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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Damaged Lives, March 12, 2010
This review is from: The Surrendered (Hardcover)
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Chang-Rae Lee has written an ambitious novel containing scenes of undeniable power. His ability to capture the collateral casualties of war was obvious from the first, and I found myself admiring both his writing and narrative technique, even as I was repelled by the grimness of the picture he was painting. But I could not fully warm to any of the characters. As the book went on, I found myself reading with growing impatience, as his skill at jumping around between time periods began to look like delaying tactics, making a long novel even longer without significantly deepening his character portrayal or developing his theme.

The setting of the novel ranges from China in 1934 to Italy in 1986, but the central events take place in an orphanage in Korea in 1953, where the lives of three people intersect. June is a young Korean girl who lost her parents and siblings during the flight from the advancing Communists in 1950. Hector is an American GI, a psychological casualty of the Korean War, now working as a handyman. And the lovely Sylvie, herself the daughter of missionaries, is the wife of the director of the mission orphanage. Both June and Hector become attracted to Sylvie, who has herself been traumatized by her experiences during the Japanese invasion of China in 1934. They are three damaged people trying in vain to find healing in one another.

Lee's handling of the back-stories is extraordinary. The opening sequence with June fleeing South is gripping; Hector's adolescence in upstate New York looking after his bar-brawling father is merely grungy, but his encounter with a young Korean prisoner is riveting; and Sylvie's violent introduction to love and betrayal is incandescent, far and away the strongest chapter in the book. Moving forward, the scenes in the mission, interspersed throughout the book, are generally well told, although it can be difficult to get a clear sense of the passage of time.

But it is in the after-story that Lee fails. The first flash-forward is intriguingly mysterious, but the facts soon emerge: June is dying of cancer and sells up her successful New York antiques business, heading for Italy to track down her son Nicholas, the fruit of her brief marriage of convenience to Hector. It soon becomes obvious that this later story is created solely as a framework to contain the flashbacks. Nicholas never gets fleshed out as a human being, and Lee is astoundingly cavalier in manipulating events to suit his purposes, introducing characters only to dismiss them on a whim, and stretching credulity to its limits. The book ends in the ossuary in Solferino, the 1859 Italian battlefield that is mentioned several times earlier in the novel, with the sole apparent purpose of having somewhere to end it.

In tracing the long-term effects of warfare, Chang-Rae Lee has a powerful theme. But it is difficult to maintain interest in damaged characters who, even through no fault of their own, are only half functioning as human beings. Sylvie is addicted to drugs; Hector is a compulsive drinker; June is so far gone in her sickness that her actions are unpredictable, and even in the orphanage it appears that her moral compass is damaged or missing. They are all half-people at best. Although we sympathize with their tragedy, and even discern glimmers of goodness among the psychic rubble, they make poor companions on a long journey to a place that is not very meaningful anyway.
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Showing 1-10 of 18 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 12, 2010 8:00:16 AM PST

I had to omit chapter and verse from my fourth paragraph, where I said that "Lee is astoundingly cavalier in manipulating events to suit his purposes, introducing characters only to dismiss them on a whim, and stretching credulity to its limits." Trying not to give too much away, even here, let me cite three examples:

1. The moment when June and Hector finally meet up. Lee has gone to the trouble of introducing a character (Dora) with the intent, it seems, of showing some possibility of rebirth in Hector. But what he does in this moment is the equivalent, it seems to me, of sticking the finger to the trusting reader.

2. The whole string of implausibilities of the succeeding trip. That Hector would leave with June immediately afterwards; that June could bribe him through Italian immigration with $500 tucked into her passport; the comparative ease of their search once they got to Italy; and an itinerary without intrinsic meaning -- Siena at the Palio, for heaven's sake, and Solferino!

3. The introduction of Nicholas as a straw character, simply to give June a reason for this final trip, and then the casual dismissal of the character once he has served his proxy purpose.

I find it hard to know whether Lee is a normally-good writer who just let some things slip here, or a rather bad one who nevertheless has strong abilities in certain areas.

