Publication: Discourse
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 37553
ISSN: 07301081
Journal code: DCOU

[T]he figure of the Asian immigrant has served as a "screen," a phantasmatic site, on which the nation projects a series of condensed, complicated anxieties regarding external and internal threats to the mutable coherence of the national body: the invading multitude, the lascivious seductress, the servile yet treacherous domestic.

- Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts

What is the nature of the relationship that a novel such as A Gesture Life establishes for itself with its U.S. readership? In a sense, Changrae Lee's portrayal of an ethnic minority immigrant's life, especially his eventual failure to achieve a definite status for himself within the hegemonic culture, demands a reassessment of the interracial relations of a U.S. culture that sees itself increasingly, but uneasily, as "multicultural." Friendly critics have suggested that A Gesture Life represents a call for the critical révaluation of the model minority paradigm or even a protest against a white society that continues to discriminate.1 And yet these verdicts do not exhaust the interpretative possibilities of Lee's novel, especially when one considers the unfriendly criticism that immigrant literature represents merely "an opportunistic kind of Third-Worldism."2 According to Aijaz Ahmad, the representations of the East created by immigrant writers mostly serve to gratify the jaded tastes of a Western cultural market for exotic goods. Critics such as Sheng-Mei Ma, and Minjeong Kim and Angie Chung have noted the uneasy alliance of the diasporic Asian writer with the Western cultural market.3 In this context, it is hardly coincidental that the Chicago Tribune, the leading U.S. daily, calls A Gesture Life "a tragic, horrifying page-turner," the description borrowed for the blurb on the Riverhead edition.4

From the perspective of the so-called hermeneutics of suspicion, however, the eye-catching label of the Chicago Tribune is as misleading as the friendly reviews. The label may reveal the tendency toward a kind of Orientalist niche marketing that accounts in part for the U.S. consumers' fascination with Lee's novel. Yet it does not suffice to capture the novel's subtlety and complexity; the label especially fails to address the latter's rhetorical and aesthetic dimension, a dimension that is crucial to understanding its racial politics. But in their own way too, the friendly critics misrepresent what is ultimately going on in Lee's novel. In Ricoeur's terms, one needs to approach the text "with willingness to suspect" so that our critical preconceptions and moral certainties do not mask the truth.5 Thus, the meaning of Lee's novel can be decoded when its textual surface, namely its rhetorical features, are placed under scrutiny.

If Lee's narrativization of East Asian history may be said to cater to a dominant Western image of the exotic, dangerous Orient, its narrative belies this by attempting to promote a progressive politics, albeit one that eschews aggressive soliciting. In A Gesture Life, while not ceasing to pique its imagined readership with certain figures of exoticism, the raw material of ethnic history is modified or transformed. This strategic reconfiguration of ethnic material is facilitated by such diverse narrative techniques as romancing, aestheticizing, and delayed decoding. With its narrative transparency compromised, Lee's novel seems to hide as much as it reveals. Or one may as well state that it hides in the very act of uncovering. Although details about an event are provided, the rhetorical - often contradictory and elliptical - nature of the employed language distorts the reality of what it is supposed to disclose. It is this politics of style that must ultimately be understood in any attempt to provide a satisfactory response to the query concerning Lee's novel and its U.S. readership.

Chivalric Romance and Imperialist War Crimes

This study will first address the manner in which the colonial history of East Asia is represented in the memory narrative of the protagonist, Franklin Hata, a (Korean) Japanese immigrant who has settled in a suburban town near New York after participating in the Pacific War as a Japanese imperial medical officer. These issues partly derive from the critical suspicion that certain representational strategies or stylizations of that material may be operating in Hata's memory. These strategies tend to aid a specific interpretation, or consumption, of East Asian history by the reader. For instance, at the center of Hata's war recollections is a Korean comfort girl. The space in which she moves is portrayed as one of violent and primitive passion, a space in which the brutal acts of incarceration, physical violence, gang rape, murder, suicide, and fetal homicide are perpetrated. The issue of representation is important here not because the East is being made to seem a space of repulsive, horrifying extremities but rather because in the actual reading experience, the East retains an allure, despite what takes place here.

In the preface to the Korean translation of A Gesture Life, the author states that he had felt "an inexpressible human grief while listening to the testimonies of the victims of forced military prostitution.6 However, within the zone of traumatic memories into which Hata invites the readers, things are, unexpectedly, not quite so grievous or oppressive. The extreme extranational material, such as the rape of the comfort girls, the helpless rebellions, and violent deaths, fails to produce in the readers the due emotional response. For instance, ordinary readers do not crave a second visit to certain scenes in Nora Okja Keller's fiction due to the bare, unbeautiful ethnic material contained in it.7 In contrast, A Gesture Life is remembered as a sad yet charming sensually attractive work of fiction, one that an Amazon review, noting its "lyrical perfection," calls "a tale of immense but elegant grief."8

In order to understand this readerly phenomenon, this study suggests taking another look at some of the blurbs used to promote the novel. For example, the literary review by the Christian Science Monitor notes how "this gifted young author has given us a beautiful tapestried story," while the New York Times points out how "Lee elegantly creates suspense."9 These mainstream reviews point to the superb aesthetic dignity of A Gesture Life. It is this focus on the literary dignity of the fiction that accounts for the unexpected outcome of the reading experience.

