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Books: The Absence of Comfort

3 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

One of the many rewards of reading Chang-rae Lee’s new novel, A Gesture Life (Riverhead Books; 288 pages; $23.95), is its reticence, a lost virtue at a time when fictional characters (to say nothing of strangers on airplanes) share intimacies as routinely as weather reports.

The imposition of unsolicited self-exposure would be unthinkable to Franklin Hata, a retired medical-supply provider in Bedley Run, an affluent suburb north of New York City. Customers and other downtown merchants call him Doc, in deference to his business. The honorary title is also a well-meaning way of saying, “You may be Japanese, but you have been in town long enough to be one of us.”

Hata knows better. He is a Japanese of Korean descent who is used to working hard for acceptance. Yet no one, not even his adopted Korean-born daughter Sunny, knows, or much cares to know, the man behind the Chamber of Commerce smile.

The reader, on the other hand, grows steadily more curious as Hata parcels out memories of his past. It is worlds away from a present that includes troubles with Sunny and a persistent real estate agent who is salivating to list his house, and a bittersweet romance with the widow Mary Burns.

In well-timed flashbacks, we meet Hata as young Lieut. Kurohata, an imperial Japanese army medic whose duties include gynecological examinations of the garrison’s Korean comfort women. It’s an odious job for a man sensitive enough to fall in love with one of these World War II sex slaves.

Hata’s outward and inward lives are patterned like a trompe l’oeil, one of those tricky designs in which images emerge or recede with changes of perspective. Now a contemporary American suburbia is the focus; now a 1944 Pacific outpost turns the future Bedley Run into background.

The dynamic effect is most obvious in Hata’s ties to his long-dead comfort woman and his troublesome daughter. Both are objects of his care and devotion. Both cause him plenty of discomfort. How Hata handles his past and the constant tension between social acceptance and his chronic sense of not belonging finally have little to do with his origins. Chang-rae Lee, whose first novel, 1995’s Native Speaker, announced the arrival of a new talent, makes sure of Hata’s humanity by giving him an inner life independent of ethnicity and suburban status. But the contrast between Hata’s appearance and his reality would surely surprise most of his neighbors, especially when he confesses, “I feel I have not really been living anywhere or anytime, not for the future and not in the past and not at all of-the-moment, but rather in the lonely dream of an oblivion.”

Of the dangers in Hata’s war and peace, the physical threats are easier to handle than the emotional perils. On this point, Doc Hata would agree with the granddaddy of quietly affecting writers, Doc Chekhov, who said that any idiot can handle a crisis; it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.

–By R.Z. Sheppard

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