Posted on Mar 12, 2010 8:20:04 AM PST
OK, I couldn't help myself: I peeked. I think you clearly delineate the strengths and weaknesses. When this book is good, it's MAGNIFICENT; some of the strongest writing I've been privileged to read. But then, inexplicably, the author DOES become astoundingly cavalier. There are other instances as well as the ones you mention that do not ring authentic. While I do not have a problem with "traveling" with damaged people on a long journey, I DO have a problem when find that the compass is broken.

Posted on Mar 12, 2010 9:09:55 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 12, 2010 9:13:51 AM PST

I had no problem with the time sequences. I just floated back and forth. Interestingly. I would assert that it was seamless. I was able to know exactly where I was at all times.

I think you are being very rigid with "reality" vs fiction. I absolutely loved the climactic scene of Dora bringing June and Hector together. Aestehticsally, it was exquisite. ( Do I need to say why and cast my argument in blood in order for it to have meaning or purpose? ) It was dramatic--and, in a lesser author's hands, it would have been melodramatic. It worked for me. Hector was more than just June's vessel narratively. His relationship with Dora was illuminating and also part of his separate peace, away from the past, but grown from it, too.

Hector is at the center of tragedy, but he is supposed to do more than survive. His fate, to me, is revealed by the end of the story.

Nicholas a straw man? Hmmm...I disagree. Well, yes, there needeed to be a reason to bring Hector and June together again. But if I had only known June as a child, I would have felt cheated. She needed to have a future that was a reflection of all she endured. And then there's the "book."

I do think the author could have expanded on the relationship between Hector and June once they left the orphanage, but why? The information was revealed sufficiently in the short bursts of refelction, and I don't think the seaminess of that period of their lives was necessary to expand upon.

I also liked the traveling "book"--I don't want to give spoilers, and it IS difficult to argue the merits or demerits of this book without giving spoilers. I think that the book was a maddeningly beautiful and tragic symbol of the connection of all of them. It survives the generations. It is static in itself but has dynamic influence.

I could probably go on and on. Of course, this book played like a symphony to me. You heard the off-notes, which flattened it for you. I read this book as a reader and failed to read it as an acadamecian. Paradoxically, my loss is my gain.


In reply to an earlier post on Mar 12, 2010 9:47:26 AM PST
SBug, Just because you know that I am an academic in a different field, do not imagine that I approach books in some essentially different way. I too read as a reader, and I can be as easily seduced by good writing as anybody else, only perhaps by different aspects.

We must totally differ on the scene that brings June, Hector, and Dora together. I am prepared to allow for some stretching of reality for a genuine aesthetic purpose, but I could see none here. It took me a while to take Dora seriously anyway; she was introduced as another lowlife denizen of Smitty's Bar, and a relationship that is fueled by such a prodigious amount of alcohol is very hard to feel with. But I could see the change in Hector, and the ending of that chapter when he is walking back from the store was indeed exquisite, and lifted my spirits along with his. But then, to put an arbitrary stop to all of this? In exchange for what? Whatever fate you see for Hector at the end of the book is no substitute for what has been lost here. And the worst thing is that it didn't need to be lost, because it didn't need to have been introduced in the first place.

Yes, of course Nicholas is a straw man. Otherwise why would Lee treat him in the way he does? Again, I feel insulted when an author introduces a major plot device and then, almost as an afterthought, dismisses it with an "Oh by the way, in case you were wondering...".

And talking about straw, that book you mention is total straw. WHY had it become such as talisman? Why should Sylvie's parents have made such a big thing of it? Why should it have been the only thing she brought with her from China? Why? Why? Why? Yes, it has a tangential thematic reference to the story, and I could accept it if Lee were truly to make something out of it, but I feel that the ending of the book is totally contrived and unbelievable. For one thing, is it likely that that church would even have been open in the middle of the night?