In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson takes note of the dynamics between historical reality and novelistic stylization. According to Jameson, in Conrad's Lord Jim the sea - a place of business for imperial capitalism and a place of labor for the working classes - is stripped of its economic meaning. Jameson attributes the displacement of the imperial and class realities to the work of "the impressionistic strategy of modernism whose function is to de-realize the content and make it available for consumption on some purely aesthetic level."10 Rewritten using this impressionistic strategy, the sea takes on the form of a purely aesthetic set of images and impressions, revealed most clearly in Jim's daydreams and hallucinations. A rewriting strategy comparable with Jameson's analysis is operative in A Gesture Life Aso. This might be called romancing, given the fact that certain historical realities in Hata's narrative are rewritten sometimes in an aesthetic or lyrical style and sometimes in a melodramatic style, emphasizing love, incarceration, rescue, escapades, and the dilemmas of passion and duty. The triadic relationship that structures Hata's recollected narrative shares much of the generic features of the archetypal fabula of chivalric romance. It is this strategy of romantic or chivalric rewriting that allows the novel to stylize and contain for consumption the unpleasant quality of the historical realities it describes.

At first glance, then, the novel seems to offer a searing indictment of the lurid violence that Korean sex slaves suffered at the hands of the imperial Japanese soldiers during the Pacific War. However, the appalling colonial history is transformed into a background against which a foredoomed love story unfolds, as mediated through the recollection of Hata, the protagonist and narrator. The tragic fate of the female victims of the war crimes is reconfigured for aesthetic contemplation or consumption, articulated in the language of romance. A case in point is the story of Kkutaeh, a Korean comfort girl, who has volunteered for factory work in order to spare her brother from conscription in the imperial army. Her tragic story unfolds within Hata's war memories as the two ethnic Koreans come to interact with each other intimately at an outpost in the Burmese jungle.

The love of Kkutaeh and Hata is destined to run up against opposition from the authority figure of Captain Ono, who is Hata's senior medical officer. From the beginning, Hata takes on the role of disinterested protector of Kkutaeh. This knightly figure claims that if he was drawn to her, it was not because of his desire for her "insoluble beauty."11 Instead, this attraction offered a chance for him to find himself. When they finally have sex, the novel differentiates the act from simple carnal satiation. It is at once physical and more than physical:

She was warm and still and I gently pressed my face into the back of her neck and breathed in the oily musk of her hair. And it was so that I finally began to touch her. I put my hand on the point of her hip and could feel all at once the pliancy of it and the meagerness and the newness, too. I felt bewildered and innocent and strangely renewed, as though a surge of some great living being were coursing up my arm and spreading through my unknowing body. ... I kissed as much of her body as was bared. I kissed her small breasts, which seemed to spill a sweet, watery liquid. I gagged but did not care. Then it was all quite swift and natural, as chaste as it could be. (259-60)

In this physical contact, almost all of Hata 's senses, from the visual through the tactile and olfactory to the gustatory, are fully mobilized for the complete mapping of his lover's body. What is conspicuous here, however, is the simultaneous negation of the sensory and sensual nature of the experience. After dwelling on his memories of their amorous foreplay, Hata wraps up his description of sexual intercourse quite abruptly, calling it something "as chaste as it could be."

In Hata's war memories, Kkutaeh's body is both highly sexualized and desexualized to fit it for a "natural" and "chaste" relationship. If the contradictory description allows Western male readers the vicarious pleasure of exploring a naked Asian female body, it also serves to remind them that sexual intercourse is more than simply a physical act. In some sense, it reminds them that act of lovemaking is more akin to a moral baptism. This beneficial moral effect is underscored by Hata's suggestion that he "felt bewildered and innocent and strangely renewed" during the act of sex, as if penetrated by "some great living being." Snatched out of the political context of an imperial war into the protagonist's spiritually uplifting love story, Kkutaeh is not able to bear witness to the horrendous fate that befell the colonial female subjects of the Japanese Empire. What instead gets inscribed on the victim's body is a male aestheticism that displaces the reader's attention to these sensory images with their oddly spiritual quality.

Among the obvious similarities between Hata's tale and its medieval archetype are the bewitched castle, the evil magician, the rescue of a captured beauty from a dungeon, and the duel between the symbolic figures of good and evil. Captain Ono, for example, has all the qualities of the evil magician fresh from chivalric romances. With the commander in constant need of strong sedation, the service significantly provided by the doctor, the encampment becomes the latter's castle. It no longer commands a real presence in history, "forgotten by both home and foe" (225), as it is located in the middle of nowhere. Captain Ono rules this unreal place with an iron hand: he terrifies his men with his monstrous willpower and dark, inexorable personality. His tyrannical rule is partly sustainable due to his command of the magic-like power of medicine. Like an evil magician, the doctor plays with his men's lives, as seen in his act of reviving an unfortunate private he has nearly killed. Intent on "a terrible plan" (237), Ono has the infirmary, normally a sanctuary for the sick and the wounded, converted into a sinister mini penitentiary. The makeshift prison bears a striking resemblance to the medieval dungeon, composed of a "cramped, lightless space" with "no slatted window or other means of decent ventilation" (240) . It is here that Kkutaeh, functioning as a veritable kidnapped princess, is locked up, fearful of the doctor's evil and unfathomable intentions upon her.

