Thursday, May 20, 2010
Book Review - The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee
I don't think I've ever tried harder to like a book than I did Chang-rae Lee's latest, The Surrendered. But I think a book should pull us in to its world, make us want, no, need to know what happens to its characters. We shouldn't have to try to like it.
The Surrendered is a departure for Lee. It is, perhaps, his most ambitious novel to date, and for this, I applaud him. His previous three novels were all written in the first person and revolved around a rather displaced male, who was trying to figure out just where he belonged in the world. The Surrendered, by contrast, belongs not to one person, but to three.
One is June Han Singer, a Korean war orphan, who in the book's present of 1986 is a widow who runs a successful New York antiques business, is somewhat estranged from her only child, a grown son, Nicholas, and who, at the young age of forty-seven, is dying from stomach cancer.
The second protagonist of The Surrendered is Hector Brennan, a former GI who served in the Korean War, and after his discharge worked at the orphanage where June grew up. The third story belongs to a woman who in 1986 is long dead (thirty years), Sylvie Tanner. Sylvie and her husband, Ames, were the missionaries who ran the orphanage that housed June and eployed Hector. Each character - June, Hector, and Sylvie - is fighting his or her personal demons that threaten to destroy, not only them, but those around them as well.
As Lee sets up his book and intertwines the stories of the three protagonists, the action of The Surrendered moves back and forth in time from 1930s Manchuria, to 1950s Korea, to New York City and Italy in 1986. At no time did I feel disoriented or "lost" during the transitions in time. In fact, they were very smooth, however despite this, the book still had a very static feel for me. I really didn't get any sense of the passing of time at all.
The book begins in 1950, with the eleven-year-old June and her family fleeing North Korea for the south and Pusan. I must say, I found the opening chapter almost hypnotic, and Lee did an excellent job of pulling me into the book. However, after giving us an introduction to June, he leaves her behind to fill us in on the beginnings of the backstories of both Hector and Sylvie. This went on for so long that by the time we'd returned to June, I'd almost forgotten about her and almost didn't care.
The three main characters' stories first overlap and intertwine in 1953, in that countryside orphanage, which wasn't too far from Seoul. It's there that the three form a deadly triad of sorts, with the beautiful, elusive, and very damaged Sylvie at its center, as both Hector and June, who see each other as mortal enemies, vie for Sylvie's love and attention. And in one of the book's best drawn scenes, we learn that in their own ways, both Hector and June were responsible for Sylvie's tragic and all-too-early demise.
While I found Sylvie Tanner to be a beautifully drawn, if not wholly likable character, filled with both darkness and light, tortured by demons, yet still able, at times, to enjoy life and those around her, I found both Hector and June to be terribly underdeveloped. Hector is, outwardly, very handsome, a man with "movie star" good looks, someone who seems impervious to both physical pain and injury. However, in most every other way, he's a loser. He fails at everything he attempts - if another person is involved. And he does nothing at all to try to remedy this sorry state of affairs. He just accepts this as his fate.
Then there's June. I don't want to try to second guess Lee, but it seemed in June, he wanted to create a woman who couldn't survive unless she built a strong shell about her, and in building that strong shell, Lee created a character that is just plain mean. I kept wanting and waiting for each of the three main characters to show us a redeeming quality, however as soon as one of them, usually Sylvie, would display even slightly redeeming qualities, he or she would just revert to his or her "old self" once again, June in particular. In the end, June wasn't strong, she as weak. She was too weak to allow herself to be vulnerable to others, too weak to really love, too weak to live, and I don't mean just in the physical sense.
The secondary characters - among them, Benjamin Li, Ames Tanner, and Dora suffer from being very sketchily drawn, little more than cyphers. Dora had such terrific potential, but it seemed as if Lee couldn't decided whether to make her the town floozy or a sweet-but-frustrated hausfrau. June's son, Nicholas, in particular, is little more than a plot device, a "straw character," and the so-called "twist" involving him is insulting to the reader's intelligence and emotions. I can forgive Lee his problems with third person multiple POV. It can be very difficult for some writers to handle, but I can't forgive him for what he did with Nicholas. Lee wasn't playing fair with the reader regarding that one. And it isn't like we couldn't see it coming. The foreshadowing regarding Nicholas' fate was so heavy-handed, it was like Lee was hitting the reader over the head with the book, saying, "Pay attention now. We're foreshadowing over here." We get it, Mr. Lee, and subtlety is a virtue.
For most of its 400-plus pages, The Surrendered is anything but subtle. In fact, it's operatic in its use of over-the-top melodrama. This is a book so filled with tragedy that it puts "Madame Butterfly" to shame. Some of these things, I think, will be acceptable to sensitive and sophisticated readers, while others will not. For the most part, however, The Surrendered is overwritten and terribly overwrought.
The Surrendered isn't really "a war story," but because much of it takes place during times of brutal warfare, there is violence aplenty in the book - murder, rape, mutilation, torture, starvation, and more. Lee does an excellent job in portraying these events, and strangely, these scenes are the ones that are, if anything, underplayed, not overwritten and melodramatic. If only Lee could have exercised the same restraint in portraying his characters' emotional lives.
I liked the darkness, the bleakness in The Surrendered. I liked the fact that the major characters were all damaged people even if I didn't like the fact that Lee doesn't develop them quite as much as he should have. What really turned me off the book are its deficiencies in craft, and The Surrendered contains many deficiencies in craft.
There are the underdeveloped characters, whose motivations are, many times, at best, murky. There's the "straw man" role of Nicholas, one of the book's biggest failings, there is an abundance of coincidence and contrivance, and there's a scene with a passport at Immigration in Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome that is completely unbelievable. I think some readers are going to ignore these deficiencies in craft, however, and allow themselves to be swept away in the melodrama of the characters' lives, instead. So is that good or bad? I don't know. I can only answer for myself. I found it impossible to empathize with or connect with any of the characters in the book. Their hearts were too closed to life, to love, to humanity. Maybe this is the effect Lee wanted to achieve. If it is, I respect it, but it simply didn't work for me.
The Surrendered definitely has power, especially that final page. And I think there's a wonderful story in this book just clamoring to be told, but somehow, probably through the uncomfortable use of the third person multiple POV (at least for Lee), Lee let it (the story) get away from him. I realize Lee was aiming high, and I certainly commend him for that. And I don't want to sell Lee short. He's an excellent writer. Perhaps, in time, maybe with his next book, he'll be more comfortable with third person multiple POV. But in this book, the overall effect was melodramatic and messy.
And while this might not bother some readers, there was way, way too much fornication and adultery in this book for me. It was tolerable until Ames Tanner pulled Sylvie (who he'd not yet married) out of the bathtub. From then on, I'd had enough. The rest was surfeit and really added nothing to the story.
I did try very, very hard to like The Surrendered, and I felt bad when I couldn't. Really. Truly. I did. Will I read Lee's next book? Probably, yes, I will. Will I like it? That remains to be seen.
Recommended: Yes, with the caveat that the book isn't perfect. I'm recommending it because when it's good, it's very, very good, and as I said, despite being overwritten, the book does have power. Had Lee written the leaner story that was begging to be told, this book would have been a masterpiece.