|Never judge a book by its cover--or, for that matter, by its name. Otherwise you might overlook A Gesture Life, Chang-rae Lee's fine if awkwardly entitled follow-up to Native Speaker. As he did in his debut, the author explores the dilemma of being an outsider--and the corrupt, heartbreaking bargains an outsider will make to adapt to his surroundings. The protagonist, Franklin Hata, has actually spent his whole life donning one variety or another of existential camouflage. First, as a native-born Korean, he bends over backwards to fit into Japanese culture, circa 1944. Then he attempts a similar bit of environmental adaptation in postwar America--more specifically, in the slumbering New York suburb of Bedley Run. But in neither case does he quite succeed, which gives the novel its peculiar, faltering sense of tragedy.|
"There is something exemplary to the sensation of near perfect lightness," confesses this resident alien, "of being in a place and not being there, which seems of course a chronic condition of my life but then, too, its everyday unction, the trouble finding a remedy but not quite a cure, so that the problem naturally proliferates until it has become you through and through. Such is the cast of my belonging, molding to whatever is at hand."
A Gesture Life presents this chronic condition in two different time frames. In one, delivered via flashback, Hata is a medical officer in Japan's Imperial Army. Posted to a tiny installation in rural Burma, he's ordered to oversee a fresh detachment of Korean "comfort women"--i.e., victims of institutionalized gang rape. At first he maintains his professional distance, not to mention his erotic appetite: "It was the notion of what lay beneath the crumpled cotton of their poor clothes that shook me like an air-raid siren." But soon enough he's drawn into a relationship with one of the women, whose bloody and horrific denouement leaves a permanent mark on the "unblissed detachment" of his existence.
The present-tense, American half of the story revolves around Hata's life in Bedley Run, where he adopts, alienates, and finally forms a shaky rapport with his daughter, Sunny. We might expect this sort of material to pale in comparison with his wartime trauma. But oddly enough, Hata's suburban melancholia is much more compelling--and the gradual disclosure of his past, which is supposed to ratchet up the tension, seems too crude a mechanism for a writer of Lee's superlative talents. (His truest tutelary spirit, in fact, might be John Cheever, who gets an explicit nod at one point.) None of this is to dismiss A Gesture Life, whose dual narratives are written with a rare, unhurried elegance. And if Lee's splice job lacks the absolute adhesion we expect from a great work of art, he nonetheless pulls off a remarkable, moving feat: he puts us inside the skin of a man who, "if he could choose, might always go silent and unseen." --James Marcus