Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee
I was sitting in an Italian restaurant in Seoul talking to a Korean recording engineer about literature by, among others, Nabokov, V.S. Naipaul, Cormac McCarthy, and Kazuo Ishiguro. My new friend told me that I needed to read Chang-Rae Lee if I wanted to understand the Korean experience in America. The recommendation was solid. Lee’s book illustrates the subtle and treacherous ways that language and ideas complicate immigrant life. Integrated yet isolated, the immigrant daily faces the task of expressing who he is and who he has become, in Lee's words, “calling all the difficult names of who we are.”
The novel follows Henry Park, whose line of work is counterintelligence for a private firm. With this premise, Lee sets up a duplicitous character who maintains several identities and lives in different worlds. As an American-born son of Korea immigrants, Park grew up barely speaking Korean, constantly shuttled between his submissive mother and a belligerent father. As an adult, Park marries an American woman who works as a speech therapist. Their son, whom they lose tragically at age 7, is precocious and curious about his heritage. Park finds the intimacy and spontaneity of being a husband and father unnerving and difficult to handle. In his occupation, Park must navigate the political maneuvers of his colleagues and an unpredictable boss. When he is undercover, Park maintains yet another identity and has lately allowed the lines to blur between his cover and his real self.
Lee’s first novel is deeply perceptive and subtly told, a complex and layered story that illuminates not simply immigrant life in America, but also the fundamental dynamics of relationships, marriage, and family in a way that transcends heritage. Park finds more to say in the spaces between words, “I celebrate every order of silence borne of the tongue and the heart and the mind. I am a linguist of the field. You,too, may know the troubling, expert power. It find hard expressio in the faces of those who would love you the most. Look there now. All you see will someday fade away. To what chill of you remains.”
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Ever wonder what happened to Danny Torrance after he and his mother fled the Overlook Hotel? Doctor Sleep, a belated sequel to King’s 1977 horror classic The Shining, returns to Danny, now an adult alcoholic tormented by his supernatural abilities and his memories. After a couple of false starts, Torrance lands in a New Hampshire town where he meets Billy, an old codger running the town’s main tourist attraction, a miniature village with its own small-gauge railroad. The old man has a touch of the shine himself—though nothing compared to Danny—and he provides Danny with a job and much needed friendship. Soon, they encounter young Abra, a little girl with the most powerful abilities yet. Abra incurs the wrath of a supernatural band of outlaws called The True Knot and a continent-wide chase draws together the good-guy faction of Danny, Billy, Dr. John (Abra’s pediatrician) against the Knot and their lethal leader Rose, a hot property in a top hat and tight jeans. Dick Hallorann makes a cameo appearance as do some ghosts from the Overlook.
King, himself a recovering alcoholic, paints a harrowing picture of Torrance and alcoholism’s demons, exacerbated as they are by the character’s own past. The True Knot with their RV convoys and transcendental chanting is a tad silly, but their particular brand of sustenance—“taking steam,” or imbibing the life essence released when their victims are slowly tortured to death—is authentically evil.
King remains a masterful storyteller with a real appreciation for what it’s like inside a child’s mind. Danny as an adult is vivid and well-drawn, remarkable considering how long it has been since King created him. (In the book’s afterword, King notes that Danny had long stayed in his mind, but that it took a fan’s random remark at a book signing to regenerate the character.)
A word about the 1980 film adaptation of The Shining:
Stephen King detested the movie, famously saying, “I gave Stanley Kubrick a live grenade and he chose to fall on it.” While The Green Mile remains, in my opinion, the best movie adaptation of a King book, The Shining has much to recommend it. Kubrick reportedly bought the rights to the story knowing he would make major changes. His concept is one high on style with horror created through anticipation and short, intense bursts of gore. The result is a distanced feel, exacerbated in no small part because the director often called for 60+ takes of any shot. Much attention is lavished on the textures and physical space of the story: the majestic hotel lobby, the art-deco-meets-disco glamour of Room 237, the 1970s optics of the carpeted hallways, the shimmering jazz-age ballroom, the Torrances’ homey living quarters, and the massive utilitarian elements of the hotel’s kitchen and storerooms. There is even one brief, intriguing shot of Wendy checking the hotel boilers—in the book, failure to maintain the boilers causes the hotel to explode.
Much of the filming was enhanced by the use of the Steadicam, a then-new camera stabilizer that isolated the camera from the movements of the operator. The Steadicam allowed fantastic following shots such as the extended floor level sequence of Danny riding his big wheel around the hotel, now on silent carpet, now thrumming across wood or linoleum. This same camera is later used in the snowy maze outside where Jack chases Danny. The Steadicam, which has the visual effect of bringing the viewer directly into the action, contributes greatly to the movie's fear factor. Also remarkable is the soundtrack, a combination of the music of Bartók, Penderecki, and Ligeti as well as original compositions by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. And also worth mentioning are opening shots of Jack’s yellow VW Beetle climbing the sunny mountain roads. These helicopter shots are breathtaking and form a brilliant contrast with the frosty, claustrophobic maze sequence at the end.