What differentiates Hata's chivalric rescue attempt from its medieval version is that a dwarfish creature, not a noble knight, takes upon himself the impossible role of savior, smitten by the passion of love. Measured against his monstrous adversary, Hata turns out to be quite diminutive. In comparison with his enemy, Hata is in a servile position as an apprentice bound to an inhuman master, eager for a taste of esoteric knowledge: "I hoped that I could learn from his techniques and procedures that my textbooks and manuals could only hint at, such as his preliminary forays into open-heart surgery" (178). The heartless master enjoys making this young man seem smaller still, this man who is "unassuming and full of dread" (171), by reproving him for his professional shortcomings. Hata is not only dwarflike in social stature but also, metaphorically speaking, misshapen, possessed of a much-stigmatized ethnic Korean heritage. Confined within a virtually inescapable castle-like place in the wilderness, Hata and his lover can only make an imaginary escape. They dream of another place and another time where they can travel freely, "seeing the sights together" (256).

Despite his paralyzing fear, Hata eventually mounts both an imaginary and then an actual challenge to Captain Ono's power. Hata first entertains "the thought of committing an aggression" against his terrifying foe and tastes the sweet pleasure of revenge with "the image of Ono desperate and pained beneath the weight of [his] will" (262). This imaginary duel is suddenly materialized when the captain desecrates Hata's love, claiming that Kkutaeh's pregnancy is by another man and calling the protagonist "her foster lover" and "stepfather" (270). The gruesome fight between Hata and his opponent ends with Ono pointing his revolver at Hata's head. The failure of the chivalric mission paves the way for the conclusion of the whole affair as a botched romance.

As the narrator, it is significant that Hata twists the traditional plot of the chivalric romance slightly for his memory narrative, in which a dwarf, a most unlikely hero, stands up against a gigantic master. This narratological variation is designed to magnify the insurmountable hardship faced by the physically disadvantaged hero in his noble task. It is worth noting here that not all physical violence is treated the same way in this narrative: only male suffering receives realistic treatment. The gender-specific treatment of suffering is seen best by means of a comparison of the fight between Ono and Hata with that in which Kkutaeh is murdered:

I tackled him square in the gut and the force of the blow knocked the wind out of him. He lay for a moment to get back his breath, then rose slowly to his knees. I wanted to get up to strike him but my right shoulder seemed to shear like wet paper when I put weight on my hand, and I knew it had completely separated. The pain was severe enough that it didn't feel like much of anything when the captain punched me in the belly. I watched, numbly estranged from myself, as he unholstered his service revolver and struck me again, once or twice or several times. He then pulled back the hammer and placed the cold ring of the barrel end to my forehead. (270-71)

Like a film in slow motion, Hata's memory provides a complete portrait, image after image, of the exchange of blows and the resulting pain. In this way, the physical nature of the fight and its painful consequences are conveyed to the reader in an unfiltered manner. The realistic rendering of male brutality highlights Hata's crisis, placing his existential dilemmas - between duty and love, between fear and hate - at the center of this male genre.

Catachresis and the Aesthetics of Delayed Decoding

Hata's description of Kkutaeh's murder stands in stark contrast to the naked portrayal of his fight with Captain Ono. Nowhere in Hata's romance is the girl's tragic death delivered definitively, nor does Hata's eventual visit in memory to the scene of the murder aid the reader in discovering exactly what took place. Likewise, the horrifying fate of another Korean comfort girl, whom the protagonist sees at a military brothel in Singapore, is also related in an inappropriate, enigmatic manner, with the full disclosure held back for a considerable time. In this way, female suffering in Hata's narrative becomes obscured for the purpose of aesthetic reconfiguration.

The concept of a delayed decoding is played out in Hata's account of Kkutaeh's murder. After killing Captain Ono, Kkutaeh recklessly cuts another officer's face, which causes the officer to begin beating her. Nonetheless, the reader is kept in the dark about the outcome of this violent scene because Hata, the narrator, is escorted away at this point to attend to the commander's medical need. Once Hata gets back, he searches for Kkutaeh and runs into Madam Matsui at the military brothel. The latter has witnessed the subsequent unfolding of the incident but not enough to give any solid information about it except to utter her prediction - more abusive than informative - about Kkutaeh's fate. The chaperone of the comfort girls blurts out angrily, obviously thinking only of the waste of a valuable asset, "I told that bitch this would happen to her. Stupid little bitch. 'You're going to get yourself killed,' I told her, if she goes on like that. Or worse" (304). Madam Matsui 's verbal abuse is the only obituary, if that is what it may be called, that the reader hears of Kkutaeh's tragic end.

The protagonist eventually provides an elaborate report on his visit to the murder scene, yet the description is obfuscatory. The paragraph is worth quoting for the romantic, ambiguous, and outof-place nature of its language:

The air was cooler there, the treetops shading the falling sun. Mostly it was like any other place I had ever been. Yet I could not smell or hear or see as I did my medic's work. I could not feel my hands as they gathered, nor could I feel the weight of such remains. And I could not sense that other, tiny, elfin form I eventually discovered, miraculously whole, I could not see the figured legs and feet, the utter, blessed digitations of the hands. Nor could I see the face, the perfected cheek and brow. Its pristine sleep still unbroken, undisturbed. And I could not know what I was doing, or remember any part. (305, my emphasis)

This passage is likely to cause the reader bafflement. Above all else, it is conspicuous in its refusal to refer to the object of its description, even in the form of a personal pronoun. The only indicator in the passage of the victim's presence is the impersonal term "such remains."

