War is, for obvious reasons, a topic occupying many creative minds these days, Chang-rae Lee among them. But in his latest novel, “The Surrendered,” out now from Riverhead Books, it was the aftermath of such conflicts that most interested the author.
“I try to suggest that the effects and the cost of war aren’t felt by just one person,” explains Lee, who set his story during and after the Korean War and Japanese invasion of China in the Thirties. “It’s cosmic, too, and shared.”
This story first appeared in the March 12, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“The Surrendered” circles around three main characters whose lives intersect at a Korean orphanage after the war’s end: June, a teenage orphan; Hector, a former soldier from Ilion, N.Y., who acts as a handyman there, and Sylvie, an aid worker and wife of the orphanage’s reverend head. Jumping back and forth across a time span of 50 years, and through locales as varied as Thirties Manchuria and Eighties Italy, the story follows the trio as their paths diverge and reconnect, haunted and molded by their wartime experiences.
“In many ways, each of these characters is an orphan. I think psychologically and spiritually that’s how I saw these people,” says Lee. “Not through any fault of their own, they were cast out from the family of man in a way. They bear deep wounds. So much of this book focuses on and describes death, but for me, the book is about the enduring will for life.”
While the book is called “The Surrendered” and explores the ways in which June, Hector and Sylvie do just that to fate and their own character flaws (drug addiction and alcoholism are two running motifs), it is also a meditation on the unrelenting instinct for survival. And it is one that Lee hopes, through his hyperdetailed accounts of both suffering and pleasure, will have a lasting visceral impact.
“One of the things I hoped for readers was for them to feel as if they’d gone through a crucible. This is a harrowing experience for the reader,” he says, a point driven home by his unflinching scenes of carnage (and carnality — “The Surrendered” is rife with the juxtaposition of death and sex). “Certainly there [are] notions about mercy and life and death, and all those big issues. But [I wanted] absolutely for the reader to feel as if they’d been torn asunder.”
In scope and subject, “The Surrendered” marks new terrain for Lee. His 1995 debut “Native Speaker,” which won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, followed a second generation Korean man and private spy, whose target is a Korean councilman. The two novels that followed, “A Gesture Life” and “Aloft,” also focused on issues of identity and American assimilation.
“Those heroes were anxious about how they fit in to society and how others saw them, and about all the kinds of negotiations that one makes,” says Lee. “But I realized very quickly on that with June, those questions were not important to her. She is concerned about life and living. It was just a completely different landscape in a way. I felt liberated in that the landscape felt huge to me, that I could go anywhere.”
It was a foreign landscape that was always lingering in Lee’s consciousness. The opening scene of “The Surrendered” was inspired by his father’s experience during the Korean War when his younger brother fell off the roof of a refugee train and was killed. Lee’s own childhood, however, was more in the mold of a Cheever story. The son of a psychiatrist father and former basketball player mother, Lee emigrated to America from South Korea when he was three years old. He grew up in the suburbs of Westchester, N.Y., attended Exeter Academy and studied at Yale University. After graduation, he spent a year working in finance before pursuing his literary ambitions via an M.F.A. from the University of Oregon.
“They were very worried and deeply concerned about what would happen to me,” says Lee ruefully of his parents’ reaction to his writing passions.
He teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton, living nearby with his architect wife and two children. Lee is already sketching a new book he characterizes as an “immigrant novel [that] will be a little bit different than ‘Native Speaker.’”
It will undoubtedly take readers (and perhaps its author) to uncharted emotional territory.
“I think that’s what art can do sometimes: It can enact and illustrate notions about life and living that cannot be explained in any other way, with the same kind of visceral action and presence,” he says.