I dedicate this interview to "Black Friday" and the fistfights at Target and Walmart. As a nation, we are swimming in junk.
The Denver Post
March 28, 2004 By Dylan Foley
Chang-rae Lee may be the patron saint of literary novelists who write about emotionally shut-down men. In his acclaimed 1995 debut novel, "Native Speaker," Lee created a Korean-American corporate spy struggling with his ethnic identity and his place in the world. In "A Gesture Life," Lee explored an elderly man trying to forget the war crimes of his youth.
In his third novel, "Aloft," Lee follows Jerry Battle, a semiretired Italian-American landscaping contractor living on Long Island. On the surface, Jerry has everything he needs, from his material wealth to the plane that he uses to fly above the suburbs that are his home. But the cracks quickly show in his facade, with his inability to communicate with all the people he loves - his elderly father, his two adult children and his ex-girlfriend Rita.
"People have asked me about this," chuckled Lee as he discussed his emotionally blocked narrators in his publisher's office in New York City. "I feel it is dramatic the way people like Jerry Battle or Henry Park (of "Native Speaker") go through the world, always mitigated by their inability to express themselves. For me, there is something absolutely dramatic about someone who wants to feel and does, but somehow can't do the things that allows himself to communicate."
As the novel progresses, Jerry is faced with several crises, from the financial ruin of his son, Jack, to the potentially fatal medical condition of his daughter, Theresa. Underlying the present worries is the memory of the tragic drowning of Jerry's Korean wife, Daisy, 20 years before. In "Aloft," Lee has crafted a beautiful novel that is both tragic and humorous, examining a modern family in suburban America.
"Part of Jerry's problem is he's quite self-absorbed," said Lee. "It is his extreme lazy-heartedness. His heart is there, it's beating and he wants to feel vital, but everything has to come to him. He can't initiate the action. Somehow life has to shake him. He needs an intensity, a sharpness."
At 38, Lee is aging gracefully from his role as literary wunderkind, who, at age 29, wrote the mature, finely crafted "Native Speaker," into a respectable academic. He wore a tweed jacket and wool slacks to the interview. He teaches creative writing at Princeton University, where colleagues include novelists Toni Morrison, Edmund White and Joyce Carol Oates. He lives in Princeton, N.J., with his wife and two daughters.
As "Aloft" evolves, it becomes a modern version of Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons." Three generations of the Battle men can't relate. Jerry's father, Hank, looks down on Jerry because he didn't work as hard as he could in the family business. And Jerry was never enough of a role model for his son, Jack.
Lee made Jerry a man on the cusp of 60 for specific reasons. "Many of my friends' parents are Jerry's age, around 60," he said. "In the society we live in, it is the new middle age. They are thinking about retiring, but they have so many choices. They have enough health to pursue second lives."
Today's 60-year-olds are wedged between elderly parents and immature adult children. "They have grown kids who aren't as grown as the previous generation," said Lee. "Because of medical advances, they have elderly parents who are ailing. It seemed to me that this is the time of life for a guy like Jerry Battle, where everything should be coming together, but he has never had more responsibility. Everyone is pulling and prodding him. In terms of a figure in our culture, that is a guy I haven't heard about yet."
For Jerry, flying is a great means of escaping intimacy. "His hobby of flying was the perfect activity for him," said Lee, "both metaphorically and literally. It spoke so neatly to how he wanted to be in the world, but outside of it, too."
Lee was born in Korea and raised in the Westchester suburbs. He decided, however, to set the book in America's first suburbs of Long Island, the ultimate destination for working-class strivers from overcrowded New York City.
"They are the classic suburbs, engineered and planned that way," Lee said. "They are based on privacy and cloistered neighborhoods, so that there is not the kind of commonality, interaction or any of those things we associate with communities. The lots are big enough in that upper-middle-class way that you don't see your neighbors. That's the site of the American dream, as a postwar dream."
It may have been the isolation of the suburbs that helped destabilize Daisy, Jerry's dead wife.
"The suburbs are the worst place if you are an isolated immigrant," Lee said. "The suburbs give no comfort to people who aren't comfortable with themselves. There's no place to meet people. With Daisy, for me her tragedy is not her mental illness or her ethnicity, it is her isolation. That isolation is shared by a lot of women in the suburbs. Women who didn't grow up in the suburbs but who live there have a lot of problems."
Through Jerry's monologues, Lee explores how the overconsumption of the American suburbs has infiltrated all of American society. His son Jack's 6,500-square-foot house makes for a prime target.
"People are making as much money as they can and getting as much space as they can so they can shut everyone else out," he said. "In Jack's house, he has a kitchenette in the master bedroom because it is too far to walk downstairs. Our tastes are getting overrefined. There is a breakdown to the limits of what we own, find comfortable and necessary. Each generation is more invested in 'stuff.'
"If I have any grand idea about this book that is not spoken yet, it is that the suburban life is now our life," he explained. "It is even in the city. If you walk down Fifth Avenue (in New York City), it is just a big outdoor mall."
Despite the gloomy predictions, both novelist and interviewer found themselves laughing uproariously about $1,800 faucets for the home and how all classes seem to crave granite kitchens. "We are starting to reach a point of saturation, where individual consciousness is defined by Nike and bottled water," Lee said.
(ALOFT By Chang-rae Lee, Riverhead, 352 pages, $24.95)