The reader's understanding of the situation is further blocked by the unique syntax, with references both to the female subject and to the other "tiny" figure. The narrator acknowledges the material presence of these entities by mentioning his initial discovery of them and instantaneously disavows their presence by questioning his own sensory-cognitive ability. Hata claims that "I could not feel my hands as they gathered . . . such remains" and also "I could not sense that other, tiny, elfin form I eventually discovered." As a consequence of the narrator's self-negation, what is described becomes de-scribed; the fragmented bodies take on an importance for the reader not because they raise the issue of victimhood but rather because of the epistemological challenge they pose. The reader is thus left suspended between two equally unconvincing interpretive possibilities about the ontological status of the referent. What is at stake is no longer a murder but a textual issue of interpretability.

At the center of this mystification is Hata's erasure from his report of the victim as a person. The narrator achieves this erasure by faithfully relaying his impressions of the scene while refusing to review the victims now within the framework of the ex post facto cognition that he must have reached immediately upon arrival. As a result, the mangled body is never reconfigured in linguistic terms as someone Hata used to know and love. In this way, the delayed decoding not only obscures but also transforms dead bodies into items for aesthetic contemplation. Catachresis plays a crucial role here. In describing Kkutaeh's hypothetical baby, Hata uses the language of fairy-tale romance, a most inappropriate medium for the task. The victim takes on an "elfin form" in "pristine sleep," as if she had just been encountered in a child's storybook; the physical condition of the body is articulated using such terms as "miraculously whole," "blessed," "perfected," "unbroken," and "undisturbed." The lyricism that pervades these images fills the scene with the misguided sense of innocence and peacefulness, although nothing could be further from the truth than the interpretive coding of these images. In this way, delayed decoding, aligned with the faulty trope of catachresis, facilitates the reader's aesthetic consumption of the described war crimes.12

The focus of the novel on the protagonist's not easily decipherable past could take on a political significance in relation to the traditional teleological narrative. While the national narrative of the United States has written immigrants into its teleological frame of assimilation and belonging, the novel's denial of transparency to its characters can be seen as highlighting the immigrant's irreducibility to a tabula rasa of previous experience. To borrow Kandice Chuh's words, A Gesture Lifeis "a novel that refuses to locate origins for its characters, thus making impossible teleological narratives of identity formation to explain who they are."13 In this way, the novel could problematize the reductive practices of assimilation - but only if one ruled out the aesthetic, entertaining effects of its denial of transparency to itself.

Denied access to the originary moments of the characters, readers are induced to search outside the tale in order to find a way in. And to attend to the texture or the formalistic features of the narrative turns out to be rewarding in itself, since there is, according to the author, "some drama in the telling." In an interview with Ron Hogan, Lee acknowledges the use of such a narrative device to entertain:

That was very important to me, that [Hata] was going to just let you know what happened and let it sit there, and the distance between the act described and the calm and placid person telling you about it would be so great that there would be some drama in the telling as well. That for me is part of the drama of the story.14

This "distance between the act described and the calm and placid person telling you" becomes an enriching source of surprise, suspense, pleasure, and anxiety in the novel. According to the author, this narratologically generated entertainment is a structural "part of the drama of the story."

The delayed decoding that operates in Hata's war memories eventually displaces the reader's attention from its content to its structure, from the secret itself to the act of decoding it. What receives the limelight is the "shell" of the yarn, to borrow a Conradian term, while the truth or historical realities remain amorphous and ambiguous as "a haze."15 This strategy of containment is reinforced by the pleasure afforded by the sensory or sensual consumption of Asian bodies. Significantly, the tragedy of the comfort girls vaporizes as their tortured bodies become a medium for aesthetic entertainment.

The truth about Hata is once hinted at when his statements are interrogated in juxtaposition with those of his alleged lover. When her plea for death at his hand is not granted, Kkutaeh cries out of frustration and anger:

I don't want your help! ... I never wanted your help. Can't you heed me? Can't you leave me be? You think you love me but what you really want you don't know yet because you are young and decent. But I will tell you now, it is my sex. The thing of my sex. (300)

Here lies a moment of great disillusionment that threatens to break up Hata's cherished romance, exposing its true colors as a self-centered daydream. If laid bear, the complete truth about the military sex slave would be revolting enough to dismantle the whole aesthetic structure of Hata's romanced memories. However, it can only threaten in Lee's book because neither the narrator nor the author will allow it to wreck the "romantic" affair entirely, at least not prematurely.

Both Hata and Lee have a common interest in keeping the truth hidden, albeit for different reasons. For psychological reasons, the narrator obviously does not want to disclose it; the author has more properly narratological concerns about warding off a possible untimely termination of the story. For this reason, the author has placed himself in a difficult situation: protecting Hata's secret would turn him into an accessory to Hata's duplicity, while exposing Hata's secret would kill the entertainment prematurely. This dilemma is resolved by the "unresolved" issue of Kkutaeh as a storyteller. That is, Lee once allows Kkutaeh to contest Hata's story and at the same time refuses to either confirm or refute her authorial integrity throughout the story. For instance, there is no conclusive evidence either for or against the fact of Kutaeh's pregnancy. There is also no conclusive evidence one way or the other about the fact of her taking advantage of Hata because of his trust. Although Captain Ono claims this, it is vehemently denied by the two parties concerned. The insoluble nature of these two issues compromises, at least for a good while, the moral integrity that Kkutaeh commands as the author of her own story.

