Friday, March 12, 2010

"The Surrendered"

Chang-Rae Lee's just published fourth novel is not as expected. Long awaited here since his third, "Aloft", was published in 2004, "The Surrendered" is alternatively beautifully written and insightful, grim and humorless, a story that relentlessly deals with death, human frailty, and individual determination.

If not already such an admirer of Lee's work, it would have been unlikely that I could have perservered through the first half of the book. The earlier novels were, like this one, multi-layered tales with plenty of characters and multiple story lines put together and ultimately concluded in a way that wasn't forced or trite, very satisfying and meaningful reading events. The huge difference in this latest work is in the observations and insights that are part of a quality work of literature. Those first three books had plenty of "aha" moments in which a subtle phrase, sentence, or paragraph captured some aspect of existence that seemed familiar but in words that were new. Many of those gems would force a smile, a sense of familiarity, or even a silent chuckle, as in that's just right. In "The Surrendered" there are many observations but the harsh subjects are immune from reader self satisfaction as the story spirals from one unpredictable chapter to another full of both forseeable and random tragedies, eventually building into a cohesive whole. "She could not look back. She loved them all but she knew if she looked back she was done. She would come to a stop. And she did not want to stop, not just yet. Not now. To crave anything, alas is to crave time. She was simply hungry for time."

The themes here are similar in ways to Lee's previous work but so much more direct. The writing at times extends itself in a way that is almost meadering and repetitive but in the end a reader indoctrination was underway, transferring characters' experiences. That this book was unquestionably worth the effort and that the effort was required may just be a reflection of our times, sadly, especially our American times.

There is a wonderful comment from a character that within the 460 pages I can no longer find but roughly it is this, "There is no limit of human goodness in the world, but so much of it is misspent".

In the wider world "The Surrendered" is either a blockbuster or a bust, a signature literary event or a melodramatic soul searcher. Here it was worthwhile reading.


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