Drastic Alterations

Chang-rae Lee goes spinning on air—but keep an eye on the weird man in the margins

 "Mr. Park, if you would tell us the Korean-American position on this, please." —Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker


Of course. Chang-rae Lee's third novel, Aloft, arrives swathed in pleasant hype (cover of Poets & Writers, Charles McGrath's Times mag profile), optioned by Scott Rudin, and basically ready for a book club near you. After his idea-packed 1995 debut, Native Speaker, in which a Korean American spies on a rising KA New York politico, Lee switched palettes for 1999's A Gesture Life.

Loosing Battle: Chang-rae Lee
photo: Michelle Branca Lee
Loosing Battle: Chang-rae Lee

Details

Aloft
By Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead, 343 pp. $24.95
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Narrator Franklin Hata is not what he appears—a former WW II Japanese army medic living the good life in the superbly named über-suburb of Bedley Run, New York, he's neither fully Japanese (he's an ethnic Korean adoptee) nor a full-fledged doctor, and he's worlds away from contentment. The twin tragedies of his life are disclosed with pained reticence: his connection with a so-called comfort woman (a "volunteer" sex slave, abducted from Korea) during his Burmese days a half-century ago, and his uneasy relationship with his adopted daughter. The tone is such that one can picture him imbibing Nagasaki-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro's early work, with every line doing the double duty of revelation and effacement.

With The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro stepped outside his skin, writing in the impeccably modulated voice of Stevens, the butler. Now it's Lee's turn to upend the ethnic p.o.v. Aloft is a leisurely novel—some laughs, some tears—in the voice of Jerry Battle, Caucasian of Italian descent, fiftysomething part-time travel agent, widowed father of two, recreational Cessna pilot, and former head of the family business, which over time has morphed from masonry to landscaping to a high-end home furnishings outfit.

Jerry's had a messy life (most notably the mental disintegration and early death of his Korean wife, Daisy), and he's got plenty of current-day entanglements, but he's an agreeable narrator, implicitly honest and reliable (though perhaps not to those around him). His lyrical flights sometimes land perfectly, sometimes veer into Lake Bathos, a few clauses too many latching onto the old lachrymal glands. There's a welcome, vigorous tennis set piece, in which Jerry bets his plane against his ex-lover's fiancé's '92 Testarossa. There are too many descriptions of food, which could charitably be called way-we-live-now precision, but which mainly serve to remind the reader that Lee's written for Gourmet. It's hard to get excited by Jerry Battle. He's articulate, smart, and self-aware—a decent enough guy, all things considered. I think this is by design. Because there's a wormhole. Enter Paul Pyun.

McGrath's piece mentions Agnew Belittlehead, Lee's first, never published stab at a novel, "500 pages long and heavily influenced by Thomas Pynchon." Lee belittles Belittlehead as having "nothing to do with people, nothing to do with humanity." But it seems like this earlier draft of his writerly self must have some hold on Lee. Theresa, Jerry's opinionated academic of a daughter, is engaged to be married (with a whiff of shotgun) to Paul Pyun, a Korean American writer. Paul's traditional Korean parents feel he's wasted his talents on something spectacularly unremunerative, but Jerry's a fan—possibly his only one.

I've read his books . . . and I can say with great confidence that he's 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 I've figured out what his point might be, though I get the sense that the very fact I'm missing it means I'm sort of in on it, too. I guess if you put a gun to my head I'd say he 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.

It's my favorite passage in the book—a wry self-critique, not without longing, and a deflation of the book's serious tone. (Another nice touch: Paul goes from "midlist" to "no-list," and his next book will be published by Seven Tentacles Press.) Jerry never tells his son-in-law-to-be that he once found the second Pyunic novel, Drastic Alterations, with its "footnotes . . . and avant-garde features," remaindered at the Walt Whitman Mall. He bought all 17 copies and gave them as gifts to Battle company employees; the foreman, Boots, e-mails Jerry: "Kinda tough read for me, skip, but English wasn't my best subject. Also, I didn't get the small print at the bottom. Thanks, anyway."

"I am disappearing," Jerry says early on. "But let me reveal a secret. I have been disappearing for years." Ishiguro, having proven with The Remains of the Day that he could dissolve authorial identity and do drawing-room elegance better than the native born, wrote The Unconsoled, the amnesiac epic of a famous pianist making his way through a city of oneiric dimensions—wonderful and totally unexpected. It's a vain hope, tedious perhaps to all but myself, but I can't wait for Lee's follow-up to Aloft, in which he sets his sights even higher and listens to his inner Paul Pyun, or his earlier Chang-rae Lee.

 
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