Between Genres: On Chang-rae Lee’s Realism

By Min Hyoung SongJanuary 10, 2014

Between Genres: On Chang-rae Lee’s Realism

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

THE PUBLICATION of Chang-rae Lee’s first novel in 1995 heralded something original and important. Native Speaker was a work of literary realism that captured an explosively diverse New York City. It moved between neighborhoods with ease, showing its readers a dizzying array of peoples and the fault lines marking the places where they came into contact with one another. The writing contained a sinuous, self-aware complexity that could lead readers to forget what the story itself was about even as it firmly reinforced the novel’s many themes. Here’s a taste of the prose, which begins with the mysterious phrase, “I went to him this way”:

Take the uptown number 2 train to Time Square. Get off. Switch, by descending the stairs to the very bottom of the station, to the number 7 trains, those shabby heaving brick-colored cars that seem to scratch and bore beneath the East River out of Manhattan before breaking ground again in Queens. They rise up on the elevated track, snaking their way northeast to the farthest end of the county. The last stop, mine.

Main Street, Flushing.

The everydayness of a trip hundreds make daily becomes something extraordinary in this passage, as the hard factuality of numbers and simple directions gives way to a long descriptive sentence that animates the train itself. It’s an underground dweller. It doesn’t so much follow tracks as it digs a path for itself. It also seems capable of changing form, from a train to many independent mole-like creatures, to a single long reptile-like thing hugging the folds of the earth. To say the “last stop” is “mine” also suggests a double meaning. Is it merely the stop Henry Park, the novel’s protagonist, needs to get off to go where he’s going, or does he belong to the stop in some way? Does it have a claim on him, so that his arrival feels almost like a homecoming? Likewise, to pair “Main Street” with “Flushing” seems to make a larger point about where the latter should be mapped in the reader’s imagination. It’s not a place where a lot of nonwhites and immigrants live, a place far and Other to the steely affluence of Manhattan, but something evocative of the very heartland of the nation, an extension of a mythical small town America with its multitudinous main streets.

Tarrying over passages such as this, readers might understandably fail to remember that they are reading a spy thriller. The plot is as convoluted and as central to the characters as any found in a work by Ian Fleming, John le Carré, or Tom Clancy. Just try to summarize it, and see what happens. To be sure, Native Speaker takes liberties with the genre by centering character, setting, and style over plot. This slows the pace down, letting the novel go deep in a way popular storytelling — which is usually, by contrast, focused on what happens next — cannot do as well. No one, I suspect, has ever shelved this novel in the same bookstore section as Casino Royale or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The experiment was surprisingly ambitious. In seeking to weld the self-reflexive with the action-centered, Lee’s first novel anticipated the work of writers as diverse as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Colson Whitehead, and Jennifer Egan. The ready-made narrative of the spy thriller clashed in remarkable ways with the literary, if by this we mean a heightened self-consciousness about the effort to keep language and form innovative, giving both renewed interest. The incorporation of the immigrant story further heightened this interest, suspending readers between genres that they may have thought were already highly familiar but were, at least in relation to each other, actually quite strange. If spies are always asking us to mistrust appearances and to question what we know of cause and effect, then perhaps the immigrant as a kind of spy is also someone in disguise, involved in a plot thick with confusing twists of identity. By the end, whatever they might have thought of the experience, readers can’t help but be impressed by Native Speaker’s formal daring and linguistic virtuosity.

As happens with so many successful young writers, the first book raised expectations for what might follow. The writing itself in the second novel seems to respond to this pressure by becoming more mannered. This is when Lee’s prose began to be compared to Kazuo Ishiguro’s, not always in a flattering way. Like the narrator of The Remains of the Day, Doc (Franklin) Hata in A Gesture Life (1999) works hard to present himself in a certain way. This is made evident in the very first few sentences: “People know me here. It wasn’t always so. But living thirty-odd years in the same place begins to show on a man. In the course of such time, without even realizing it, one takes on the characteristics of the locality, the color and stamp of the prevailing dress and gait and even speech — those gentle bells of the sidewalk passerby, their How are yous and Good days and Hellos.”

The prose is certainly pretty, but differently so than in Native Speaker. While the latter was exuberant in its use of language, reveling in the author’s powers of invention, here the language works to produce a narrower effect. The more Hata speaks, the more the holes in his self-presentation appear, and the more readers see a darker side to his ever-present congeniality. To start anything by asserting, “People know me here,” is already to challenge readers to wonder whether it is true. It is a way of calling attention to the effort that goes into wanting to assert something difficult to prove — how many of us can say with any certainty what others think of us? — as if it were commonly accepted. As the novel progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that Hata is largely unknown, an aloof shadow of a person whom others mostly tolerate.

