Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee

Chang-Rae Lee’s latest novel The Surrendered is aptly titled. The story is about a surrender to the powerful grip that love, death, and hope have on us all. But more than that, the novel has a powerful grip that forces the reader to surrender as well. Diving into this brutal tale is like surrendering to the forces of time and movement, a drifting away on currents that take you across the span of memory and place. I surrendered quickly.

This is not to suggest that Lee’s novel is entirely successful. In fact it is flawed. And yet there is something quietly powerful about his tale of three lost souls who are drawn obsessively together  against the backdrop of war and death.

The Surrendered begins with a journey. In fact the whole novel is about journeys, both of the physical and emotional. June Han, Hector Brennan, and Sylvie Tanner are three disparate souls whose lives cross at an orphanage following the Korean War. All three are victims of war, but more than that they are also victims to their own self-immolating desires which literally consume them whole until both June and Hector are left to live with the consequences. The Surrendered is more than a typical war novel, but it does reveal the ways in which war infects the mind and body.

Lee’s prose is the most successful part of the novel. His writing really does sweep you further into the story. I could not put this book down. Though there are times when he strains with the metaphor, he does so with an artful ambition that thrusts you into the very maw of these characters’ emotions. Such moments are enlivened with his prose:

When he looked down at his feet, like a boy greatly relieved, she surprised him with an embrace. He felt his heart might collapse. He instantly took her up and held her against him. Her face was turned but his mouth and eyes were pressed against her ear, the soft plate of her cheek, and the more tightly he held on to her the more she seemed to give way, to cave, as if she were made of loose, dry dirt.
Yet the strength of Lee’s writing does not detract from the more flawed aspects of the story. For instance, Sylvie exists purely as a type, a figure to which June and Hector focus their erotic desires. Though Rae-Lee does delve into her personal history, and is quite forceful in the way he reveals how her parents, missionaries in 1930s China, meet a brutal end at the hands of Japanese soldiers, the character loses a sense of spark or dynamism once she is placed within the context of the Korean War orphanage. The wife of a stern and unyielding minister who now looks after the local orphanages, Sylvie has succumbed to a drug addiction which leaves her listless and weak throughout much of the book. She is a mere a shadow, a symbol onto which Hector and June concentrate their emotional baggage and sexual awakening. Hector, as a character, is in many ways implausible (he has the luck of a man who has cheated death only to watch death reap its toll on others around him), carries his guilt like an albatross, blaming himself for the death of his father, who got drunk at a bar and drowned in a river on his way home, while Hector was fooling around with an older war widow; or loses his lover in a freak accident that is every bit as implausible as it is melodramatic.

June Han is by far the most powerful character in the story and her tale gives the novel its fierce heart. An orphan by fourteen, she witnesses the death and disappearance of her parents and siblings, either by the brutal hand of war or by freak accident. She wanders about on the road, eating mud to survive, when she meets Hector, who sweeps her away to the orphanage. By then she is already a brittle but fragile waif, refusing to let anyone, except the vulnerable Sylvie, enter her world.

Though the significant events in these characters' lives occur at the orphanage, they are in fact memories. The novel concerns the present (in this case 1987), in which a now dying June enlists the much older Hector to help find their missing son in Italy. The fact that June and Hector share a child might seem just as equally implausible, but the connection they share, mainly through the now deceased Sylvie, would have been tenuous otherwise. Clearly the journey both June and Hector undertake before they cross paths again and travel through Italy frame their memories. The novel's time frame jumps back and forth as the events of what occurred at the orphanage and why both June and Hector carry their guilt well into the future, become clearer. In The Surrendered, Lee has composed a novel that despite its obvious flaws is about the surrender we all make to life in all its horror and beauty, and is as tough and flinty as the uncompromising anti-heroine who gives it its raw power.

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