Woods triumphed in the U.S. Open on this challenging public golf course. Lee is well prepared with a couch pillow, earplugs, a history of the Pacific air war during World War II, and a pint of scotch for the all-nighter that is the only way to ensure a good place in line when the tickets are handed out. But what he imagined would be a "serene encampment of slumbering golfers" turns out to be a "drive-up nighttime men's club, replete with music, drinking, chatter, and a regimented protocol." Lee's affectionate description of the regulars, the father-son tourists from Indiana, young Swedes on a yearly golf pilgrimage, "Mr. Land Rover" working through a book of advanced acrostics, and "Mr. GTO," who clues Lee in to the efficient "backing-in rule," captures the democratic suburban zeitgeist that is the backdrop for two of his novels and at least part of a third. In each, a narrator who is experiencing an internal crisis appears to function normally, fitting into the regimented protocol of his community, and sometimes even comes to terms with his crisis. Lee's account ends with his choosing a later tee time -- noon instead of 6:08 a.m. -- napping in his car, and playing the best golf of his life. Like his narrators, Lee can read the local scene and report on its strange customs, keeping a narrative distance through his command of a lucid, calm, distinctive voice.
Early in Native Speaker, narrator Henry Park is given a piece of paper by his wife as she leaves him. He thinks it's a love poem, but it is a list of his qualities:
You are surreptitious
Lelia is tired of his emotional inaccessibility, and her list is as much about what she doesn't know about him as what she does. But Henry's distance is more understandable when he reveals his struggle to show love for his father: "To tell him I loved him I studied far into the night. I read my entire children's encyclopedia, drilling from aardvark to zymurgy. I never made an error at shortstop. I spit-shined and brushed his shoes every Sunday morning. I spoke volumes to him this way, speak to him still, those same volumes he spoke with me."
B+ student of life
first thing hummer of Wagner and Strauss
Yellow peril: neo-American
great in bed
_____ analyst (you fill in)
Native Speaker chronicles Henry's efforts to come to peace with the memory of his father, reconcile with his wife, and accept the accidental death of his young son. An industrial spy, Henry works undercover on the staff of John Kwang, a pillar of the Korean-American community in Queens, New York. He is swept away by Kwang's idealism even as he finds evidence of his boss's dishonesty and deceit. Henry has been an effective spy, showing Kwang's staff that he "possessed native intelligence but not so great a one or of a certain kind that it impeded [his] sense of duty." He is "at once convincing and unremarkable." This formula for success works for Lee's other narrators as well.
A Gesture Life
Franklin Hata, narrator of A Gesture Life, lives blamelessly and joylessly in a Westchester, New York suburb, retired after having sold his successful medical-supply business. He is content not to have "many intimates or close friends" but to be a "quantity known, somebody long ago counted." When he and his beautiful home are damaged in a fire he carelessly allows to happen, he reevaluates his relationships with his adopted daughter Sunny, and with Mary Burns, whom he dated and let drift away. He eventually faces the central event in his life, his time as a medic in the Japanese army and his consequent experience with the so-called "comfort women" sent to the troops on the front line near the end of World War II. Franklin's voice, like that of Henry Park, is both truthful in revealing his doubts and distant in rationalizing them: "I held my own associations quite close to who I was, in the years leading up to and during the Pacific war, when in the course of events one naturally accepted the wartime culture of shared sacrifice and military codes of conduct."
As a child, Franklin was lucky to score well on several tests and was sent to a special school in a nearby city. Adopted by a wealthy, childless couple who treated him as a son and gave him their name, he considered himself raised by the "purposeful society" in which he lived. He hopes for the same obedience from Sunny. She is not satisfied, however, with Franklin's "life of gestures and politeness." Near the end of the novel, Franklin corrects a friend who calls him "Dr.," an assumption often made about him. His friend responds, "But you are, aren't you? I can tell. It doesn't matter if you have a degree or not. You have the spirit of one in you. The essence." The woman understands his strength -- his ability to know what people are feeling, what they want -- and at the end of the novel Franklin makes peace with his past and works behind the scenes to insure that the people he cares about have every chance for happy suburban futures. Like Henry Park, his strength is in being both convincing and unremarkable.
Born with the last name Battaglia, Jerry Battle, the narrator of Aloft, tries to stay aloft. He flies his small plane -- in good weather only -- over Long Island and can identify his own home by the X he had the roofer lay on it in dark shingles against light. He keeps emotional distance, too: from the memory of his Korean wife Daisy, whose instability led to suicide, and from his son Jack, who has taken over the family landscaping business. Jerry thinks his aging father is as "solid as the masonry work he and his brothers used to do at the big North Shore mansions, artisan-perfect brick walls and slate patios and Carrara marble pillars and stairs," and he ignores his complaints about the nursing home in which he is parked. Admitting to a "habit/condition of disbelieving the Real," Jerry is genuinely shocked when his father's condition declines.
A disappointed former flame describes her presence in Jerry's life as "bad weather," which would quickly pass, but if it didn't he would "take up that plane... and just fly above it." Jerry is brought back to earth by the defection of his long-time girlfriend Rita and by his daughter Theresa's serious illness, which is complicated by her pregnancy. Finally, Jerry must use his native intelligence and his sense of duty as ballast to solve the problems of his loved ones and take his place as paterfamilias.
He is at home on a Long Island of the twenty-first century that includes his young Dominican co-worker in the travel agency, his Korean-American novelist son-in-law, the African-American couple from whom he buys his plane, and his childhood nemesis Richie, now a wealthy lawyer and rival for Rita's attention. It is a new American dream of suburbia.
Chang-Rae Lee's novels offer AP students interesting and complex themes, as well as elements of style worthy of serious study. The distinct voices of the three narrators -- each one sensitive to his own inner turmoil yet unable to communicate clearly to his loved ones -- show the intricacies of the first-person point of view. The suburban settings -- Lee has been compared to authors John Cheever and Rick Moody -- are multiculturally up-to-date; nevertheless, issues of conformity and status obligations beset their inhabitants. The novels consider the outsider who appears to be an insider and the psychic cost of fitting in. All three stories investigate issues around family and history -- immigration, war, industrialization, and technology -- and where the two intersect. Native Speaker might pair effectively with Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, The Gesture Life with Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, and Aloft with Richard Russo's Empire Falls. Finally, Lee's essay "Coming Home Again," first published in The New Yorker and then as part of The Best American Essays 1996, provides a wonderful contrast to Joan Didion's "On Coming Home."
Cao, Lan. Monkey Bridge. New York: Penguin Books. 1997.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. New York: Vintage Books USA. 1993.
Lee, Chang-Rae. Aloft. New York: Riverhead Books. 2004.
_____________. A Gesture Life. New York: Riverhead Books.1999.
_____________. Native Speaker. New York: Riverhead Books. 1995.
_____________. "Coming Home." The Best American Essays 1996. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 1996.
____________. "Waiting Game: The best way to get a tee time at Bethpage is to spend a night in the parking lot. Just don't expect to sleep - playing the U.S. Open Course." Golf Digest. June 2002. (http://www.findarticles.com)
____________."First Tastes, Sea Urchin." http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?020819fa_fact3
Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. New York: Vintage Books USA. 1998.
Russo, Richard. Empire Falls. New York: Vintage Books USA. 2002.
Robin Aufses is the English Department chair at J. F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, New York. She has taught high school English for many years to students at all levels, and has been an AP English teacher for the last seven years. As department chair, she has the pleasure of training young teachers, many of whom will have the chance to teach AP early in their careers.