The darkness pokes through most visibly as Hata relates how he had been a part of the Japanese military during World War II. As a medic, it was his responsibility to help take care of the Korean comfort women who were being forced to have sex with soldiers, in part as a way to discourage the raping of the women in the lands they came to conquer. A Gesture Life thus follows two narrative tracks: the first about Hata’s life as an old man living the reminder of his days in an affluent American suburb, and the second about Hata as a young man, who gets caught up in a terrible atrocity and finds no meaningful way to intervene. On the one hand, the novel turns its circumspect gaze on the ease of life in an immaculately kept suburb where the surface is one of an enduring, and often suffocating, calm. On the other, it cannot ignore the terrible hardship endured by the Korean comfort women at the hands of a ruthless Japanese army.

It is only in the latter, at a moment of heightened conflict, that the novel’s careful word choice and proper diction and complete sentences seem to fall apart, their order and precision exposed as evasions of something awful. About finding the body of a comfort woman he claimed to love, after she has been brutally gang raped and murdered, Hata recalls, “Nor could I see the face, the perfected cheek and brow. Its pristine sleep still unbroken, undisturbed. And I could not know what I was doing, or remember any part.” The denial is what allows the horror of the scene to break through the manicured fineness of these sentences.

I take no issue with readers who find this novel’s enjambment of plots brilliant, but I wish it had just been one thing. Maybe part of me craves the thrill of popular storytelling, the drum, drum, drum of events that so readily satisfies the desire for immersion. The way in which Hata’s language is a part of the story, a slow and deliberate revelation of the way words can be used to distract, hide, and refuse responsibility, got in the way of this desire. I was repeatedly taken out of the flow of the narrative, and left wondering at the way the language kept calling attention to its obfuscations. More than that, though, I felt frustrated that what I was most interested in, the comfort women, was somehow folded into the suburban novel.

This sense of frustration grew more acute with the third novel. Aloft (2005) depicts the lives of the upper middle class as being vacuum-sealed in tidy homes, a constant striving for purchasing the right material objects to show off one’s successes, and anxiety that more security and prestige can be had if only one could make a lot more money. The drama is mundane and, for the most part, minor, but for the characters elevated to a feverish pitch. The yearning for connection, for a sense of a greater world, for the possibility of making one’s life more meaningful than a quest for stuff is palpable, and even admirable. Against such a yearning, the characters all seem to sense how tiresome they are, even to themselves, as they find ways of coping with the burden of having so much of everything and yet feeling little contentment. Joy is unthinkable. Persecution, however, is a feeling that’s always nearby, ready to be felt and even inhabited. Like other works of suburban fiction, Aloft shines a light on how wealth cozies up to injury. The more money its characters have, the more they are vexed by a sense of grievance.

Still, as flawless as its technical execution is and as intriguing as its ideas are, I found myself unable to care about any of the characters. The suburban world it depicts was devoid of urgent narrative matter, the kind that can pull me into a story and leave me lingering in deep thought about its details. Even the choice to cross the color line by telling the story from a white man’s perspective doesn’t feel especially interesting, Jerry Battle being already such a familiar character. Readers are used to seeing the world through his eyes. The fact that the author is not white didn’t inflect that view very much. There’s also the presence of the disturbed wife, deceased when the story begins. She is the third Korean woman, in as many novels, who seemed somehow destined not to make it through the story alive. In this case, she didn’t even make it to the first page alive (there’s also her daughter, who dies before the novel ends). Again, I had the feeling that I had seen this before.

In many ways, my relationship to Lee as a reader felt as if it had come to an end with the third novel. It was so perfect and yet so unexciting. His career seemed to be caught in a cul-de-sac. I couldn’t see where he’d go next, or why I’d want to follow him there. Then The Surrendered (2010) appeared. It’s big, ambitious, and full of an almost reckless risk-taking. The opening chapter, which narrates June’s desperate march south down the war-torn Korean peninsula during the height of the Korean War, is one of the most harrowing, hair-raising, mouth-drying experiences I’ve ever had while reading a work of fiction. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and from there gets worse. Amazingly, this downward slope continues beyond the first chapter into the purest abjection. The other two characters the reader meets, who are less engaging than June, suffer with equal ferocity, and when it seems no one person could suffer more, the physical pain, the psychological loathing, the constant betrayal continue.