The Unsaid of the Text: Fear of Miscegenation

It has been pointed out by several critics that Hata is an Orientalized male who conforms to a set of assigned attributes by being "diligent," "self-effacing," and "well-mannered." However, what previous critics have not explored is the possibility that the protagonist is in fact a racist Asian or an Asian Orientalist. Asian Orientalism describes the protagonist's early view of Asia as a "sclerotic, purulent culture" whose moral degeneracy, to borrow the medical officer's words, "our nation's people and will were struggling against from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia to . . . Burma" (154). Similar prejudices inform the Japanese immigrant's view of the Orchids, an older subdivision on the far eastern side of Bedley Run. The Orchids is a residential area largely for lower-class whites and colored people, which "had never been fully developed" and "had been left the way it was" (98). Going in search of his runaway daughter, Sunny, Hata enters this underdeveloped neighborhood and perceives it as a kind of diseased geographical Other. First of all, its separation by a river from the rest of Bedley Run gives the impression that it is under quarantine. Its streets also seem to warn off unknowing, innocent visitors with the forbidding look of its "boarded-up houses" (99), just as a kurohata, or black flag, served as the warning sign of contagion by an epidemic-stricken village in Japan in the old days. According to the protagonist, this ghetto-like area shelters "the likes of Jimmy Gizzi" (99), whom the local police recognize as a drug dealer and an associate of felons.

Hata's view of this peripheral area as a source of contagion is reinforced when he reaches Gizzi's house on Turner Street while a party is in full swing. The property is located "at the end of the dead-end street" (99), suggestive of the need for the residents to be cut off from the rest of the world. Gizzi's house turns out to be in every way the opposite of what white upper-class Bedley Run stands for. Even at first sight, it is apparent that a foul chaos and self-abandonment reign in the house, wallowing as it is in "piles of trash and bottles and things like old shoes and undershirts" (99). Inside the house, Hata finds a den of vice: drug abuse, drunkenness, and promiscuity. Significantly, these vices are largely racialized as the protagonist emphasizes the ethnicity of the party guests: "What struck me immediately was that a number of the partygoers were black and Puerto Rican; colored people were a rare sight in Bedley Run" (101).

Hata's racial prejudice dictates his response to the party scene at Gizzi's. Hata disparagingly associates the female partygoers with prostitutes, whom he says that as a young boy he saw "sitting on stools outside certain alley shops of [his] native seaside town" (102). This ungracious dismissal of the women serves to preclude him from forming any possible relationships with them. Likewise, when physical contact with "a rank swamp of bodies" (105) becomes no longer avoidable, Hata "step [s] outside the back kitchen door as quickly" as he can, as if he were afraid of catching something. In the eyes of the protagonist, the crowd of colored people is seen as the perilous Other, with the need for close contact to be avoided at all cost.

Hata's encounter with Sunny further illuminates the way that the sexual and racial politics are intertwined in his narrative. Inside the house, Sunny's provocative movements arouse not only herself but also the other guests:

She was running her hands over herself, pressing across the skimpy shirting and down her naked thighs and up again. . . . Line resumed kissing Sunny on the belly and down her sides, to the points of her lips. He was kissing her steadily, completely, as if he were simply there to mark her, above all else. Her body seemed tense, expectant. And then she leaned into him, hard, pressing herself into his face and hair. He bent and lifted her from the thighs, Sunny holding a standing position. She rose up as if nothing. He buried his faee in the dip of her legs. Jimmy Gizzi had undone his pants and begun lazily stroking himself, and Sunny began laughing at him, first in chordes and then maniacally, in a dusky tone mat seemed as illiberal and vile as what he was compelling on himself. (114-16)

The nature of the father's gaze becomes unquestionable when this shocking encounter is compared with the other traumatic experience in the novel. Whereas Hata deliberately obscures Kkutaeh's death by withholding crucial information about it, here he slows down his narration so that he can restore every detail of the performance as meticulously and realistically as possible. To the adoptive father who confesses that he "could hardly bear to watch the scene" (114), Sunny at this moment becomes an object of sexual desire. Hata is so carried away by her sexuality that as a means of desensitizing himself, he has to remind himself of a similar, yet normalized, prior experience: "I knew what her body was like, of course, from when she was a young girl, and later, too. ... I saw her as I believe any good father would" (114).

Hata's painstaking efforts in portraying Sunny's sexuality create the illusion that the private performance is taking place in real time. By allowing the reader to watch the unfolding of the sexually charged incident alongside him, Hata positions both himself and the reader as complicit voyeurs, both to the carnal engagement between Sunny and her lover, Lincoln Evans, and the masturbatory act of another voyeur, Jimmy. And yet Hata's voyeurism is an ambivalent experience because it places his sexual interest in her in a twilight zone: legally, Sunny is his daughter; biologically, however, she is a stranger.

