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Review-a-Day
Esquire
Wednesday, February 4th, 2004


 

Aloft

by Chang Rae Lee

Battle Weary

A review by Adrienne Miller

In 1995, Native Speaker announced itself as one of the most exemplary first novels of the last decade; 1999's A Gesture Life was an elegant meditation on loss and loneliness. They proved Chang-rae Lee a deeply talented and empathetic novelist...who has now written a very bad novel. Aloft, Lee's third book, is so bafflingly hollow, it stings like a well-timed insult.

Jerry Battle is almost 60, friendless, a semiretired "average American Guido" who works part-time as a travel agent. (Is this supposed to elicit sniggers or sympathy? Not sure, but safe money's on the former.) His fiery Latina girlfriend left him for a wealthier man with a tennis court. Jerry's Korean wife passed on after mixing Valium and a swimming pool. His cantankerous 85-year-old lady-killer father has an elderly girlfriend — until she chokes on some canned fruit at the dinner table. His English professor daughter is pregnant and has cancer, and in the face of all these disasters, Jerry Battle is affectless and feckless.

Lee's protagonist is clearly meant to be a Frank Bascombe type, but Richard Ford's famous character is much more persuasive and much, much scarier. Jerry, unlike Bascombe, isn't convincing. He isn't villainous or sad — merely clueless. In the end, Aloft is a study of the failings of a human life whose author seems to have forgotten what humans are actually like — and I did, too, temporarily, after I finished reading. Its dialogue is weirdly stilted ("That makes no sense at all! Attempting suicide isn't exactly therapy, Kel"), and the prose rarely fares better. (Jerry imagines waving a videotape "like Fagin might a piece of bread above the dancing urchins.") How can a writer with such a moral core have written a novel so lacking in complexity and depth? Perhaps Lee is simply too moral to have attempted anything, say, Richard Ford could come up with.


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