Chang-rae Lee’s Characterization Flaw

Talking to the Guardian, novelist Amy Bloom discusses her previous career as a psychotherapist and how she creates characters:

It is more the case, she explains, “that you say to [patients], ‘you seem to be carrying this little tin can left over from 1964 with you everywhere you go; maybe you’d like to put it down?’ And sometimes they go, no, it’s way too hard to put it down, I would like to ruin my relationships for the rest of my life, thank you very much. And you go OK, see you around.” In terms of her fiction, the approach translates into: “if you’ve done a good job of presenting the character, people can hear him and see him and you don’t have to go into a lot of blah blah blah about how he came to be. It’s mostly misleading and pointless.”

Bloom sounds like a terrible psychotherapist but a perfectly reasonable fiction writer: The best writers reveal character instead of explain it, and even good writers fall into the easy trap of giving their characters depth by making them products of a Deeply Transformative Moment. (To be fair, newspaper feature writers are more guilty of this flaw than novelists.) Bloom’s comment helped clarify my feelings about what doesn’t work in Chang-rae Lee‘s new novel, The Surrendered, which ambitiously attempts to capture the lives of three people deeply affected by the Korean War: Sylvie, a missionary; June, an orphan; Hector, a U.S. soldier booted from the army for “a pattern of discreditable conduct.”

There’s plenty to admire in Lee’s novel. Though a few critics have picked on its purpler passages, the writing is more often forceful and straightforward, especially when it comes to Hector, where Lee infuses the character’s humdrum life with a rare dignity, akin to Raymond Carver or Joyce Carol Oates. James Wood collects some of Lee’s more unfortunate sentences, but he’d be disinclined to do so if the characters weren’t such simple expressions of simple motivations. Hector is a brawler shellshocked by the brutality of war; June is an orphan shellshocked by the brutality of war; Sylvie is a morphine addict shellshocked by the brutality of war.

Lee can afford to carry the story for a while on the sheer intensity of three people reckoning with that brutality; the Transformative Moments for June and Sylvie in particular are so intensely detailed and gruesome that you’re willing to accept them as indeed singularly transformative. For a while, anyway. In a smaller novel this approach might work start-to-finish, but in a novel pushing 500 pages everybody is left with simple demons to conquer or succumb to, and Lee’s worst tic is that he pads the book not so much with humid writing but with violent scenes, as if to suggest that bloody brokenness is our essential way of being. Rare is the limb in The Surrendered that doesn’t wind up snapped, torn, broken, or amputated. But to what end? “She was off her feet, alive,” is the last line of the novel; Lee wants to conjure up a feeling of weightlessness and deliverance, but given all the simplistic noises he’s made before that moment if just feels like he’s arguing for a world without legs.