Sample Book Reviews
A Classic in the Making
469 pages; cloth, $26.95; paper, $16.00
Following the dazzling 1995 debut with Native Speaker, Chang-rae Lee has published three more novels, all of them of comparable quality: A Gesture Life (1999), Aloft (2004), and The Surrendered. As one reviewer offered in a comment reprinted in Aloft, Lee belongs to the rare breed of “writer[s] who…fee[l] expansive enough in [their] spirit and ambitions to encompass not just [their] close kinsmen but [also] the infamous Other.” In Native Speaker, this expansiveness is pointedly Whitmanesque—a staple of college curricula these days, the superbly crafted spy thriller in which Glimmer & Company employs “ethnics” like Korean American Henry Park to gather information on immigrants, the recently “hyphenated,” and other “others,” can be read, indeed, as a conversation with Walt Whitman and his ebullient pathos of inclusiveness. In A Gesture Life, a similarly cross-cultural and cross-canonical dialogue involves, no less conspicuously, Benjamin Franklin. Tracing the discourse of “accommodating” America past Whitman all the way to Franklin, the 1999 novel forefronts this complex notion in Ben Franklin’s name, as it were, onomastically, but also ideologically, in the name and life story of Korean Japanese American narrating protagonist Franklin Hata. If the first book’s insightful genealogy of nativism dwells critically on Whitman’s euphoric intimations of the American multitudinous self, A Gesture Life cuts deeper, to this self’s liberal-individualist, self-reliant bedrock to ask how instrumental this quintessentially Franklinesque conceptual matrix is to a narrative of Americanization—Hata’s—that spans the better half of the twentieth century and has still to come to grips with the traumatic memory of Hata’s pre-American past.