By Donna Rifkind
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; C02
By Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead. 469 pp. $26.95
Chang-rae Lee's three previous novels were all commandeered by forceful narrators, each with a distinct voice and each struggling to find his moorings in a swiftly changing cultural landscape. First was bereaved young Henry Park in "Native Speaker," followed by courtly old Doc Hata in "A Gesture Life" and midlife-tragicomic Jerry Battle in "Aloft." In creating these affecting first-person voices, Lee proved to be as ardent a student of the American literary canon as he is a keen contributor to it, traversing the intersection between Cheeveresque suburban unease and contemporary immigration literature with uncommon fluency.
Lee's latest novel, which has been in the works for more than five years, veers into different territory. Much bleaker than his earlier books, it is, like Jayne Anne Phillips's recent "Lark and Termite," a story about the ruinous effects of the Korean War on not one but several characters, told this time from a third-person perspective.
"The journey was nearly over," Lee begins, a curious start for a long book that is more about endurance than endings. During this first chapter, we're introduced to June Han, a complicated personality who lodges in the reader's consciousness like the literary equivalent of an earworm. By the time the book really is over, we will have come to understand June's "diamond hard" character so completely that she'll seem more real than some people we know. But her power is somewhat dimmed by the two less compelling figures who, along with June, form the novel's central triad: Hector Brennan, an American soldier turned sad-sack janitor; and Sylvie Tanner, the lovely but damaged object of both June's and Hector's affections.
These three wayfarers' journeys first overlap in 1953, just after the end of the war, in a makeshift orphanage in the South Korean countryside not far from Seoul. Here, 20-something Hector, whose movie-star looks mask a despairing aimlessness, has taken a job as a handyman after the U.S. Army discharges him. June, who lands at the orphanage at the same time, is a teenage refugee who fled south during the war, having lost her entire family in a series of cruel deaths and disappearances. Sylvie, the wife of the American missionary who runs the orphanage, forms a particular bond with June, having suffered her own share of girlhood trauma when her aid-worker parents met horrific fates in wartime Manchuria in 1934.
The action swerves back and forth among 1930s China, 1950s Korea and New York City in 1986, when June, battling stomach cancer at age 47, is shuttering her successful Manhattan antiques shop and preparing for yet another journey. With her illness closing in on her, June plans to fly to Italy for a final reunion with her son, Nicholas, whom she raised alone while stoically building her business. Nicholas departed hastily for Europe after his high school graduation eight years ago and has been only sketchily in contact since.
For thorny reasons, before June leaves she must enlist the help of Hector, whom she hasn't seen in decades and who is currently trudging through a booze-soaked half-life as a janitor in a rundown New Jersey mall. Hector's long-ago relationship with June was, to say the least, complex: Not only was he once June's rival for Sylvie's attention, carrying on an affair with the married missionary woman that ended catastrophically; he is also, unknowingly and not altogether plausibly, Nicholas's father.
We're willing enough to go along with this dubious plot point and several jarringly melodramatic episodes that punctuate an otherwise coherent narrative. What's harder to accept, from an author for whom character has always been paramount, is the lack of dimensionality in both Hector and Sylvie, who manage to seem vaporous and wooden at the same time. The scenes from Sylvie's childhood ordeal in Manchuria are gruesomely violent, with an undeniable power, and her post-traumatic behavior is believable. But as an adult she congeals into a cliche, a tarnished beauty from some lesser-known Maugham story who speaks in stiff, romance-novel sentences.
Hector, meanwhile, has only one note from the beginning. Named for an epic hero and raised in the Upstate New York factory town of Ilion, Hector has mysterious self-healing qualities: He bar-brawls but never gets hurt; he drinks without getting drunk. He lives with the guilty Greek-tragic certainty that he is condemned to immortality while serving unwillingly as "the dooming factor for everyone but himself." A little of this goes a long way, yet we get scene after scene of this from Hector, who's far more invested in his unworthiness than we ever could be and has no mood other than mopeyness. When he reaches yet another low point and "hardly seemed to care whether he was living or dead," benumbed readers have little choice but to agree.
Contrast this with June, who blazes with obstinate life at every point of her journey: on a Korean road southward as a refugee child, where she ate mud to keep from dying of thirst; decades later in her oncologist's office, where she wrests control of her cancer treatment; and in the book's final scenes in Italy, where even here, hazy with morphine, she insists on stumbling forward. There isn't an ounce of charm in June, but her relentlessness always feels genuine.
Serious readers these days are not so unsophisticated as to expect a novel like "The Surrendered" to provide any sort of uplift -- which it certainly does not -- or to teach them Very Important Lessons about war and its catastrophic effects. They will read this book to share the life that's in it, and they have every right to expect that it will offer life in return. With one full-hearted portrait out of three, Lee has only partially but rather magnificently succeeded.
Rifkind is a writer in Los Angeles.