D.G. Myers is challenging my rationale for feeling disappointed in Chang-rae Lee‘s new novel, The Surrendered.* I mostly dinged the book for its simplistic characterizations; Myers suggests that perhaps I’m too eager to expect psychological realism and might be better off turning my attention to the book’s plot. When I glibly dismissed the book’s deep supply of lost and damaged limbs as serving an argument for a world without legs, Myers proposes that Lee is “more interested in the world that wants to cut them off.”
In other words (if I’m reading Myers correctly), Lee should get credit for some of the more allegorical work he’s done in the book. Which I’d be happy to give, had he done it more consistently. Stripped of any demand for psychological realism—the demand that Myers finds so irritating—at least one character remains an interesting case: Hector, the Korean War GI who fathers a son with June, who was orphaned by the war. Hector doesn’t just represent the kind of indomitable spirit that Lee wants to somberly honor, he is in fact superhuman—an alcoholic incapable of feeling truly drunk and a warrior who can’t entirely feel pain:
It was amazing but, through all the battles and firefights and skirmishes, he’d never been seriously injured; he’d been knifed and shot, even hit by shrapnel, but they were always superficial strikes, glancing off him as if he were shielded by the harder steel of some mysterious fortune, the only drafts of his blood drawn by the nurses for the blood and plasma reserves, or else come from his bloodied noses after the tussles outside bars and whorehouses. Then his wounds always healed with miraculous swiftness, as if his corporal self existed apart from everything else in a bounding, lapsing time. And in the same way that he could not feel true drunkenness he felt no true pain either, just the cold report of impact, his nerves disconnected from the necessary region of his mind, if never quite his heart.
Hector is both a moral and structural tentpole for The Surrendered. He most strongly represents Lee’s argument that we’re tethered to the past despite our best efforts to resist it, and he supports the two other lead characters in the novel: June, the orphan, and Sylvie, a missionary. He provides that support both in terms of the novel’s plot (emotionally for June, sexually for Sylvie) and in terms of its structure, bridging the chapters that chronicle Sylvie’s early miseries in Manchuria and June’s late miseries as her cancer progresses. If The Surrendered is about how the world that wants to cut your legs off, Hector sees the most of the cutting, or is at least most directly affected by it.** If we can’t take him seriously as a “realistic” character, we can at least admire him as a type, the man who’s doing much of Lee’s metaphorical heavily lifting. (Literally: He builds the orphanage’s chapel.)
So far, so appealingly disinterested in psychological realism. What I can’t see is how such a reading does more for the characters of June and Sylvie, who occupy two-thirds of the novel. What are their “superpowers” to match Hector’s, and what purpose do they serve without them? June is a headstrong orphan who grows up to become a headstrong woman; Sylvie is an addict trying to blank out the brutality she witnessed years before in Manchuria. The emotional resonances of those experiences are clear, but there’s no broader thematic value in them. Sylvie’s habit, for instance, seems to do little more than set up a somewhat interesting tension (a missionary with a drug habit!) for Hector to reckon with. And Sylvie’s justification of her habit is a familiar one:
Each time she’d take a little more [of an opium tincture], Jim warning her to be careful and that it was not meant for a healthy young woman, but she knew she wasn’t a tenth as sturdy as she appeared to Jim or to her aunt or to everyone else who saw her as a beautiful, somewhat aloof, scholarly girl who had so quickly righted herself after such a lamentable family tragedy…. [A]s she went to her classes at the college, attended church with Aunt Lizzie, a part of her couldn’t help but wish to run to Jim and the pitch-black room at the factory, drink in the potion and transmogrify, be anything but her mortal self.
The story is much the same for June. She, too, has lost her family to an atrocity, and she responds by spending her life shutting herself off emotionally, an effort that has made her wealthy but separated her from the people close to her—a worn-out theme if there ever was one. When Myers argues that The Surrendered is better read without the filter of psychological realism, only about a third of the book improves; Lee is still committed to making familiar emotional overtures, and to introducing yet another accident, another busted leg or arm, when he needs to keep the novel’s temperature up. Lee is indeed interested in the world that wants to cut your legs off, but he rarely seems interested in doing more than showing you all the bloodshed that results.
* It requires real effort for me not to refer to Lee’s novel as The Unnamed. Perhaps ambitious but flawed novels are starting to run together for me.
** Somebody could probably get a thesis out of the notion that Hector is a symbol for American imperialism since World War II, surrounded by violence but never critically wounded by it. But Lee isn’t especially engaged in the politics of war in The Surrendered, and looking at the novel that way would make it lamer than it is.