Chang-Rae Lee's much-admired debut, Native Speaker (1995), was about an American-Korean undercover detective whose rich sensibilities were rooted in his immigrant's sense of alienation. It was a novel about the need to belong and the impossibility of belonging. Lee's second novel further explores the outsider's status, insisting on the way a handful of traumatic experiences from the past can forge identity, reminding us that the self is forever in danger of collapsing, like a black hole.
The protagonist and narrator of A Gesture Life is Franklin Hata, an elderly Japanese gentleman, a respected member of the community of Bedley Run, a middle-class suburb of New York. Hata seems to be enjoying a benign retirement, having sold the medical supply store - named after his adopted daughter Sunny - which he had run for many years. As the novel proceeds, it becomes clear that behind his impeccably judged veneer of decorum runs a current of desperation.
In an early episode, when Hata is on the phone, he refuses to hang up even though a fire is spreading from the grate in his living room. He would rather let the fire take its course than forego politeness. But etiquette eventually lands him in hospital.
Hata is an obsessive swimmer, but his daily round of exercise in his beloved pool sometimes assumes a mystical significance, returning him to the desolation of the past: "The feeling sometimes is that you are not swimming in water at all . . . but rather pulling blindly through a mysterious resistance whose properties are slowly revealing themselves beneath you, in flame-like rolls and tendrils, the black fires of the past". It emerges that, as a young man, Hata was a paramedic in an army camp in the final days of the Pacific war. He witnessed a sickening series of events, as he tended to the "comfort" women dragged into the camp to service the soldiers. Hata befriends one of the women, Kkutaeh, who is separated from the others on account of her "clear breeding".
Hata and Kkutaeh's relationship forms the molten, moving core of this finely structured novel. His attempt to protect her leads to the birth of a love that Hata will never experience again. His relationship with his daughter, Sunny, atrophies because - as she says - he makes "a whole life out of gestures and politeness".
Hata's view of his daughter is in part shaped by his recollections of Kkutaeh. Both women are defined in equal measure by their vulnerability and luminosity. The exchanges between father and daughter are powerful, as his desire to protect her from the horrors of the world can be read in terms of a residual love for Kkutaeh. But, in the end, Sunny violently rejects suburban conformity by escaping into random sexual encounters. It is only after years of estrangement that father and daughter are reconciled, through the agency of Hata's grandson.
A Gesture Life shares with Native Speaker a serpentine narrative structure, moving about in time effortlessly. But because Lee eschews the approach of a linear plot, the book can drag at times, certainly before the advent of the sections dealing with wartime memory. Still, this is a rich, allusive work, worthy of successive readings.