What Hata's report about Sunny's promiscuity offers is not simply the vicarious experience of viewing a highly sexualized female body. More exists behind the collaborative act of telling and listening to this story than a mere transaction in eroticism. And this "more" points to an anxiety deeply seated within the protagonist's psyche. Ultimately this relates to the ideological service that the novel performs for its white readership. Hata passes moral judgment on what he describes, even as he allows the reader to enjoy it fully. For example, in the midst of this depiction of Sunny's sexuality, Hata observes that "I could hardly bear to watch the scene, much less allow it to go on" (114). Hata's disapproval is unmistakable when he calls Sunny 's behavior "illiberal and vile" (116). He calls her sanity into question by describing her as laughing "maniacally" (116). It is the excessive nature of this reproof that is intriguing. Such excessiveness is also registered on another occasion when Hata witnesses the act of sex in another room in the house. Believing the female to be Sunny, Hata reminds himself of the "small dagger" he has been carrying with him; he wants to "strike out at the bodies with the full force of [his] rage, tear at them with whatever strength [he can] muster" (104). The violent tone of this murderous impulse goes beyond that of an unhappy parent who accidentally witnesses his adoptive daughter making love to her boyfriend. In its deadliness, it verges on the emotion of a righteous, revenge-seeking victim.

The ultimate reason for Hata's excessive anger can be found not in what the protagonist says but instead in what he does not say. He continues to speak in fear of the possibility of accidentally discovering what his adoptive daughter has been doing inside this den of vice: "I couldn't bear to imagine what awful sight it might be, what horrible tangle and depravity" (102). Yet what he never mentions is his fear of who she will be found with. Initially Hata observes that he "was strangely heartened" by being among a crowd of colored folk. However, this sense of pleasure, deriving from a sense of his being with his own kind, evaporates completely when it occurs to him that "Sunny . . . was living with them" (102). Significantly, in the following scenes, which the reader sees through Hata's eyes, no further mention is made of the ethnicity of the guests. Even the racial identities of the male and female whose act of sexual intercourse Hata watches at close range goes unmentioned. This sudden color blindness speaks in reverse of the protagonist's fear of finding a colored or black male as Sunny 's sex partner.

Hata's anxiety is understandable if Sunny's sexual involvement with a black male is seen to deal the deadliest of blows to the protagonist's lifetime project of demarcating himself off from the colored race. Hata's de-racializing efforts include not only separating himself from other colored people but also purging himself even of his own ethnic history. His act of self-naming in memory of one of the U.S. founding fathers is one attempt at eliminating his past in Korea, Japan, and wartime Asia. The only colored person he befriends in Bedley Run is Renny. The reason for this extraordinary extension of friendship is that despite his Indian descent, Renny embodies symbolic value in the protagonist's eyes. To borrow Hata's own words, "Renny Banerjee, though East Indian of blood, is what I often think of as a very American sort of man" (37). In the context of these efforts to de-ethnicize himself, Hata's game will be undone if his runaway daughter returns to him with a black lover, carrying his baby in her arms. This iconic figure of a white upper-class town will be robbed of not only his reputation but also his very social life, which is the only life he has. When this dreadful possibility later threatens to become a reality, Hata agonizingly takes it on as one of his own personal "defeats, familial and otherwise" (341). This accounts for why he positions himself as a righteous victim rather than as a sorrowful parent when earlier faced with Sunny 's sexual entanglement with a black male.

What should be noted here is the way in which Hata uses the victims of war crimes in order to vindicate his racial prejudice. In order to justify his rage at his daughter's interracial affair, Hata appropriates for his narrative the tragic stories of the Korean comfort girls. Terrified of the possibility of finding Sunny at Gizzi's, Hata remembers a scene from the past when a Korean girl tried to run away from a brothel but was forced to return (111-12). The juxtaposition of the Korean comfort girl's impending rape with Sunny's sexual engagement is designed to suggest that the two events offer a suitable parallel. In other words, Hata attempts to slander an interracial relationship by lumping it together with his memories of war crimes. This narratological maneuver positions Sunny's African American lover as a sex criminal.

Fundamentally, Hata's anxiety is genetically oriented. Sunny's involvement with a black male is likely to "soil" Hata's lineage further. The reason for using this term "further" is because the ethnic purity of his family has already been half-damaged by Sunny. During his first encounter with his adoptive girl, Hata recognizes Sunny's mixed heritage from her "thick, wavy black hair and darkhued skin" and contemptuously attributes it to "a night's wanton encounter between a GI and a local bar girl" (204). Hata feels that his hope for keeping ethnic purity in his family has been "blighted" by the "other color (or colors) [that] ran deep within her" (204). It is this fear of miscegenation that makes thoughts about his sexual liaison with her impossible. Sunny is sexually tabooed for Hata not only because of their relationship as father and adopted daughter but also because of her genetically "contaminated" status as a mixed-blood.

Hata's fear of miscegenation becomes a maddening fury when he learns that his already-soiled lineage is going to be almost "blackened" at the third generation. When the runway daughter comes home for help with her pregnancy, Hata becomes

furious with her. How could she get herself into such a predicament? . . . Where now was her "lover," whom she always talked of being so genuine and serious and gentle? Perhaps he had made a few recordings some time ago, but did lie even own his trumpet anymore, or was it pawned for a few weeks 'phantom pleasure and delirium? And glancing over at her I felt my fury redouble, seeing that she had little need to apologize or excuse or otherwise explain, and I thought - darkly, for a bare millisecond - that I could unbuckle myself now, too, and let the car's momentum carry us straight . . . into the stone farmer's wall that bounded the old suburban roadway. I wanted an end to us. (339-400, my emphasis)

The news about Sunny carrying Lincoln's baby makes her father contemplate thoughts of both murder and suicide. The simultaneous prescription of wanting "an end to us" is obviously propelled by the senses of "disgrace and embarrassment" (340) that the prospect of a black grandson brings upon Hata. With his worst nightmares all but realized, the protagonist no longer fears naming his object, hurling outright contempt at him. In taking this belated revenge, Hata targets the sorest spot in the racial Other, that is, the latter's economically deprived status: "did he even own his trumpet any more, or was it pawned for a few weeks' phantom pleasure and delirium?"