Position at Noon by Eric Linklater
Linklater’s jolly novel Magnus Merriman was mentioned on the OTG in January. Position at Noon from 1958 has the same rueful tone, this time spread across a series of chapters that hilariously relate the adventures and misadventures of the narrator’s ancestors. These droll family snapshots show how Edward Gratiano Vanbrugh reached the parlous state in which we find him when the book opens: proprietor of a failing antiques shop, lover of a slovenly wench from the boardhouse across the street, and a decidedly undevoted family man. Vanbrugh wistfully sees himself as better suited to having been either a bishop or a butler. In his view, his sonorous name alone—one that would look grand at the end of an ecclesiastical missive or shouted through the cavernous corridors of a grand country manner—is his preeminent qualification. Oblivious to his failings, Vanbrugh blames his situation on his male ancestors, a cavalcade of reformers and miscreants who have provided him with a provenance as doubtful as the T’ang dynasty horses he sells in his shop. To paraphrase the book’s epigram, in reckoning one’s “position at noon…it was some comfort to know where [one] was, [but one can] find little satisfaction in counting how far [one] had come.”
The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien
Betsy Patterson had had enough of Baltimore with its money-grubbing mercantile culture and its citizens’ daily scramble for social success. The daughter of a prosperous Irish-born shipping magnate, she had greater ambitions: nothing less than conquering the courts of Europe would do. And when the family slave whispers to Betsy that she will do just that, the future begins to look very bright.
Based on a true story, this novel deftly mixes historical fact and authorial interpretation to bring to life the strong-willed Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte who lived from 1785–1879. At a ball outside of Baltimore, Betsy catches the eye of Lieutenant Jérôme Bonaparte, younger brother of Napoleon, and they marry, against the objections of Betsy’s father. (William Patterson with his machinations against his daughter, his philandering with the household servants, and his cold, uncaring nature must surely have been one of the most reprehensible blackguards in early American history.) At this point, Napoleon is only First Consul, but he moves quickly to declare himself emperor in the interest of keeping France out of Bourbon hands. Eager to consolidate his empire, he refuses to recognize the marriage of Jérôme and Betsy and finds a more politically advantageous match for his brother in Catharina, the daughter of the King of Württemberg. Betsy, now with Jérôme's son, has to face the fact that her marriage, while legally performed in the United States, was never recognized; she later agrees to a divorce. Eventually, Betsy was able to live in Paris and move in the highest circles, but her private life was one of constant penny-pinching and doubt.
Chatlien’s novel is vividly detailed with a cast of characters and events that make for lively reading. Betsy watched the “rockets’ red glare” over Fort McHenry from her rooftop in 1814, danced at the mansion of Founder Samuel Chase, and dined often with Dolley and James Madison. She pleads her case before the flighty Madame Mère, the emperor’s mother, meets the formidable Talleyrand, and befriends John Jacob Astor when both are in Geneva looking for schools for their children. Betsy is not an unqualified heroine, at times she isn't at all sympathetic. Her enduring support of Napoleon came out of her emotional attachment to Jérôme and to a mother’s concern for her son’s future, but it led her into years of misguided and fruitless effort. Still, her indomitable will gave her the confidence to confront authorities and officials from ship captains and diplomats to presidents and emperors—foolhardy, perhaps, but unquestionably admirable.
Full disclosure: The author is a friend of mine. If this posting draws new readers to the book, it will be due to the merits of Ruth's novel not this obscure posting. See her publisher's website at http://amikapress.com/reviewsfortheambitiousmadamebonaparte or buy the book at Amazon.com.
Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (third reading)
It might be difficult for us moderns to imagine, but there was a time in the late nineteenth century when New York society was as highly codified as a European court. A handful of families reigned at the top of society, and every action was scrutinized with an intensity that bordered on the pathological. Wharton archly catches these last days of New York’s Four Hundred as their “Age of Innocence” collides with modern times.
Newland Archer, scion of several old families, is engaged to marry May Welland, a most eligible and proper young lady. The arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, creates more than ripples not just because the lady has an idiosyncratic sense of style, but because she has left her Polish husband and has dared to appear in society. Archer, who approves of “family solidarity,” is amused at the situation because he has always liked Ellen. But Ellen the childhood playmate is now a mysterious and vulnerable woman. She is unlike anyone else that Archer has ever known. This uniqueness and independence are not admirable among society at large, not least because Ellen returns to the family poor. What’s more she seems to be unaware that women in her situation should invite oblivion rather than court notoriety. But it is just this notoriety that Ellen ultimately shows herself unwilling to incur. Archer is first pressured by the family to convince Ellen to return to her husband—after all, a brute of husband is better than none at all. But then he discovers that what had been sympathy has turned into love. Exhilarated (as well as slightly appalled), Archer is ready to throw over his wife and run off with Ellen.
