Monday, March 22, 2010

Surrendering to responsibility

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:

The forever is my burden to bear. But I and my kind possess another dimension. We will learn every lesson of accent and idiom, we will dismantle every last pretense and practice you hold, noble as well as ruinous. You can keep nothing safe from our eyes and ears. This is your own history. We are your most perilous and dutiful brethren, the song of our hearts at once furious and sad. For only you could grant me these lyrical modes. I call them back to you. Here is the sole talent I ever dared nurture. Here is all of my American education.The forever is my burden to bear. Hector says something similar to Sylvie when she announces her intention of leaving the orphanage. He has finally figured out why she gives the impression that, although she offers “hope and goodness and love” to others, she accepts help from no one: “Because you know in your heart that once you’ve come here you can’t give up anyone. Because when you do, you leave every last one of us.” That is the burden she bears, and it is endless.

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.


Mark Athitakis said...

Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments---I don't think I've spent more time recently thinking about a book I didn't much like. A little more in the comments on my blog:

Sasha Martinez said...

I have been watching both of you go at it for weeks now. I am several pages into The Surrendered (I actually picked it up because of you guys), and having your debate rattle in my head has made for quite an interesting reading experience. :)