Chang-Rae Lee: A Gesture Life Book Review
Change-Rae Lee lives a "life of gestures" in Bedley Run. His portrayed character subtly begins to infere with his relationship with his daughter Sunny and others.
A Gesture Life, Chang-rae Lee's, explores the dilemma of
being an outsider and the corrupt, heartbreaking bargains an
outsider will make to adapt to his surroundings. The protagonist,
Franklin Hata, has actually spent his whole life donning one variety
or another of existential camouflage. First, as a native-born
Korean, he bends over backwards to fit into Japanese culture,
circa 1944. Then he attempts a similar bit of incorporation into
his community in postwar America, in the slumbering New York
suburb of Bedley Run. But in neither case does he quite succeed,
which gives the novel its peculiar, faltering sense of tragedy.
Certain subtle conflicts lie beneath his portrayed life of
"There is something exemplary to the sensation of near
perfect lightness of being in a place and not being there, which
seems of course a chronic condition of my life but then, too, its
everyday unction, the trouble finding a remedy but not quite a
cure, so that the problem naturally proliferates until it has
become you through and through. Such is the cast of my
belonging, molding to whatever is at hand."
A Gesture Life presents this chronic condition in two
different time frames. In one, delivered via flashback, Hata is a
medical officer in Japan's Imperial Army. Posted to a tiny
installation in Burma, he's ordered to oversee a fresh detachment
of Korean "comfort women"; in other words, victims of gang rape
at the hands of the soldiers. At first he maintains his
professional distance, not to mention his erotic appetite. His
initial feelings are reflected accurately when Doc say's, "It was
the notion of what lay beneath the crumpled cotton of their poor
clothes that shook me like an air-raid siren." However this
"notion" didn't hold too long. Doc is later drawn into a
relationship with one of the women, whose bloody and horrific
denouement leaves a permanent mark on the "unblissed
detachment" of his existence.
The present-tense, American half of the story revolves
around Doc's life in Bedley Run, where he adopts, raises, and
finally forms an uneasy rapport with his daughter, Sunny. The
reader might expect this sort of material to pale in comparison
with his wartime trauma. But oddly enough, Hata's suburban
experiences are much more compelling, and the gradual disclosure
of his past, which is supposed to ratchet up the tension, arouses
dark ambiguities and feelings secretly created from a past time.
Doc Hata's relations with Mary Burns, a woman from Bedley
Run Doc had become intimate with, is one instance which initiates
the surfacing of Doc's hidden conflicts that underlie his apparent
life of tranquillity. Mary Burns, a neighborhood widow who had
not only helped Hata with Sunny but had been his lover, amicably
leaves him after finding him unable to return her affection.
Startled to feel such loneliness at the center of his otherwise
contented life, Hata finds its root in his wartime months with
Kkutaeh, an unforgettably evoked comfort woman who was
consigned to Hatas care in his outpost during the war. Called "K,"
she was a Korean-born, Japanese-raised woman of fine intelligence
and sweeping grace, a companion soul he fell in love with but was
unable to save from death.
Doc's life of gestures greatly upset his daughter, Sunny.
Everyone in town thought they had the ideal father-daughter
relationship. The piano was the catalyst in sparking the shaky
relationship they had. Doc so dearly wanted Sunny to master
the piano and play it with whimsical perfection. Sunny didn't
have this desire, and this "failure" was certainly an important
factor in their poor relationship. It was apparent that Doc would
rather have a good rapport in the town than have a proper
relationship with his daughter. Sunny said, " All I have ever seen
is how careful you are with everything. With our fancy big house
and this store and all the customers. How you sweep the sidewalk
and nice-talk to the other shopkeepers. You make a whole life
out of gestures and politeness. You're always having to be the
ideal partner and colleague." Sunny would tell Doc that she was
spending weekends in the city, and Doc would request no further
inquires as to where she was staying or with whom. He was
merely content with a note saying she had left. Sunny began
hanging out with a shady group of boys affiliated with the
negative side of the law. She went into a rebellion that resulted
in her leaving Doc's house.
Doc Hata is a deeply sympathetic character. His yearning to
rise above mere gesture; to be remembered, to leave his mark is
thwarted at every turn. His appearance and reputation prevail
over almost any other priority. He is like a man in a nightmare
signing his name over and over again, the ink fading and vanishing
into the blank sheet of paper as fast as he can write. That late-
blooming romance ends with separation and death. Sunny goes to
the bad and flees from him. The store he tended with so much
pride sinks into failure soon after he has sold it. It is the life of
gestures that "Doc" Franklin Hata lives that serves to eradicate
his past and true emotions, yet only suppresses them only to
inevitably surface some time, consciously or not.