I had no problem with the time sequence either; I just lost much sense of how long the period in the Korean orphanage actually was, but this did not matter all that much. I also have no particular need to fill the gaps, and am as satisfied as you are with what we are allowed to pick up from the 60s and 70s. I do, however, feel, that Lee is far superior at writing about the earlier time than the more recent one.

I see your comparison of the book to a symphony, in scale and potential seriousness, and you were right to recommend it so strongly. But with large aims come large responsibilities. What irks me is not so much that Lee has partly failed to achieve his goals, but that he is so wilful in throwing away the seriousness of his enterprise as though it doesn't matter. To me, as a reader and (at your urging) an INVESTOR, it matters a lot. Roger.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 12, 2010 12:14:34 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 12, 2010 12:19:29 PM PST

When you say, "It didn't need to have been introduced in the first place,"--that is an interesting assertion. How does it need to be or not need to be? What I mean is, there are some things that NEED to be. Such as, if a woman is pregnant in January (in a novel), and then the next chapter is December of that year, then we NEED to have some resolution of that pregnancy. For her to just go about her life without mention of the baby or pregnancy outcome ever again in the novel (whether implicitly or otherwise) would be a glaring fallacy of construction. But, I cannot argue the merits of Dora from the standpoint of need. No, she didn't need to be in there, and neither did that talisman. But it did add dimension--for me, anyway. If there are false notes in a story, it annoys me, aggravates me. I was convinced by these elements of the story.

Dora is color--but, just because she was also used as a device doesn't necessarily make her disingenuous to the story. I think of all the characters in ANNA KARENINA. Did every scene and character need to be there? No, but it added color, richness, texture, even entertainment. One could argue that Russia herself was a character in the novel, which gives permission for the multitudes of expression through many different characters and scenes. But, in this novel, I thought that everyone, including Nicholas, resounded with the themes of isolation, of the lack of HOME, of identity with a PLACE, with even the lack of ethnic identity (all the different ethnic characters in the novel felt out of place, even with their own ethnicity). Nicholas acted almost like an orphan. Did June treat him that way?

OK, I digress a little, but (and I did not say that prior remark because you are an academician, but because your criticism did hark of academic criticism--and even more, when you talk of something needing to be in there--here it feels that way again) Dora's presence gives more to the reader to chew on about Hector's lonely existence (and had she been a teetotaler I wouldn't have believed her quite so much). I do think giving Hector a personal relationship in the present allowed me to resonate with him as an actor in his life, instead of just making him a background in his existence. It didn't remove me from the themes, or Hector's fate/destiny, or the story. It added to it (for me).

By the way, the church was open but it was NOT the middle of the night. It was the next day--Hector even referred to discomfort in the (previous) middle of the night.

I didn't see them as half-people. I saw them as damaged, yes, but struggling to make meaning out of their lives, to redeem the past even though they didn't believe that they could. Nicholas, to me, was an example of a half-person, though. An individual who was shallow and reprehehnsible. Rather than a straw man I saw him as a vector and as payment. I can't discuss this further without spoilers.

I fully respect your views here--I do always learn from your insights. But my investment was more than worthwhile. I felt rich by the end of the novel. I carried the three of them around for days.

I also can see it cinematically--that may be a downside, I'm not certain. Some books that (I see) come alive as movies don't move me, because I am thinking of the self-consciousness of the director/author. But, in this case, the book became a living thing for me. I surrendered.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 12, 2010 1:38:15 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 12, 2010 1:40:18 PM PST
Hi Switterbug,

I started to reply to this, but then lost the whole thing due to clicking the wrong link on my computerm so am annoyed with myself. So let's start positive. I think the best thing in your whole long answer is this: "I thought that everyone, including Nicholas, resounded with the themes of isolation, of the lack of HOME, of identity with a PLACE, with even the lack of ethnic identity (all the different ethnic characters in the novel felt out of place, even with their own ethnicity)." This is a wonderful insight that calls attention to a point that I had entirely missed, and certainly reinforces your view that the whole vast novel is tied together by a number of common threads. I would be inclined to agree -- except I would add that the author then undoes a lot of it by narrative flaws that do more to untie than to unify.