The L.A. Riots and "Reformed" Model Citizenship

In the wake of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, discourses about the need for a new approach toward racial relations sprung up across academic disciplines as well as in wider American society. One such study summarized the pressing need for action in the following terms:

[Rodney] King's question hints at the real question confronting U.S. society: Who is the "we" that must get along? For too long, the political and academic tradition has defined U.S. race relations in terms of a Black/ white binary opposition. For example, a CNN-7iW Magazine poll taken immediately after the verdict surveyed "Americans" on their opinions regarding the verdict and the violence that followed. Yet the poll only sought the views of African Americans and whites regarding the future of race relations. The Black/white framing of race issues must give way to a fuller, more differentiated understanding of a multiracial, multiethnic society divided along the lines of race, class, gender, and other axes in order to explicate effectively the Los Angeles explosion.16

According to this study, the old binary paradigm of black versus white no longer adequately accounts for the complex, multisubdivided racial problems besetting the United States. The Korean Americans who took up arms to protect their businesses against arson and looting illustrate the urgent need for a different and more comprehensive perspective on interethnic relations. In this sense, the ending embodied in A Gesture Life contains a political message whose significance reverberates rather more widely.

Hata takes goodwilled actions at the end, from reconciling with Sunny through putting his house on the market, the symbol of his "lovely, standing forgery" (352), to using the money from the house sale for the heart transplant operation for Patrick, the son of the couple who goes bankrupt after they purchased Hata's medical supply shop. Hata's acts of self-redemption extend to the idea of buying back his shop so that he might leave it to his daughter as a legacy. At the end, the protagonist's final plan is to depart for an unknown place alone: "Tomorrow, when this house is alive and full, I will be outside looking in. I will be already on a walk someplace, in this town or the next or one five thousand miles away. I will circle round and arrive again. Come almost home" (356, my emphasis). This ambiguous open ending has led many scholars to interpret Hata as making a fresh start, guilt-free and diasporic or transnational.

According to these critics, the protagonist in the end does not simply fail in his bid for national enfranchisement but instead breaks with certain prescriptive ideas about identity and identity formation. Hata's departure, in other words, registers the beginning of a different redemption narrative, a diasporic journey that prioritizes freedom over belonging.17 One Taiwanese critic similarly sees the protagonist as shattering the model minority image.18 However, the fundamental change that Hata undergoes in his relationship with Thomas and Sunny is not fully accounted for by the familial schema of the prodigal father or by the transnational paradigm of the birth of a diasporic subject. This is because the outcome has interethnic ramifications within the national boundaries of the United States.

What profoundly affects Hata's life and outlook is his abandonment of his older racial prejudices and fears. His subsequent overcoming of racial shame is borne out by his happy acknowledgment of Thomas, the mixed-blood boy, as his grandson. In acknowledging Thomas, Hata reemerges as a new minority subject, the kind of model citizen whom the United States desperately needs to restructure its interminority relations. What distinguishes this new model minority from the old one is that the former is more sensitive to community solidarity, purged of racial biases, while the latter mainly pursues individual achievement. In this regard, Hata's resolve to "circle around and arrive again" heralds the arrival of a reformed model minority amid interethnic strife.

By exposing Hata's hypocrisy and making him atone for his sins, the text seems to establish an ethical stance for itself, keeping a safe distance from the morally dubious practices of the protagonist's narrative. Yet what is disturbing about the ending is that in truth it does not greatly affect the reader's overall experience, since the process of reading is not truly reversible. Just because the novel comes out morally impeachable at the end does not erase the enthusiasm with which it has allowed itself and, possibly, its willing readership to participate in racializing practices. I say "enthusiasm" since Lee demonstrates a narcological finesse in maintaining the enthralling sense of suspense and mystery. In other words, details about the mysteries are provided later in piecemeal fashion, and their elliptical nature keeps the reader both bewildered and engrossed in the unfolding of the story. The game that the fiction wants to play with the reader appears to be patterned on that of tantalization, the strategy of hiding what is desired in the very act of uncovering it. After all, a participant in this intellectual striptease cannot completely imconsume what he or she has already consumed, be it sexualized Asian bodies or racialized Afro-Americans. This is so even if there are one or two clues that suggest another interpretive possibility: Kkutaeh's uncertain voice of contestation in the memory narrative or Hata's attempt at making amends in the immigrant narrative.

A Gesture Life can also be seen as compromising the position of ethnic minorities, particularly Korean Americans. Considered in the context of realpolitik, Hata's problematic relationship with (part-)black characters provides a safe opportunity to describe Korean racism while deflecting attention away from white racism. In its attempt to overwrite the black-white racial paradigm with a black-Korean one, the novel follows the precedent of the American mainstream media's coverage of the L.A. Riots. During the riots, the American mainstream media, as several critics argue, tried to salve white conscience by critically covering Korean Americans, manipulating an image of them as dangerous vigilantes directly responsible for the plight and oppression of African Americans.19 Similarly, it is the white mainstream that benefits from the interethnic transference of black prejudice in Hata's postimmigration narrative. In this regard, Hata serves as what Lowe calls "a 'screen,' a phantasmatic site, on which the nation projects a series of condensed, complicated anxieties."20

Above all, despite the protagonist's eventual casting off of his racial prejudice, A Gesture Life ends up reinforcing the hegemonic narrative schema that potentially weakens or destabilizes an ethnic minority's politics. The novel threatens to undermine a minority group's ongoing struggles for justice by reserving for a beleaguered immigrant the reactionary trajectory of repenting for his racism and finding peace through self-sacrificial acts. This is why an ethnic minority reader finds it hard to be convinced or consoled by the text's eventual supposedly antiracist and redemptive move.


