Saturday, August 23, 2014

"Native Speaker"

I finally finished reading Chang-rae Lee's novel, Native Speaker (1995) and I'm definitely on the fence about it.

It took me forever to finish it.  Seriously.  I started reading it as part of a read-a-thon back in April.  I buzzed right through the first 100 pages.  I really enjoyed how the narrator, Henry Park, talked about his sense of alienation and how that manifested itself in his family life after the death of his son and his separation from his wife.

I also really liked the last 100 pages, and buzzed right through that.  I liked the narrative about the politician John Kwang's rise (and fall), and the way in which Park struggled to understand him through the lens of his own experience.

What bogged me down--in a BIG way--was the middle 150 pages.  Now that I've finished, I have to say that I think the novel would have been much stronger had it been much shorter.

The novel is a relatively quick read, in general, and well-written.  But for much of the middle portion of the novel, I found myself thinking "Okay, wrap it up and move on" or "Why am I reading this?"  I'd read 20-25 pages, and then feel, well, frankly, bored.

And so I kept setting it aside.

I think the issue for me was that I didn't find the narrator's separation from his wife all that convincing--initially, it was presented as a huge shock for Henry Park, a wake-up call about what mattered.  But then, his attempt to grapple with that just went on and on and on and on.

At least, that's the way it felt to me.

When I reached the point at which the reader learns about the death of his son (sorry for the slight spoiler), I thought, "Okay, this will re-energize this novel, because now I'll be seeing how his relationship with his wife is being shaped by this event."

Not really.  The separation from his wife kind of ... dithers and then trickles out, and next thing you know, they're back together and maybe they'll even have another baby.  Yes, Park has changed, but his wife doesn't seem to have changed at all, as a result of this major loss.  By the latter portion of the novel, she isn't even really mentioning their dead son anymore.

I just thought this sounded kind of... inauthentic, particularly given her level of devastation in the first third of the novel.  I felt like Lee had perhaps implemented this plot twist and then didn't really know what to do with it in the end.

I also felt that there was WAY too much time spent on the build-up to the final series of events involving the politician John Kwang.  This was another point at which I felt like, "Why am I reading this?"  I think eventually, the significance of his character came through, but I still found myself resenting the many pages of lead-in I had had to travel through to get to that point.

I also didn't quite understand why Henry's interaction with his psychiatrist figured so prominently for a portion of the novel, but then disappeared.  I mean, I get what happened and all, but I felt like it was a thread that was followed for longer than it needed to be, if it wasn't going to be more directly tied into the novel itself.

And this is my overall impression of the novel: a lot of interesting threads, some longer than others, some--in my opinion--far too long, but only a couple of them seem to be tied together at the end.  That said, it may simply be that I haven't figured out how they connect, but I think for me, one of the major weaknesses of the novel is that I wasn't really all that interested in connecting them, in the end.

Sartre says that reading is a pact between a writer and a reader, and a writer has to know what s/he can ask of a reader.  I think Lee offers an interesting text, but a compelling one?  Not so much.

I think my disappointment is increased by the fact that, in Asian-American literature, Native Speaker is often treated as a seminal text:, as one of the best by one of the best 20th-century writers.  Personally, I found myself disappointed in much the same way as I was by the work of Gish Jen--I wanted to like it, but I just couldn't.  At this point, someone would have to spend a fair amount of time trying to convince me to read another novel by Gish Jen or Chang-rae Lee.

And I always feel like that's kind of a shame, when you end up feeling that way about a writer's work

So if you're asking me if you should read this novel, I think my answer would have to be, "Maybe."  It is a well-known work, and it is often referenced, and it does have quite a few interesting ideas and plot-lines.  It's not a difficult or challenging read, in terms of language and structure, and parts of it move quite quickly. 

But at the end of the day, I still can't really say that I "enjoyed" it.  Although I'm willing to admit that it may very well be the kind of work that someone else would find rich and resonant.

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