I also stand corrected on the time of day at the end. But it is "soft, late daylight" with evening quickly falling. In August in Italy, this would be seven or eight in the evening, which is an unlikely time to find a church open, and virtually impossible if that church is more of a museum than a place of worship, as I gather this to be.

Your pregnancy analogy is a good one. I would say that this is almost exactly what Lee does with Nicholas, a kind of literary abortion; one moment he is there and the next he is not there. Except that he was never truly "there" to begin with.

You also have a point when you suggest that Hector and Dora would never have got together if she had not been a drinker. But have you counted up the prodigious amount of alcohol those two consume between them? Despite Dora's many good qualities, I cannot see a relationship that takes place in such circumstances as having much future. So I suppose I shouldn't mind that she does not continue longer into the story? Perhaps not -- but I turn the matter around, and ask why Lee introduced her at all, only to make her disposable.

Compare Dora, Clines, and Benjamin Li, all of whom are secondary characters who appear for a couple of chapters only (trying not to give too much away here). Clines is obviously part of the mechanism; he is sort of real while he is there, but you don't miss him when he is not; the only thing is that it is a little hard to see him as a competent detective since Lee goes out of his way (perhaps knowing he is going to have to write him off) to present him as something of a sad-sack has-been. Benjamin Li, on the other hand, serves an essential purpose in the plot AND emotionally, in that the life of one of the major characters, Sylvie, is totally altered first by his presence and then by his removal. But can you truly say that of Dora? I don't see how Hector-after-Dora is significantly different from Hector-before-Dora, although Hector-with-Dora may be. And I find it VERY difficult to believe that Hector would simply pick up and get on a plane with June after what happens.

I used the term investment, because one does invest oneself in reading a book of this scale, especially if one has been urged into it by another person. But I don't necessarily consider it time wasted. With the last book that you recommended and I liked less, THE BOOK OF FIRES, I had a different opinion but relatively little to say one way or another. This time (as with SOLAR, which was not your recommendation), there is a lot to discuss, and that alone is worth the time and trouble. So thank you.

Finally, if you want to see what a truly academic review of this book would look like, read the long article in the current NEW YORKER. The author has different reasons for feeling that Lee has undermined his own abilities, but his overall assessment is not too different from mine.


In reply to an earlier post on Mar 12, 2010 2:24:03 PM PST

Yes, I must read that review. People are buzzing about it. I am sure I could google it.

As I was discussing with Jill, also (she notices this about me), I tend to allow infants to walk and corpses to fly if I am somehow engulfed emotionally in the story. I think it was both a) the prose and b) the emotional depth of the characters that seduced me. After some of this back and forth, I am compelled to alter my review somewhat. I am removing the "nearly flawless" remark and "diamond-cut precision" remark (kind of trite cliche, anyway)(but this was one of my "held" reviews, which means editing is held up). I gasped at the "intersection" of June and Hector and Dora--so it MUST be effective. For some people. I guess I let infants walk there. It wasn't unimpeachable, no, but the emotional quality of that scene must have melted the critic side of me

Now I sound watery and waffly. Well, I am definitely seeing the flawed areas much clearer now, although they still don't bother me overall. Because I so loved the book.

Clines--yes, he can be a thorn. But there was no way she could have done this herself--find Hector--physcially--so there had to be help. He was cartoonish, even. Yet, a fleck in the total impact of the story.

And I think because I really enjoyed the Dora story it didn't irk me. Hector became more "present" with her. And did we need Hector's boss? (speaking of essential and inessential characters). No--but, I see Lee likes to write about ethnically alienated characters. He has lived most of his life here, but he was born in Korea. I suspect that he was surrounded by Caucasians as a youth and it had a literary effect on him.

The story of Benjamin Li was so powerful that I would allow Lee that just for its searing reading pleasure. That defined Sylvie as much as anything did. On the cusp of womanhood, to witness that. Damn. And this novel is not just about the Korean War, but about the horrifying events that take place during (any) war.

