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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee

Native Speaker - Chang-rae Lee

I cannot believe this novel is 30 years old. I don't know how Chang-rae Lee made a story so steeped in the specific experience of Korean-american families feel so personal to very different audiences. I can't believe he did it all in a spy story. But, here it is, his first novel, Native Speaker and it is phenomenal.


In a summary this book makes no sense. Henry Park is a first-generation American of Korean parents. He is separated from his wife. He is a corporate spy of sorts, a job that conveniently represents the way he feels slipping between the Korean of his family and the American of his upbringing; it also serves to bring those sides into conflict. Henry is dealing with recent deaths in his family, including that of his father, with whom he had a troubled relationship — an experience we can trace through generations and cultures as far back as Telemachus and Odysseus in ancient Greece. He lives in New York City, a setting that cannot help but become a character in any book that takes place in its boroughs. 


Native Speaker should have been a pleasant story about the Korean emigrant experience in America that could be adapted into a nice rom-com or nationally endorsed book-club selection. Or it could have been a fringe experiment in genre-bending (the cover suggests the latter). In execution we get something smart and transcendent.


Lee finds new ways to explore questions of identity that have been a part of nearly every immigrant story in American history. Henry Park, after all, isn't the immigrant who worked his way up from poverty, he isn't even the passive child admiring the struggles of his parents — though that is part of the book as well. He is a man, at odds with both worlds, and, as a spy-of-sorts, is called to face these opposing forces in unexpected ways.


Lee's novel succeeds in large part because of his willingness to dwell in the details, but the right details. There are a few moments where you see a time-stamp — some telling detail that places the book firmly in the early 90s, like Vanilla Ice on the radio — but they are sparse and only visible if you are looking for them. The details Lee dwells on tell us about the characters. He presents their gestures and reactions, their tics and features. These details further the story, they reveal something new, they fill out a living world. Because of this he is able to straddle the line, painting a world that is vivid in the reader's mind but still eerily close 31 years on. Phones change, people stay the same.


It is not a short read and, despite Henry Park's occupation, Native Speaker is not a spy thriller. It is definitely of the literary bent, and for people of that bent, it is a book you will definitely enjoy.