The motion of the narrative requires The Surrendered to move from the realism of its war chapter to melodrama and a whole host of other popular narratives involving femme fatales, hard-boiled detectives, mob bosses, and petty crooks. Hector is indestructible, almost like the Bruce Willis character in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. Sylvie is beautiful, tragic, and a drug addict — reminiscent of the character Alma Garret in HBO’s Deadwood. The stock nature of these characters seems necessary because the novel descends into comic violence and extreme circumstances. It follows a sharp downward trajectory with a single-mindedness that is awe-inspiring.

Take, for instance, this marvelous scene. Many pages have already passed, building inextricably to this moment, when June and Hector will be reunited after having been apart for many decades. June has hired a private detective, who is himself down on his luck and too old to be doing his job, to find Hector, who may or may not be the father of her only son. The son has gone missing long ago in Europe somewhere, she thinks she knows where, and she wants Hector’s help in finding him. Hector, whose life plain sucks, has met a woman, Dora, a drinker like himself, and the two have struck up a romance. Both imagine the possibility that they might somehow be able to share a happier life together. June and Hector are so obviously bad for each other, so mismatched, it’s no surprise that their meeting should lead to the detective accidently running Dora over with his car:

The corner of the parked sedan, just where she and Dora had been standing, was pushed in, smashed. June herself was untouched. But Dora was lying still on the pavement. The man knelt beside her, his back to June, his white bags discarded in the middle of the street. One of Dora’s legs was all bloody, a mangle of flesh, though June couldn’t exactly tell. Dora was crying, very softly. Then she stopped crying and was quiet and then cried a little again and then she no longer made any sounds at all.

What should be immediately noticeable about this passage is that it is all action. There’s little room here for introspection. The prose works to train attention on what happens, and what happens next. The writing is no less polished, no less beautiful to behold, than in Lee’s earlier novels, but it also serves to move the story along, to draw us into a moment, to give us a sense of immersion that more often than not Lee’s other writings have given only partway. Dora’s last breaths are riveting. We feel the struggle to breathe, the labor of trying to take in air when the lungs are crushed, the final effort before there is no more strength remaining and the body has taken its literal last intake of oxygen.

June’s eventual death, the one readers have been anticipating for almost the whole of the novel, finally occurs, and somehow the last scene is still utterly moving and heartbreaking. They have entered an old church together, one reminiscent of the chapel Hector built during the Korean War in an orphanage where he worked, and the light is brighter inside than out. The alter at the center of the room is made of bones, “There were hundreds of them, if not a thousand, all neatly lined up, one beside the next, like some vast, horrid hat shop. Some of the skulls had jagged holes punched out of their temples, blown out from their crowns; some were smashed through at the cheek, at the nose.” June is so close to death, she needs Hector to see the church for her:

“Are we inside?” June murmured, her eyes shiny pieces of coal. “Are we here?”

He said yes.

“It must be beautiful. Is it beautiful?”

It is beautiful, he whispered, not hearing his own voice. This is our place.

This overwrought ending shouldn’t work, but it does. There is a refusal to give in to the idea that anything positive can come of the experiences these characters have had to endure. There is no redemption. No one is made a better person by suffering. Hector is still alone, defeated, and self-hating, maybe more so than he was before. June is still the same obstinate, frustrating, driven character, even when she’s dragging her near-lifeless body to its final, delusional end. And yet the two characters, who have every reason to hate each other, share a tender moment. They connect in a way that is oddly satisfying, together connecting to a communal feeling that mourns for all the things they have lost or were never going to get in the first place.

I loved it. If Aloft is a closing of a circle, an inward-looking investigation of a stale way of life, The Surrendered is a courageous departure. It’s flawed in many ways. It’s overly violent. The characters are often mere caricatures. The settings can be clichéd. The machinery of prose fiction is on full display, as in Dora’s death or in June’s final moments. Its mechanisms clank and creak and reveal themselves as grinding along in ways that aren’t always flattering. But all of this seems to be on purpose, to get us to see how realism can slide into something surreal or hyperreal, and then into something else entirely, an abstraction that asks us to experience our world in a way we hadn’t before.


On Such a Full Sea is not as ferocious as its predecessor. There are moments when Lee’s extraordinary ability to depict brutal violence with vivacious intensity is on full display, as the scene in a roadside motel, but for the most part the novel is introspective, measured, intentional in its desire to slow the pace down — closer to Hata’s voice in A Gesture Life: “We have mentioned the murals featuring their portraits, guerrilla-painted and under cover of night, with other less prominent notations around the block becoming more and more a part of our everyday life.” This is a mid-sized sentence that feels longer, partly because qualifiers of various kinds interrupt its flow, making the reader work to follow along. The sentence is also vague, so that the more it describes the less clear it is what is being described. The next sentence is three times as long, which further slows the pace down, even as the interruptions to daily life it details also becomes obscured by the narrator’s constant editorializing. This is a buzzing that wants, desperately and incompletely, to control how readers might interpret the meaning of these interruptions.