Wharton depicts with exquisite delicacy the advances and retreats that characterize the encounters between Ellen and Newland. The reader senses the influence of Henry James without becoming hopelessly enmeshed in his convoluted style. We are also surprised to recognize an unexpected perceptiveness and discretion in May that arises as she begins to understand that her marriage is threatened. Of course, there is never any direct confrontation between May and Newland. He stays with with wife and, many years later after May’s death, declines to visit Ellen in Paris, a final act of renunciation that leaves him with the undeserved merit of innocence. (The 1993 movie adaptation with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Uma Thurman is stylish and touching, highly recommended.)
McTeague by Frank Norris (second reading)
This tremendous 1899 novel, subtitled “A Story of San Francisco,” was Norris’s finest work of fiction. A seminal work of American naturalism, it is often overshadow by Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925; see OTG posting November 2012) and the novels of William Dean Howells. But Norris needn’t play second fiddle to any contemporary when it comes to his depiction of the stolid and stupid dentist McTeague.
McTeague—we never learn his first name—had been a miner until his mother sent him off to learn dentistry from an itinerant charlatan. In San Francisco, McTeague sets up a modestly successful practice treating shopgirls and butchers. He spends his weekends on walks with his friend Marcus Schouler or reclining in his dentist’s chair playing mournful airs on his concertina and drinking steam beer. McTeague is satisfied and really wants nothing more—except a big gilded tooth to hang outside his window. Then comes the day he treats Marcus’s cousin Trina with her pretty ways and “tiara of black hair” so heavy it weighs her head down. Marcus has been halfheartedly courting Trina, but, surprisingly, it is McTeague who wins her. In time-honored fashion, the arrival of woman leads to corruption and downfall.
But it is greed rather than romance that precipitates the characters to tragedy. Norris’s narrative moves like a juggernaut, relentless in its descent from happiness to repeated setbacks and ultimately to the sad end for Trina, Marcus, and McTeague. Norris has the reputation of being preachy and dated in his fiction as he canvasses the hoary principles of social Darwinism and the degraded nature of modern society. Without exception, however, the characters in this novel are clear and well-defined. They are not brutish archetypes put through their motions to tout the author's principles.
(In the book's afterward, Kenneth Rexroth makes a provocative sociological point about Norris and San Francisco at the turn of the century. “Frank Norris is not just a California writer, but a San Francisco one. Not only are his people sensate, they are not Protestants. As defined by the New England conscience, there is not a trace of moral conflict in the book." One could argue that last point given that there are two murders and a deliberate ruination of McTeague due to Marcus's jealousy, but Rexroth's point about the diluated effects of the Puritan conscience out West is an interesting one.)
There is humor, especially in the droll characterizations: for example, Mr. Sieppe’s German efficiency can turn even a picnic into a military maneuver, while the decayed lodgers Old Grannis and Miss Baker spend years conducting a decorous but distant courtship through the thin partition that divides their flats. The maid Maria Macapa, who is clearly a little dotty, and the Jewish ragpicker Zerkow, obsessed with Maria’s probably imaginary recollections of her family’s gold plate, come close to caricature. Trina is admirable for her love of McTeague, her economical ways, and her industriousness; her fall into degradation is particularly grim and sad. Marcus would be a comical figure if he weren’t so evil.
Norris delineates the characters through their respective symbols, a structure that is built slowly and deliberately through the use of refrain and reinforcement. Far from heavy handed, this technique gives the story a bedrock foundation, which the author deftly emphasizes by returning McTeague, at the end, to the mines. The last section of the book is almost apocalyptic with a showdown between McTeague and Marcus on the white-hot alkalai stretches of Death Valley.
The OTG notes with interest the number of operas inspired by American naturalist novels. McTeague was the inspiration for an opera by William Bolcom premiered in 1992. A partial list of others would include An American Tragedy (Tobias Picker, 2005), Elmer Gantry (Robert Aldridge, 2007), Sister Carrie (workshopping now), in addition to those from non-American sources such as Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (Tobias Picker, 2001) and Conrad’s The Secret Agent (Michael Dellaira, 2011). This does not even include later twentieth-century operas such as Willie Stark (Carlisle Floyd, 2007), based on Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and Of Mice and Men (Carlisle Floyd, 2002) and The Grapes of Wrath (Ricky Ian Gordon, 2007), both from Steinbeck novels.
Native Speaker: Chang-Rae Lee, January 2014, photo by Tim Knox for The Guardian
Doctor Sleep: first cover edition cover; movie still from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining with Danny Lloyd
Bonaparte: The novel's cover features a drawing of Betsy Bonaparte by the author.
Innocence: Edith Wharton around 1900.
McTeague: production shot from Greed, Erich Von Stroheim's 1924 silent film adaptation of the novel; from left: Zasu Pitts as Trina, Golbert Gowland as McTeague, and Jean Hersholt as Marcus.