Chang-Rae Lee, named by The New Yorker
as one of its 20 writers for the 21st Century, has confirmed his place in that company with Aloft
, a masterful treatment of a man coming to terms with his own disaffection. In two previous novels, Native Speaker
and A Gesture Life
, Lee, a Korean-American, writes of lives being not what they seem: in the first, the protagonist is an undercover agent; in the second, the two halves of Franklin Hata's life never quite come together. Both novels won numerous awards, including Best First Novel, the Hemingway PEN Award, the American Book Award and the Asian-American Literary Award, among others. In Aloft
, Lee revisits alienation, a fractured family, mixed heritage and the quest for identity.
Jerry Battle, 59-year-old widower and father of two, retired from the family business--the unmistakably earthbound Battle Brothers Brick and Mortar--buys a small airplane because "From up here, a half mile above the Earth, everything looks perfect to me." All is not well below. Jerry knows it, saying
...the recurring fantasy of my life... is one of perfect continuous travel, this unending hop from one point to another, the pleasures found not in the singular marvels of any destination but in the constancy of serial arrivals and departures, and the comforting companion knowledge that youll never quite get intimate enough for any trouble to start brewing.
His view from aloft saves him from the gritty reality of the detritus of life--and from life itself.
This high-flyer must come to earth, however, when he finds that his daughter is newly pregnant, diagnosed with cancer, and refusing treatment; his son, who is running the company, has piled up enough debt that bankruptcy is imminent; and his father has gone missing from his assisted living facility. Jerry can no longer say, with impunity, "Jerry Battle hereby declines the Real." Lee takes us on great side trips into the pleasures of food and recreational sex; his wife Daisy's death; his longtime lover Rita's almost endless patience, weaving long, Miltonic sentences that start in one place and end up miles away--flights of fancy--trailing clouds of insight and poignancy. With Aloft Lee just keeps getting better. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Lee's third novel (after Native Speaker
and A Gesture Life
) approaches the problems of race and belonging in America from a new anglethe perspective of Jerry Battle, the semiretired patriarch of a well-off (and mostly white) Long Island family. Sensitive but emotionally detached, Jerry escapes by flying solo in his small plane even as he ponders his responsibilities to his loved ones: his irascible father, Hank, stewing in a retirement home; his son, Jack, rashly expanding the family landscaping business; Jerry's graduate student daughter, Theresa, engaged to Asian-American writer Paul and pregnant but ominously secretive; and Jerry's long-time Puerto Rican girlfriend, Rita, who has grown tired of two decades of aloofness and left him for a wealthy lawyer. Jack and Theresa's mother was Jerry's Korean-American wife, Daisy, who drowned in the swimming pool after a struggle with mental illness when Jack and Theresa were children, and Theresa's angry postcolonial take on ethnicity and exploitation is met by Jerry's slightly bewildered efforts to understand his place in a new America. Jerry's efforts to win back Rita, Theresa's failing health and Hank's rebellion against his confinement push the meandering narrative along, but the novel's real substance comes from the rich, circuitous paths of Jerry's thoughtsabout family history and contemporary cultureas his family draws closer in a period of escalating crisis. Lee's poetic prose sits well in the mouth of this aging Italian-American whose sentences turn unexpected corners. Though it sometimes seems that Lee may be trying to embody too many aspects of 21st-century American life in these individuals, Jerry's humble and skeptical voice and Lee's genuine compassion for his compromised characters makes for a truly moving story about a modern family.
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