Through the steady accumulation of such sentences, the novel focuses attention on the gaps in its convoluted narration, so as to make readers more aware of the facets of contemporary life that are so easily, and intentionally, put out of mind. The story shifts back and forth between the first-person plural narrator’s reflections on what is happening to a village built on the ruins of Baltimore, comprised of Chinese émigrés who, many years before, abandoned their hometown to ecological devastation, and the adventures of Fan, a young woman who has left the village in search of a boyfriend who has been mysteriously abducted. Fan’s travels take her through the poverty-stricken counties and into the wealthy but antiseptic sanctum of the charters.

Need I point out that the present of the novel is our future? The future Lee envisions is one in which the government has contracted to the private pampering of a select few, while the many are abandoned to make life as best they can. Storms have grown fiercer, fresh water is in low supply, the tides have started to rise, and food must be grown in carefully maintained facilities protected from the elements. The vast bulk of the population lives in the severest penury, in vast stretches of land called “counties,” while the privileged handful live in heavily fortified enclaves called “charters.” There is a small group, such as those who live in the village of B-Mor, who occupy a tiny middle class. In short, the world of the novel is an exaggerated version of our own. It’s depressing to think of how little On Such a Full Sea exaggerates.

What I immediately noticed when I started reading, even before it fully registered that Lee’s latest novel is a work of speculative fiction, is the first epigraph, several lines from the play Julius Caesar. What I couldn’t get out of my mind is the description of Henry’s interaction with his father at his produce store in Native Speaker: “My father, thinking that it might be good for business, urged me to show them how well I spoke English, to make a display of it, to casually recite ‘some Shakespeare words.’” Is Lee playing a game, asking us to think about how he is himself speaking “some Shakespeare words”? At first glace, the second epigraph does little to allay this suspicion. It appears to be two conventional stanzas written by some poets we’re unlikely to recognize. Something esoteric and high literary, to match the first epigraph. But if readers look closely, what they find are the lyrics of a popular song called “Only the Young” from the 1980s. What seems like the name of poets turns out to be the members of the band Journey.

This kind of tension, between the conventionally highbrow and the popular, suggests something about what follows. On Such a Full Sea continues Lee’s experimentation with literary realism — the way he keeps fusing it with genre fiction and extreme situations, distorting it, making it Other. Through such experiments, Lee seems preoccupied by the need to make this familiar form something different from what we think it is, so that it can more capably capture a reality that has fast been veering into the unreal. It’s not just that the world outside the novel has made this jump, but also that we cannot evade the world’s strangeness when the storytellers, and the characters into which they breathe life, increasingly come from such different perspectives. If this is Lee’s goal, the novel seems to insist that one way to achieve it is to stop conversing with popular genre, as many of Lee’s earlier fiction has done, and to embrace it unabashedly. The novel champions dystopian fiction as a vital mode of storytelling. The impressive plasticity of this popular genre’s conventions, Lee seems to assert, allows it to speak forthrightly of fears that are all too real, but which usually lurk at the margins of our waking minds.

In a remarkable review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One for the academic journal Contemporary Literature, Andrew Hoberek asserts that it is “the greatest American novel of the twenty-first century.” One reason he gives for making this extraordinary, and most assuredly mistaken, claim is its deft manipulation of the zombie narrative. What makes Zone One great, in other words, is that it commits itself to genre fiction while simultaneously reworking its conventions to comment on the present in an ever more creative way. The biggest problem I have with Hoberek’s argument is that I don’t think Zone One commits to this genre. It is very much removed from it, halfheartedly rehearsing some of its more prominent tropes without adding much to its repertoire of conventions. In many ways, Zone One is a novel dedicated to the dull moments in a zombie movie, when the characters have momentarily beaten back the undead hordes and are getting to know each other before the inevitable horrible climax occurs.

Likewise, On Such a Full Sea feels like a halfhearted dystopia. It doesn’t follow through enough in pursuing its premise that dystopian fiction is a well-crafted vehicle for exploring the problems of the present. The first part of the novel explores the underbelly of its world, the shantytowns and violence-prone roads that comprise the vast geography of what remains of the US. This depiction isn’t as satisfying as it should be. The habitats are under-realized. The following is as much as the novel provides in terms of description of a counties’ living quarters: “It seemed to her Eli’s family’s circumstances appeared no less or better than anyone else’s in the compound; the hut he shared with his mother and younger brother and sister was like the rest of them, drafty and damp and rickety, a narrow door the only barrier to the elements, the lone window a hinged piece of cut plywood, the beds jammed tightly in one corner so that they all slept together, as was typical in the huts.” In passages like this, the reader does not get enough of a sense of the struggle for daily existence the residents of this dwelling endure, nor what it feels like to live in such a place.

