A GESTURE LIFE
By Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead. 356 pp. $23.95
Reviewed by John Derbyshire
This is an excellent second novel by the author of Native Speaker, which came out in 1995. That book won several prizes, but I confess it was not for me. I do not like ethnic fiction and shall greet with joy the day, if it ever arrives, when American writers produce a full year's crop of novels not one of which gives any clue at all to its author's ancestry (Chang-rae Lee's is Korean). Native Speaker had some good things in it, yet still I felt it did not altogether rise above the dreary whine of hyphenated-American victimhood.
A Gesture Life is a far superior piece of work. The book's story encompasses the life of "Doc" Hata, a Japanese gentleman living in Bedley Run, a dormitory town in New York City's outermost suburbs. For 30 years Hata, now in his seventies, ran a small business here -- a store selling medical supplies, which he tended with loving care: "I know as well as anyone that it's challenging for a medical supplier to create an attractive storefront, that bedpans and insulin kits don't make for a naturally scintillating display, but with a little effort and creativity it's not long before you can come up with a window that is almost pleasing to look at."
By diligent storekeeping and some discreet participation in the public affairs of the town, Hata has established himself as a respectable and well-liked citizen "Doc" to the townspeople who know and trust him, though he is not a licensed physician. At last he sells the store to a couple from the city and retires to his house, one of the better properties in the area.
The store was one of the two great projects of Doc Hata's life. The other was Sunny, a half-Korean, half-black girl he adopted when she was 8, soon after he had settled in Bedley Run. Never married, Hata raised the girl himself in correct middle-class style -- piano lessons, soccer, Brownies. He was assisted for a while, in Sunny's early teens, by a widowed neighbor of his own age with whom he had an autumnal affair.
Interleaved with this narrative of our own time are Hata's recollections of his early life. Though he was raised in Japan as a Japanese, his people were in fact part of the Korean underclass that did the lowest kinds of jobs in prewar Japan. He had the good fortune to be taken in by a Japanese family and went on to serve as a medical officer in the Imperial armed forces during World War II. It was then, at a remote garrison in Burma far from the main theaters of war, that he was given responsibility for the health of a squad of Korean "comfort women," sent to the garrison for the sexual relief of the troops. From this task developed the formative experience of his life, casting its shadow down through the years to Bedley Run, to the girl Sunny, to the store.
Doc Hata is a deeply sympathetic character. His yearning to rise above mere gesture -- to be remembered, to leave his mark -- is thwarted at every turn. He is like a man in a nightmare signing his name over and over again, the ink fading and vanishing into the blank sheet of paper as fast as he can write. That late-blooming romance ends with separation and death. Sunny goes to the bad and flees from him. The store he tended with so much pride sinks into failure soon after he has sold it. Commercial failure -- a key life event and literary metaphor in this commercial Republic -- is in fact one of the running themes of the book.
Hata muses, "And it's almost too much for me . . . to imagine the fantastic idea of what Sunny Medical Supply might be instead of half-emptied and shut, what kind of vital, resplendent establishment could have been built, not for pride or for riches but for a place to leave each night and glance back upon and feel sure would contain us. . . . For isn't this what I've attempted for most all of my life, . . . isn't this my long folly, my continuous failure?"
Though I like and admire A Gesture Life, I want to post some slight reservations. There is, for example, no strong narrative reason for Hata's Korean parentage. He could just as well have been pure Japanese, except that this would have violated the ground rules of victimological fiction. Now I do not doubt that the Japanese were often beastly toward the people they conquered; yet if there is a prize awarded in hell for murdering Koreans, the easy winner in the 20th-century division would be North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. Perhaps Chang-rae Lee will write a novel about that. If he does, and if he makes as good a story of it as he has given us here, it will be something to look forward to.
John Derbyshire's latest project is the CD "36 Great American Poems," available via his web site at http://www.olimu.com.