Mister Manners

I have long felt that I ought to place my energies toward the reckoning of what stands in the here and now . . . and so this is what I shall do." So resolves Franklin Hata, a Japanese man born in Korea who has lived in a small New York town for more than 30 years. Now in his seventies, he's begun to look back on his life with the intention of wrapping up its various loose ends, tallying his triumphs and his failures, figuring out what it all means and whether or not it was worth it.

Reckoning of this type is an understandable goal for anyone of any age who has the finish line in sight. Why not seek some final accounting before the dying of the light? The problem with Franklin Hata is his tendency to veer off-target: Wary of directly confronting issues or people, he dodges constantly, which results in glancing blows where only head-on collisions will do. Not that he isn't aware of this. He admits to not having the stomach for "taking certain issues to the necessary lengths."

Given his fundamental timidity, it's no wonder he's been a failure at love. Hata suggests that his life has been largely defined by his relationships with three women: K, with whom he fell in love while a young soldier in WW II; Sunny, his adopted daughter, who moved out of his house as soon as she was old enough; and Mrs. Burns, an attractive widow who was at first drawn to him but then, like Sunny, was repelled by Hata's emotional distance.

Chang-Rae Lee wrestles with the inscrutability of love and the deceptive power of memory.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Chang-Rae Lee wrestles with the inscrutability of love and the deceptive power of memory.

Details

'A Gesture Life'
By Chang-Rae Lee
Riverhead, 356 pp., $23.95
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Hata endured a rough, forced maturation in 1944 while serving in the Japanese Imperial army. So patriotic and naive was he that he believed the women sent to "provide comfort" to the soldiers "had enlisted or been recruited into the wartime women's volunteer corps, to contribute and sacrifice as with all." K was a beautiful, brave "comfort woman" who met a terrible end despite Hata's reckless attempt to save her. Although he presents his infatuation with the doomed K as a signal turning point in his life, it's not at all clear that it transformed him very much. His ambition changed, to be sure: Instead of becoming the prizewinning surgeon he once dreamed about, he moved to the United States and became the owner of a small but prosperous medical-supply store. Still, that's the only significant change. Prior to meeting her he had been a reticent, self-effacing solid citizen; after losing her he continues to be a reticent, self-effacing solid citizen.

Hata's relationship with Sunny is puzzling as well. With her insouciant demeanor and appetite for dangerous men, Sunny wears the persona of the troubled American teen like a comfortable coat. Inevitably, and almost instinctively, she becomes the opposite of Hata, despising his efforts to win acceptance by willing himself virtually invisible. Her adoptive father has always been obsessed with fitting in, first as a Korean in Japan, and later as an Asian immigrant in America. For Hata, all those years spent standing in front of his humble, spotless store, beaming benignly at passersby has been an investment in his community's goodwill. He believes newcomers are responsible for making their neighbors feel at ease, not the other way around. Hata calls it doing "what is necessary in being complimentary, as a citizen and colleague and partner."

Recalling an instance in which Sunny's recalcitrance embarrassed him, Hata confesses that he "wanted to close the shop and rush out there and shake her to sensibility." Readers may be tempted to do the same to Franklin Hata, who as Sunny rightly describes it, makes "a whole life out of gestures and politeness." Although the girl's constant disobedience does grate on the nerves, it's easy to sympathize with her desire to break free of her father's misguided ideas. Hata realizes that his excessive formality is at least partly to blame for Sunny's various missteps. Late in the novel, when he gets a chance to have Sunny in his life again, he catches himself lapsing into the "lawyerly and justifying way" he always employed to talk to her when she was growing up.

Not surprisingly, Hata is introspective to a fault, prone to philosophical ramblings rendered in precious prose. For example, he has "always wondered if training or rearing tells more than the simple earth and ash and blood from which we come, or whether these social inurements eventually fall away, like the moldering garments of the dead, to reveal the underlying bones." Do people really ponder such questions in such language? Would a septuagenarian medical-supply salesman? Maybe Chang-rae Lee's intention is to show that surfaces are deceiving, that if you scratch deep enough you may find that a peddler's passive exterior hides the soul of a philosopher-poet. If so, Hata's verbosity left me unconvinced.

One gets the sense that Lee is attempting to wrestle— however subtly— with larger themes here, among them the fragility of racial identity, the awful inscrutability of love, the deceptive power of memory. He was able to explore such ideas more convincingly in Native Speaker, his first novel, through the use of a narrator whose work as a spy made his deceptions and circumlocutions all the more appropriate. Franklin Hata has no such convenient constructions to rely on and as a result often comes across as merely tiresome and unreliable. Lee's concerns wind up lost in his protagonist's somnolent ramblings. If Hata somehow possessed a touch of animal magnetism or quirky charm, his peregrinations would surely be more believable.

 
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