Struggling to understand my appreciation of Chang-rae Lee’s Surrendered, Mark Athitakis wonders whether I am giving Lee “credit for some of the more allegorical work he’s done in the book.”
I wouldn’t put it like that. As I told Mark privately, The Surrendered strikes me as belonging to atrocity literature. Each of Lee’s three main characters—June Singer (née Han), who bore a son to Hector Brennan, the American soldier serving in Korea, and Sylvie Tanner, the missionary adored by both—have been scarred by the evil done by man.
Mark stipulates that I am right—but only so far as the novel’s classification is concerned. June, he acknowledges, “has lost her family to an atrocity, and she responds by spending her life shutting herself off emotionally, an effort that has made her wealthy but separated her from the people close to her—a worn-out theme if there ever was one.” Meanwhile, Sylvie is an “addict trying to blank out the brutality she witnessed years before in Manchuria. The emotional resonances of those experiences are clear,” he concludes, “but there’s no broader thematic value in them.”
That is precisely what I dispute. From the start of his career, in Native Speaker (1995), Lee has been absorbed with the individual’s negotiation with culture and history. Henry Park, the first-generation Korean-American narrator in his first novel, speaks for himself and all other immigrants when he says:
Lee’s people are in the business of dismantling every last pretense of distance and limited responsibility. If this makes them seem “simplistic,” they can probably live with that.