Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee

This 1999 novel is narrated by Franklin Hata, a retired businessman living in a expensive suburb of Westchester County, north of New York City. He's in his 60s, never married, estranged from his adopted daughter, Sunny. He has sold his successful business, Sunny Medical Supply, to a "youngish New York couple," and he lives in an exceptionally appealing Tudor-style house in one of the best sections of town. "Doc" Hata is Asian, but in the 30 years he's lived in "Bedley Run," he's had only "a few small difficulties from time to time, but it was always just the play of mischievous boys, who enjoyed making faces at me in the shop window, or chalking statements out front on the sidewalk, even going to far as to slather axle grease on the dumpster handles."

On page 5, Hata says,"I think one person can hardly understand why another has conducted his life in such a way, how he came to commit certain actions and not others, whether he looks upon the past with mostly pleasure or equanimity or regret. It seems difficult enough to consider one's on triumphs and failures with perfect verity, for it's no secret that the past proves a most unstable mirror, typically too severe and flattering all at once, and never as truth-reflecting as people would like to believe."

That gives a sense of the book's tone. Good old Doc Hata—affable, self-effacing, helpful. Against which you have his life. Born in Japan of impressed (virtual slave) workers from Korea, he was able to move in with a Japanese family because of his intelligence and ability, and became a Lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army station as a medic in Malaysia during WWII. As Lt. Jiro Kurohata (which means "black flag'), he is responsible for making sure the Korean "comfort women" are fit to service the troops in their remote outpost, which gets bypassed by the war.

Perhaps as an effort to atone for his wartime actions, Doc Hata bribes adoption agency staff to adopt a Korean orphan girl and tries, as a single father, to give her a good, middle-class life. But this is America, and she becomes an American teenage girl, rebellious, angry, self-destructive. As soon as she can, she gets out of the comfortable home Hata has created for her.

I found the book astonishing. There are certain scenes—a confrontation between teen-age Sunny and a local policewoman, Lt. Kurohata challenging his superior officer in Malaysia, among others—that are incredibly powerful. When Lee wrote the book, he was the director of the MFA program at Hunter College in New York City. I am now going to look up his earlier book, Native Speaker, and his more recent The Surrender. I have already read, and recommend, his Aloft.

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