Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee (Wednesday Review #5)

The first novel by one of the best known Korean American novelists begins in such a compelling way--with a list of the main character's flaws as written out by his wife who is leaving him. However, Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee follows a twisted and sometimes confusing path through the mid-life of a second generation Korean immigrant and spy, Henry Park, whose current assignment to follow a charismatic Korean-American politician, John Kwang, leads him on his own search for identity.

Lee is a hell of a writer. He plays with words and ideas in a way that sucks you in and reminds me of some of my favorite American wordsmiths--Richard Wright, Tim O'Brien, Cormac McCarthy--while at the same time addressing some of the issues of alienation that make other American immigrant writers, such as Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Richard Rodriguez so powerful. The scenes that stuck with me were the ones between Park and his father and the difficulties he has with his wife and family.

However, I found the structure of the novel off-putting. I don't know that the whole spy gambit was necessary except as a plot device to contrast Kwang's immigrant experience with Henry's father's. I felt that the story was almost so ambitious as to be unfocused. Was it a story about a parent's loss? About a broken marriage? About an American unable to connect with his Korean roots? About political intrigues of minority politicians? I don't know. I felt like Lee may have bitten off more than this story could chew. I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't jump out of my socks recommending it to others.

That said, I would like to read more of Lee's work before judging him. As I said, I think he can write, even if this story does not grab me. Fortunately, he has three other books I can sink my teeth into when I get back to America. Yay for public libraries!


  1. I read that book a few years ago, put it down after finishing it and said, "I'm not sure if I liked that book or not."

    I still feel that way about it.

  2. Diana,

    You might dip into translated Korean modern literature if you like this kind of thing. Some of the wordplay is taken out in translation, I think, but the themes are all about alienation.

    If you like it semi-post-modern, go for Kim Young-Ha (Yes, that is a link to my blog. ^^). Korean Separation Literature is also chock full of alienation. On the warmer, but still traumatic side, Park Wan-suh has several works out in translation. They are generally "mother" stories, which I typically loathe, but she pulls it off.

    Charles Montgomery

  3. 'Native Speaker' isn't his best work. 'A gesture life' is my favourite by him and I'm a little indifferent to 'aloft' also. he has a new one out now which i haven't read, but i do recommend 'A gesture life' :)

  4. Thanks Charles. I've been trying to find out what good lit there is in Korea, but my students are of no help--they study Korean "literature" out of test prep books! Aaaaieeee!

    Amanda and saharial--I know I like his writing and I like his themes... I just... don't know about the way he puts it all together. It's one of those books I'm a bit intimidated to say anything bad about because maybe I just don't "get" it? But I think I do get it. I think this book was a bit too ambitious for itself.

    Like I said, I'm giving him another shot.



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