Flaws aside? Can you think of a novel that surpasses character development, character description? I can't. Not offhand, although there are some that are AS good. That is, for me, another beacon of greatness in a novel.

The flaws are mostly in the plot--and, really, only one of the plots. I can't even imagine this being a three-star rating, (an average) considering the suppleness of character and the beautiful prose. But that is what can happen to a reader. It is kind of a paradox--a radiant, exquisite man or woman--with a pimple. The pimple sticks out.

Posted on Mar 12, 2010 2:40:17 PM PST
Roger--oh, and I meant to also add that I know what a close reader you are, so if I was able to illuminate even one aspect (about the unifying threads) that gives it its universality, or bestows something in a book that you may have initially dismissed or overlooked, then I am so pleased. It reinforces the poignancy of back and forth discussion of a book, how this ability on Amazon to have a group discussion is so superior to any other literary site that I know of.

There is the pleasure of reading a book, or even the horror of reading some books--but the discussions can raise the purpose of the individual experience.

I had to add that, as I have been "gone" for a week or two, and realized how much I missed it. Like vitamins for the spirit and soul. I had literary rickets. ;--0


In reply to an earlier post on Mar 12, 2010 8:52:30 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 12, 2010 8:56:16 PM PST
SBug, I'm glad that our discussion has led you to refocus your enthusiasm -- assuming that you feel it helpful to do so. I wasn't worried about Clines; he was a necessary cog in the mechanism. But you raise a point about Jung and Hector's relationship with Old Rudy, which did seem superfluous. As for Benjamin Li, I agree, absolutely essential. I was making the point that some short-appearance characters leave a trail behind them and some don't. Dora didn't.

Now, here you are going to disagree with me more: I did NOT find the book especially strong in character description, and it was downright weak in character development. June, for instance, hardly developed at all, or rather the things that were different about her at the end did not seem to "develop" naturally out of the girl we knew at the beginning. What we did see with her was a gradual bringing into focus of her character as an adolescent, revealing a side that verged on the sociopathic. I don't believe that Hector developed either, at least after the episode with the bugle boy. What he did so (and this was somewhat interesting) was move between light and shadow as through sunlight under trees, alternately showing warmer and bleaker parts of his character, but this was revelation not development. Like the other two, Sylvie had a before and an after state, but she always kept some of her natural charisma, even at her worst, and that made her a more fascinating character and, in my book, the most sympathetic of the three.

As to your analogy of the beautiful person with a pimple, questioning of my three-star rating, of course I wouldn't severely criticize either a book or a person for one small blemish, but I would criticize a beautiful person who wilfully marred that beauty. With me, three stars do not always indicate average mediocrity, but also writers with obvious talent who could and should have done a lot better. My three-star reviews of this kind in the past year include Ian McEwan's SOLAR, Kazuo Ishiguro's NOCTURNES, David Guterson's THE OTHER, Robert Stone's FUN WITH PROBLEMS, Anne Michaels' THE WINTER VAULT, and Geraldine Brooks' PEOPLE OF THE BOOK -- all authors who have produced outstanding work in the past (or are clearly capable of doing so) but in my opinion either failed to do so on this occasion, or took their excellence for granted, or played fast and loose with the reader. Talent comes at a price. Roger.

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2010 12:27:07 PM PDT
LillyandGish says:
I agree with you completely. I started this book with such high hopes, but with each chapter, lost a little more of that hope. Finally, when the Italian trip took place, I kept on reading, but I gave up hope for the book. June wouldn't even have been able to make that trip, let alone bribe an Italian immigration officer. And Hector wouldn't have gone with her immediately after Dora's tragic death (and was Dora a heavy drinker or was she a little hausfrau - Lee doesn't seem to know).

Yes, Nicholas was a straw man. I don't understand why June even cared at that point in her life. She hadn't cared enough to speak to the hospital when they called her about Nicholas. I just couldn't buy the whole thing. It all seemed so contrived and implausible to me.
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