Sunday, October 25, 2009


Two bits of cultural flotsam I've enjoyed in the past few weeks: on the book end, Chang-rae Lee's Aloft and in movieland, Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia. I was enriched by both of them to the point where - at least - I feel compelled to write a bit of commentary on them both. It's long, so I'll divide it into two posts.

Let's start with the less well-known of the two, Aloft. Although reading a Lee novel requires a certain degree of macabre in your mood, and a willingness to follow some loopy elliptical thoughts, prose and plotlines, I'm quite a fan of his work after having read Native Speaker (A Gesture Life is banging around our apartment somewhere and I'll read it when I find it. If you could see our bookcases you'd understand).

In Aloft, Lee leaves the Korean cultural sphere behind a bit to narrate from the perspective of Jerry Battle - whose name is clearly symbolic of many things, mostly the ones I don't have to spell out - nee Battaglia and yet barely connected to his Italian-American roots. I liked how Lee created this character; mentioning just enough about New York Guidos, grandmothers and brittle old scenic posters of Sicily to clarify that Jerry is aware of his roots, but sweeping it all to the side just enough to show the degree of assimilation into American suburban life that his generation underwent. (Jerry is a Baby Boomer, turning 60 just around the time that people stopped using AOL, though his character still does - a detail I found deeply amusing as my parents do, too.)

The only thing I did not find really believeable was Jerry's previous marriage to Daisy Han, a Korean immigrant - He's a widower at the opening of the book but she makes an appearance in a few flashbacks. Nowadays such a marriage would be completely normal, but the 1960s and 70s, when the two characters would have actually been together - I don't see it. Not so much that one is Italian and the other is Korean, but that Jerry is 2nd or 3rd generation (it's not made clear unless there's a detail I missed) and Daisy is an immigrant with an accent. Even in the 1970s, even in New York, a pair across those socioeconomic lines would have been quite rare. One detail that was done right: Daisy was bipolar. The treatment she needed is fairly clear today; Lee did a good job of showing the muddy waters of mental illness diagnosis and treatment just a few decades ago, however.

So now you're probably thinking "Get to the plot, what happened?" - if you're still reading. I'd love to. I really would. But there isn't much of one. Like Lee's other works, Aloft is more a statement on people and their place in society than it is a bearer of any sort of storyline. Something does happen, though: several characters in the book are faced with the possibility of death and of all of them, only one actually dies. Not to say that you don't see it coming, but Lee purposely chose the one who seemed to have the best chance of making it by virtue of socioeconomic status, education and youth to show that you never can tell who will pull through and who won't. Life is like that.

And that's really what the book is about: life. The Problem, says one character - a Korean-American author who is quite clearly Lee's alter-ego, Lee himself exposing, battling the specter of becoming, as that character puts it, a "boutique international writer". It's about how the journey upward - the journey aloft, I suppose - isn't an easy one and there are no guarantees, though you might hit some easy currents along which you might sail as you head up. It deals with who makes it to the top and who pulls out the La-Z-Boy at the first sign of smooth sailing, so as only to climb part way. It's about how different generations see different ways out of the muck and mire of daily life and human toil (no coincidence that the novel is set deep in the OK-but-starting-to-show-its-age suburbs of western Long Island, which are just about as old as Jerry) - Jerry's father being the 'last of the lions' who built something great, the Baby Boomers who built on that and took nothing for granted, while not having to do the heavy lifting themselves, and Jerry's kids' generation (older than Brendan and myself, but close enough), who expand too fast, buy too much and put it all into shoddily built, overside McMansions that can barely fit into the property they're on.

It also comments on being disconnected from life, toil and work as all of the characters do in their own way: Theresa the academic daughter escaping through intellectualism, Jerry through his Cessna, Jack the popular, good-looking son through maniacally expanding the family business to include everything except, it seems, what brings in the money...moving dirt. Making it all seem more glamorous than it is. Toward the end the only conclusion is that you can continue to climb ever-upward, but you can't disconnect from dirt and in the difficult, fickle business of life only has one insurance and one protection: family. I like that; it's something I've learned while living on the dark side of the globe from my own family.

It's also no coincidence that Jerry's family business is in landscaping and contracting - dirt moving, essentially - and that in his early retirement, he owns a plane.

Some things that really hit home with me - other than the McMansions, which are all over the place not far from where I've lived when in the USA - the Washington, DC Metro area. The detailed, and spot-on, descriptions of that particular slice of Long Island, the one that stretches from Queens - where the families of the Hispanic domestic workers in the book all live - to just about the middle of Nassau and Suffolk Counties. I'm from upstate originally - think Culinary Institute of America, SUNY New Paltz and Vassar College area - so didn't spend a lot of time down there, but I'm still deeply familiar with the region. It's noteable that Lee grew up in Westchester County - not far from another favorite author of mine, Gish Jen. Considering the divide of wealth between Westchester County and eastern Long Island, it's rather amusing to see someone of seemingly well-to-do roots writing about a very middle-class slice of the New York 'burbs. The details, though, made me sorta-kinda-an-eensy-bit miss home. The loud cars, the starter homes, the backyards going to seed, the rowhouses with patios covered in poorly-tended potted plants with white flecked dirt coagulating in the bottom. That's it right there.

Just look at the photo of Lee on the back cover of any of his books - black-and-white, Ivory Tower Liberal (woohoo! I'm one of those!) blazer and sweater vest with Thoughtful Pose and Serious Expression - this looks like a guy who grew up in Westchester and went to the "best schools" (which he did - whatever 'best' means anyway), not someone used to blue-collar grit and dirt-moving. I appreciate, though, that clearly he is.

Taiwan has made me a less PC person 'less PC' doesn't mean 'less tolerant' in any way, though I do have chronic foot-in-mouth disease. For this reason, I liked that Lee didn't gloss over the racial slurs one would have heard in the '60s and '70s. Not that I'd ever use one, but it's true that people did, and there's no sense hiding from that in literature. A strong case for not forgetting how society used to be, so we don't become that way again.

Something I wish society would hurry up and do for women, but that's to follow.

Though Lee does not entirely leave behind his own Korean roots - his fear of being a 'boutique international writer' may have some grounds in truth here: every Asian in the novel is Korean. The New York area is not scant on Asians of all descents, even the farfetched: Uzbek, anyone? - so I'm not quite sure why that is unless a.) Lee was making a statement about how no matter how hard you try, and how American-Assimilated you become, you're not going to get away from your roots or b.) he wasn't paying attention. I doubt b, considering the level of detail in the rest of the novel.

I also liked that the only good, true, sensible person in the book seems to be Rita, Jerry's ex-girlfriend. We need more female literary characters who know the deal on life instinctively while others stagger and claw around for the cave entrance. I liked the emphasis on roots, and yet not-on-roots, being a 3rd-generation-part-Armenian-American-and-eleventy-millionth-generation-Polish-American; despite the fact that I've never even been to Poland or Armenia, both of those cultural traditions run strong in my family.

Anyway, like Aloft, there's no great organization here, but that novel had a denouement so I suppose this post should, too. And I suppose the previous paragraph was it. On to Julia.

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