Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Surrendered, by Chang-rae Lee--a review

Chang-rae Lee's new novel The Surrendered tells the tales of the intertwined lives of several characters, all of whom are profoundly affected by their experiences during the Korean War. First of all, there is June, orphaned while fleeing the Communist army. She meets American soldier Hector on the road, and together they end up the orphanage run by Sylvie Tanner and her husband, a minister. Both June and Hector fall in love with Sylvie, who is also emotionally damaged, after watching her missionary parents murdered by the Chinese in Manchuria.

I was fascinated to read that Chang-rae Lee got the idea for this novel more than twenty years ago, after interviewing his father about his experiences during the Korean War. Lee writes that his father had only spoken about the war years in the vaguest way before Lee interviewed him for a college project. The traumatic details of Lee's father's brother's death came out in the interview, and the story became the inspiration for one of the most powerful scenes in The Surrendered.

The anecdote Lee relates reminds me of many stories I have heard from the children of Holocaust survivors, of parents who shelter their children from the horrors of their pasts, and then at some point, maybe when the children are adults, finally tell them their stories--and it is shocking for the children on many levels. Lee explores this theme in the novel, too--he creates a character in June who has hidden some part of herself from her son, and that separation, that hiding, has colored their whole relationship, and made it dysfunctional.

This relationship—or rather, non-relationship—between June and her son leads to their estrangement, and then to June’s dying quest to find him in Europe. Lee is sparing in the details he provides about the characters’ motivations and inner emotional lives, and here it was sometimes maddening and sometimes haunting, as I watched June in her self-delusion, hoping for a reconciliation with a son who cannot acknowledge her, perhaps because he never knew her. There’s a twist at the end that makes the story even more poignant, but I won’t spoil it here.

I felt I understood Hector better than I understood June. Hector, like his namesake in Greek mythology, is a talented warrior and, because of the myths his hard-drinking Irish father spins, believes he may be physically invincible. But while bodily strong (and beautiful, which turns out to be a curse), Hector is emotionally damaged, and feels that he is a curse to others if they get involved with him. While June is more of a cipher, because she is so emotionally self-contained and defended, Hector is more openly wounded, and therefore easier to see into.

But overall, while Lee’s characters were very compelling, there were times when I felt I didn’t truly understand them. The writing is clean, steady, and often beautiful. I really enjoyed Lee’s prose style. However, the story is relentlessly tragic, and just about everything bad that you can imagine happening to these characters does happen. So while I recommend Lee’s writing, I feel this book is definitely for the stout of heart.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Plotting

Today's Booking Through Thursday question:

Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness? Which would you rather read?

Both, is my wishy washy answer. There is a time and a place for stream-of-consciousness, and a time and a place for plot. I enjoy getting lost in the stream-of-consciousness of Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf, but I also enjoy a rip-roaring plot.

I guess it really depends on how good the novel is. I'm happy with either as long as the writing is strong!

How about you?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sunday Salon--Book Group Reading

The Sunday

At our last meeting, my book group discussed Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids. I was planning to write a review, but after my group's discussion of the book, I must admit my thoughts grew muddled. I really enjoyed the book for several reasons. I liked Smith's voice, and I liked the way she was able to tell the story of her youth without judging herself in hindsight. I also liked the window she made for me into the New York art scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Smith lived at the Chelsea Hotel and frequented Max's Kansas City, and she got to know William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Allen Ginsberg, among others. It was a colorful time, to say the least, and I enjoyed the anecdotes about the city and the scene at this time.

But I also came away with more questions than answers after reading this. It's clear that there was much that Smith didn't want to say. The book is a labor of love, a eulogy and love letter to her lover and best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. At the beginning of the story, Smith is a naive girl who comes to the city to live a life about art. Some of my book group found her naivete surprising, if not suspect, but maybe it was this naivete, mixed with a certain kind of fearlessness, that allowed Smith to become an artist after all. Mapplethorpe seemed even more devoted than Smith to the idea of art for art's sake, and Smith makes it clear that they both truly believed in each other as artists, even when neither was entirely sure what direction their art might take. Again, Smith chronicles their development as artists, and people, without judging with the benefit of hindsight, and she has a lyrical, impressionistic storytelling style, so there isn't a lot of self-reflection here.

Maybe because as a society we are used to post-Freudian, post-Oprah gut-spilling self-reflection to the point of narcissism, this book seems unusual to me. It feels like, perhaps because she is being respectful of her dead friend's secrets, Smith doesn't tell the whole story about Mapplethorpe and her relationship with him. She does, however, treat him and her younger self with an admirable empathy. I go back and forth, both wanting to know more about how Smith felt (for example, upon learning her lover and trusted friend was homosexual, and having their relationship necessarily change because of it), and recognizing that maybe there are no words for much of what was going on, and because it was a different time (and only nascently feminist) place, and because Smith and Mapplethorpe were making up their own rules as they went along.

Smith has an appealing sense of humor and self-deprecation. One of the best anecdotes in the book is about how Allen Ginsberg once hit on Smith, thinking she was a particularly good-looking boy. I would recommend the book for anyone interested in the New York art scene of the late 60s and early 70s--plus the photos alone are worth the price of the book. My book group discussion about the book was pretty wide-ranging--we touched on misogyny in the art world, feminism, the spectrum of sexuality, poetry and rock and roll, the allure of Paris, obsessiveness about Baudelaire--so even though there was disagreement about the book, it sparked some interesting talk.

We agreed to read a novel next time, and we picked Chang-rae Lee's new book, The Surrendered. One of my good friends really loved Lee's A Gesture Life, so I got hold of a copy of that, too, and I hope to read both before our next meeting.

Lee is one of those novelists that has popped up out of nowhere for me. I'd love to hear what you all think of Lee, if you've read him...