Chang-rae Lee is a first generation Korean American. He graduated from Yale and teaches at Princeton. (ohhh fancy pants Ivy Leaguer.) His first novel, Native Speaker (1995) won the PEN/Hemingway award. The publication of A Gesture Life in 1999 seemed to secure his position as an Asian American author whose beautiful prose appropriately painted the disjointed nature, the nervous condition, of split cultures – the struggle for an Asian American identity. I knew of Lee’s work, and I expected Aloft (2004) to have similar themes ESPECIALLY with the title. I know judging a book by its cover and/or title is taboo in a bookslut world, but we’re all guilty of it.
Aloft is Lee’s first novel that does NOT have an Asian American protagonist; Jerry Battle is an Italian American and while the Italian heritage does feature in small snippets (the family’s real name is Battaglia and was changed “for the usual reasons immigrants and others like them” have), it is not a central struggle in the novel. There is nothing wrong with a Korean writing about an Italian American. There is nothing wrong with a woman writing from the POV of a man. But I would be lying if I said the identity of the author does not factor into the reading of the text. A good author can make you forget that she’s a woman writing about a man. Or a Korean writing about an Italian. Unfortunately, I could not resolve Chang-rae Lee with Jerry Battle, especially with Jerry’s take on race. I couldn’t understand what Lee was trying to do – what role he wanted race to play.
There is an Asian American and it doesn’t take a genius to say that Chang-rae Lee is kind of making fun of himself with the character Paul. Paul is the prose poet boyfriend of Jerry’s daughter, Theresa.
“But apparently Paul is somewhat famous, at least in certain rarefied academic/ literary circles, which is great if true but also means that no one I’ve met on a train or plane or in a waiting room has ever heard of him, much less read his books. And I do always ask. I’ve read his books (three novels and a chapbook of poetry), and I can say with great confidence that he’s the sort of writer who can put together a nice-sounding sentence or two and does it with feeling but never quite gets to the point. Not that I’ve figured out what his point might be, though I get the sense that the very fact I’m missing it means I’m sort of in on it, too. I guess if you put a gun to my head I’d say he writes about The Problem with Being Sort of Himself – namely, the terribly conflicted and complicated state of being Asian and American and thoughtful and male, which would be just dandy in a slightly different culture or society but in this one isn’t the hottest ticket.”(74)
Oh. Well, it would seem Lee knows exactly how he is perceived and what I was expecting with this novel. Interesting move. I kind of like it. I will readily admit that Paul was by far my favorite character and ironically, the most alienated and alone by the end of the novel.
Jerry seems too concerned with race. His first wife was Asian and his second long-term, lasting love interest, Rita, is Puerto Rican. The couple he buys the airplane from is biracial. Jerry’s son’s wife, Eunice, is English-German. I find the whole race issue over acknowledged but under developed. It was a bit disappointing and just one of several flaws with the novel.
It’s too ambitious for what it is. There is suicide and attempted suicide. A business fails. There is sexual harassment and a high stakes tennis match. There is a run-away father and a daughter dying of cancer. There’s death and birth and ethnic food. There are honey colored breasts and “fuck me” clothes. There are large diamond rings and Ferraris. There is a plane named Donnie. There is so much in this novel. So very much.
Aloft was too caught up in itself, too lofty and hard to pin down, and too rambling. It really could have been a ploy on the part of Lee, but it didn’t work. And the fact it didn’t work has nothing to do with the protagonist being Italian-American. While beautifully written, the novel just doesn’t fly.