Saturday, November 3, 2007

Revisiting "A Gesture Life" by Chang rae-Lee

“All I wished for was to be part (if but a millionth) of the massing, and that I pass through with something more than a life of gestures.” So are the thoughts of Franklin “Doc” Hata, a well-respected retired medical supply dealer who lives a seemingly blissful life of habitual content. He is a man familiarly greeted every morning by those on the sidewalk, in the local stores and family shops, and in all the varied public places of Bedley Run, a small, close-knit, and beautifully preserved community in upstate New York.

Author Chang-rae Lee (whose first novel “Native Speaker” won the Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award in 1995) has brought us again into the land of John Cheever, into those upscale bedroom communities where all seems well until someone’s private torment cracks the familial façade. And, as with Cheever, alienation betrays the antithesis of the setting. Lee’s elegant prose pulls us slowly into the mind of an aging single man whose outward appearance seems one of simple gentility and respect.

Unlike Cheever’s men though, Hata has had to overcome the barrier of race; he immigrated to the United States from Japan after World War II, and due to his penchant for passivity and non-confrontation (and a genuine concern for appearances), he assimilates almost invisibly into his new surroundings. As the years pass on, “Doc” Hata becomes as integral to Bedley Run as the paintbrush lawns and the faux Tudor homes. Indeed, one of the town’s most prominent citizens remarks that “Franklin Hata is our town. He’s what this place is all about.”

While recovering from an accident he suffered in his home, he is given cause to reflect upon his life. As he peels back the layers of his past, we feel the chill of a man who slowly begins to fear that his carefully constructed existence was a fraud, a deceit in the guise of a kind smile and good intentions. His adopted daughter had left him years ago. His single attempt at love, with an attractive and willing widow, suffered dearly by his restraint. Running beneath all of this is an experience that forged his emotional self, one that was borne of forbidden feelings for a Korean “comfort woman” he attended to as a young Japanese army medic while stationed in Burma.

Hata is thrice an alien; as a Korean orphan raised in a Japanese home, as a Japanese immigrant in the midst of Cheever country, and as a man isolated from those who would love him. Three relationships central to his life are explored as his mind flits back and forth between the past and present, attempting to reconcile his decent standing in society with the unbearable emptiness he himself has wrought.

What informs this novel with a graceful honesty is the narration of Hata’s singular voice. Never does Lee break the stride of Doc’s obsession with politeness and humility. His thoughts, even those that unclothe the secret horrors of Burma, are restrained, methodical, and painfully tuned to his habits of emotional retreat. We are forced to suffer his inability to connect, and in the end, desperate to find a sense of redemption within a life already written.

"A Gesture Life" by Chang rae-Lee
Riverhead Books, 1999

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