by Chang-rae Lee
Published by Riverhead Books
343 pages, 2004
Pretending into Perfection
Reviewed by Edward Champion
After examining cultural alienation in Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, Chang-rae Lee seems the unlikeliest novelist to spin a male menopause tale. This literary subclass, popularized by John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom novels and Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe novels (a third one's on the way), has been the stuff of awards, accolades and encomia for the past two decades. Presumably, this subject matter has flourished because these talents, after all, must write about what they know.
Which makes Lee's decision all the more interesting. Lee is certainly aware of his antecedents. (It can't be an accident that a supporting character is named Richard Coniglio, Coniglio being Italian for Rabbit.) And Aloft reads very much like the autobiography of an older Bascombe, right down to its simple declarative sentences and the self-centered denial nestling just beneath the surface of its narrator's convictions.
Unlike Lee's previous books, which explored Asian identity, this time, his protagonist, Jerry Battle, is a self-described white guy, though of Italian descent. He lives in a Long Island suburb. He's almost 60, semi-retired from the family business (Battle Brothers, a landscaping contractor). He's rich and spends his spare time flying a Cessna when he isn't working part-time at a travel agency to wile away the hours.
The first third of Aloft bears startling similarities to Richard Ford's highly regarded Independence Day. Like Frank Bascombe, Jerry Battle believes that he's in control, though he can't perceive how his own emotional exile affects others. In Independence Day, Bascombe spends a good portion of the book unsuccessfully trying to understand his son. Battle spends time unsuccessfully trying to understand his daughter. Bascombe hopes to communicate with his son through turgid nonfiction. Battle hopes to find meaning with his daughter (and future son-in-law) by examining her scholarly papers. Bascombe and Battle both carry on brief affairs with co-workers. And Bascombe and Battle are both in unmarried though monogamous relationships in decline and hope to salvage them.
If Aloft had continued along these lines, the book could have transmuted into a somewhat satisfying, if hand-me-down, upper-class expose. Fortunately, it isn't long before Lee steers away from the Updike-Ford template to offer nuanced human insight. Lee's true métier is demonstrating how even the smallest multicultural schism generates life-altering torrents, in this case, shock waves that Battle himself is incapable of perceiving. Battle's daughter, Therese, is marrying "a semi-famous Asian-American author" named Paul (also the name of Bascombe's son). The relationship between Paul and Battle is one of the most interesting arcs of the novel. Whereas Jack, Battle's natural son, is living a comfortable life (and secretly running the family business into the ground) that Battle really knows nothing about, Battle immediately attempts to sculpt Paul in the same destructive manner that his own father did. Not only is Battle blind to the notion that his meddling is, after all, affecting the life of his own daughter, but he's influenced more than he knows by his father's racist fulminations. Factor in the Korean identity of his dead wife, Daisy, and we begin to see Lee's full tapestry of implications: past, present and future.
We get various other hints of the "melting pot" crisis at hand. There's a co-worker at the travel agent's office who's the "designated Spanish speaker" but doesn't speak the language particularly well. Then there's Rita, a RN who becomes Battle's long-term partner and, at the beginning of the book, decides to walk. It's easy to see why. Rita has replaced Daisy as the mother/wife/provider and also the silent sufferer. When Battle recalls his first meeting with Daisy, he notes that "anyone could see she was pretty much a knockout, Puerto Rico or not." This suggests that, by way of being Puerto Rican, either she's not entitled to be on equal footing (to reinforce this, Lee throws in a Hispanic Jill of all trades drudging for Jack), Battle feels he's not entitled to Rita, or that, within Battle, there exists some unspoken sense of shame.
There's an element of sadness to Battle that suggests a more defeated version of Bascombe. Battle, for one, fantasizes about the woman on the other end of a corporate voicemail, "picturing us in an instant picnicking in the village square and holding hands and greeting passersby." Battle bemoans the "glamour in all departures." And rather than own up to his repeated mistakes, Battle experiences an "I-dropped-my-ice-cream feeling" when Rita leaves him. That's the understatement of the century.
Unlike Ford, Lee takes a few missteps when he relies on consumer culture potshots to propel his narrative. DeLillo moments, such as a "slim, small bottle" of prescription drugs and the many references to 7-Eleven, Benihana, Doritos, Britney Spears, the Fox News Channel, or Battle mesmerized by an infomercial showing "chicken done to a perfect shade of cherry wood" don't belong in a book where the destructive environment is so salient. Lee is much better describing the mansion-houses and landscaping excess that not only echo the bloat of the family business (and resultant egos), but suggest a post-Gatsby Long Island environment of self-absorption sifting further into hell.
If Lee's prose apes the precision of his predecessors a bit too much, Lee makes up for it through his mastery of images and implied references. Lee uses radio "oldies" and swift technological development as a metaphor for aging, but it doubles as a metaphor for testosterone-charged toys that expose how absurd it is to resort to masculinity. Jack lives in a gated community called Haymarket Estates (the Haymarket Riot being what destroyed the eight-hour workday movement in 1886). There are several Shakespeare allusions that suggest a deeper battle against mortality. The man who sells Battle the plane is named Hal, though a far more austere and tormented prince without his Falstaff. Then there's the Ophelia-like suicide of Battle's wife, Daisy, drowned in a contemporary swimming pool no less. And is Pop (Battle's dad), residing in the Ivy Acres (Arden?) rest home, a ghost of his former self, possibly some physical reminder of Battle's own mortality?
There's also an intriguing undercurrent of sex in the air. When Battle buys his plane, he commits borderline infidelity with the seller's wife. When checking up on how his son is doing at Battle Brothers, Battle encounters a receptionist with a suggestive T-shirt and pornographic images on her computer. Then there's Sal, a lecherous accountant who represents the only connection between Jerry Battle's association with the business and his son Jack decimating it with flashy technology. Challenged virility? You better believe it. None of this is by accident. Lee follows this up with a major revelation late in the book that explains why Battle is sensitive to these details and why Battle himself has trouble expressing his true feelings for Rita, the intended second love in his life.
And what are we to make of Donnie, the name of Battle's Cessna, short for Donald (which comes from the Gaelic name for "ruler of the world")? The book dwells briefly upon a British entrepreneur attempting to traverse the world by balloon, equipped with the latest technology, but torn down by the elements. It's a wry foreshadowing of the impotence that will ineluctably take him down.
"You can't pretend yourself into perfection," says a character at one point. Maybe so, but Aloft shows that Chang-rae Lee is a wizard at studying the effects of pretending. | July 2004
Edward Champion is a writer in San Francisco. His satirical riffs on books can be experienced at his blog, Return of the Reluctant. He is currently prepping his play, "Wrestling an Alligator," for the San Francisco Fringe Festival.