Fan’s story also moves along too quickly, aided by a series of unlikely meetings that work primarily to get her from one place to the next. Immediately after she leaves B-Mor, a car hits her. The driver turns out to be the leader of a not-too-distant compound in the counties, where she is more or less adopted. She is then promptly traded for some important medical supplies and the use of a large drill for a well, so she ends up living in a charter. The narrative machinery is even more visible than in The Surrendered, while its commitment to the dystopian tradition feels tenuous. I kept thinking throughout that the novel should take this tradition more seriously, and that Lee should follow its conventions more faithfully.

The novel’s second half provides a more fleshy depiction, this time of a posh enclave of large houses, fancy stores, and elaborate recreational facilities. Lee is on surer ground, as he revisits many of the themes about affluent suburban life explored in his earlier novels. The important difference is that the characters who inhabit this setting are more grotesque, dysfunctional, and freer to indulge in their most libidinal impulses. They seem incapable of controlling their feelings. They are spoiled, selfish, prone to betrayal, ever anxious that their privileges hang by a fine thread. Those who serve them are more flexible, ever willing to be agreeable so as to keep their jobs and not be left defenseless against the harsh realities of their world. The most minor infraction or loss of income can lead to a charter member’s expulsion, which in turn guarantees a quick plunge into poverty and probable death. The elite are shown to lead both sumptuous and precarious lives, destined as they are to be always aware no safety net exists anymore to catch their fall if they should trip.

It’s in this second half that I found myself warming to what at the start felt like a failing: the novel’s transparency. On Such a Full Sea is a thinly veiled commentary on the present. As such, it is not a subtle novel, nor is it a particularly good example of dystopic fiction, if what is prized is immersion, action, the building of a world that may speak to concerns in our own world but only through metaphor and distance. The future Lee’s novel depicts follows the arc of the present a little too closely to be good in this way, engages too little in world-building, and as such warns us in a surprisingly earnest way about a not-too-distant horizon where the wealthy, in seceding from the rest of us, brings ruination on all of us. It is unforgiving in its assessment of official, and self-serving, pieties about the promise of free markets and small government. It looks with a sober eye at the enormous ecological, as well as social, costs of such pieties, as in this description of the Chinese town that had to be abandoned before the founding of B-Mor: “Those who can remember the tales of the old-timers report that in the heydays it was as if the entire valley and everything in it were slowly scorching, all the rubber and plastic and alloys, all of what little real wood remained, all the rotting food and garbage, the welling pools of human and animal wastes, such that in the end it was as though the people themselves were burning, as if from the inside, exuding this rank, throttled breath that foretold of a tortuous, lingering demise.”

While I do wish Lee’s new novel was more like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, both of which strike a fairly graceful balance between their literary aspirations and genre fiction commitments, I’m also struck by the power of its punch. I remain haunted by its conclusion. As a whole, it speaks truthfully, and without subterfuge, about the state of the world as it is, even as it shows us the ways in which we seek constantly to lie to ourselves. It cleaves closely to the forms of realism, only occasionally veering into the grotesque or the satirical. As a result, it avoids some of the worst features of dystopian fiction. Blessedly, there are no cannibals or mad scientists dedicated to the moral judgment of humanity. Comparing Lee to McCarthy and Atwood is not unfounded, and at moments the new novel shows Lee doing what the latter two can’t do as well.

On Such a Full Sea is the work of a mature but restless writer, one who is not content to settle on a set of themes and rework them with heightening sophistication. While familiar themes do appear in this novel, there is also a ceaseless striving to say something meaningful, to make literature be about something that matters to the reader, to work a topic that seems removed from what one has tried before. There’s also the acknowledgment that genre fiction remains an important part of literature, containing dynamism and appeal writers ignore at their peril. The question remains, which always surfaces in the most compelling moments of Lee’s fiction, from Native Speaker to The Surrendered to his newest novel: How does one make use of this dynamism to a purpose other than a sole dedication to story?


Min Hyoung Song is an associate professor of English at Boston College.

LARB Contributor

Min Hyoung Song is the author of the award-winning The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American and Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, as well as co-editor of the forthcoming Cambridge History of Asian American Literature. He is a professor of English at Boston College.


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