This work was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant funded by the Korean Government MEST, Basic Research Promotion Fund (NRF2010-01 3-A00031). I would like to express my gratitude to my colleague, Professor Terry Murphy, for his valuable suggestions. The extract is from Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 18.

1. 'Joan Chiunghuei Chang, "A Gesture Life: Reviewing the Model Minority Complex in a Global Context," Journal of American Studies 37, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 148. Hamilton Carroll has also stated that through the protagonist's failure to constitute himself within the bounds of the hegemonic U.S. citizenship, the novel marks a significant intervention in the literature of assimilation. Hamilton Carroll, "Traumatic Patriarchy: Reading Gendered Nationalism in Chang-Rae Lee's Gesture Life," Modern Fiction Studies 51, no. 3 (2005): 593. More subversive readings are found among Korean scholars. For example, Franklin Hata's gesture life has been interpreted as a form of preventive self-defense against a racist metropolis, and the aberrations of Sunny, Hata's adopted daughter, have been seen as a head-on protest against it. The ending of the novel is seen as registering a Bhabhaian moment of "newness coming in transnational experiences and hybrid existences." See Miehyeon Kim, "Assimilation and Transference in Chang-rae Lee's Gesture Life," New Korean Journal of English Language and Literature 52, no. 2 (2010): 27.

2 Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992), 86.

3. Ma comments: "Only those Asian Americans who compose, more or less, in alignment with Orientalism stand a chance in emerging among mainstream Western readers as representative ethnic voices." Sheng-Mei Ma, The Deathly Embrace: Orientalism and Asian American Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), xiii. In a study of U.S. mass culture, Minjeong Kim and Angie Chung also offer the suggestion that the multiracial representations promoted by the U.S. mass media offer in truth only the traditional theme of American Orientalism with a new global twist. See Minjeong Kim and Angie Y. Chung, "Consuming Orientalism: Images of Asian/ American Women in Multicultural Advertising," Qualitative Sociology 28, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 67-91.

4. Lindsay Heinsen, "A Man's Haunting Past Will Haunt the Reader as Well," Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1999, features/ 99 101 20094_l_chang-rae-lee-bedley-run-gesture-life.

5 Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage, (London: Yale University Press, 1970), 27.

6. Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life, rev. ed., trans. Chöng Yöng-mok (Seoul, ROK Random House JoongAng, 2005), 7 (my translation).

7. Among the unsavory examples in Keller's fiction are Hyun Jin's gang rape, Induk's murder, and Soon Hyo's forced abortion.

8. Amazon review, October 23, 2012, =gesture+life.

9. Verity Ludgate-Fraser, "Determined Quiet after a Desperate Past," Christian Science Monitor, August 26, 1999,; Michiko Kakutani, "? Gesture Life': Fitting in Perfectly on the Outside, but Lost Within," New Yorit Times, August 3 1 , 1999, ee-book-review. htm 1.

10 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 214.

11. Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life (New York: Riverhead, 1999), 231 (subsequent references cited parenthetically).

12. In her insightful essay, Anne Anlin Cheng explains the aesthetics offered here as "belated, exquisite compensations" for the described atrocity. See Anne Anlin Cheng, "Passing, Natural Selection, and Love's Failure: Ethics of Survival from Chang-rae Lee to Jacques Lacan," American Literary History 1 7, no. 3 (Fall 2005) : 562-63. Yet it is a matter of dispute whether diese aestheticizing effects compensate readers for their discomfort or instead cloud their cognitive ability. Lisa Lowe also notes the lyrical still-life quality of the passage, attributing it to the work of what she calls ekphrasis. See Lowe, "Reckoning Nation and Empire: Asian American Critique," in A Conche Companion to American Studies, ed. John Carlos Rowe (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2010), 229-44.

13 Kandice Chuh, "Discomforting Knowledge, Or, Korean 'Comfort Women' and Asian American Critical Practice," Journal of Asian American Studies 6, no. 1 (2003): 14.

14 Ron Hogan, "Chang-Rae Lee: 'I'm a Fairly Conventional Guy, but I'm Bored with Myself a Lot,'" Beatrice Interview,

15. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism, 3rd ed., ed. Robert Kimbrough (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988), 9.

16. Sumi K. Cho, "Korean Americans vs. African Americans: Conflict and Construction," in Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising, ed. Robert CoodingWilliams (New York: Routledge, 1993), 196-97.

17. For some Korean critics, the ending witnesses the protagonist's coming-out as a genuine diasporic subject who refuses to align himself with any nation. See Seonju Lee, "Memories of My Ghost Brother: Half-Sovereignty Nation's Elegy," American Fiction Studies 14, no. 2 (2007): 153-73; Suk Hee Lee, "Beyond Spies and Model Minorities," New Korean Journal of English Language and Literature 51 , no. 2 (2009): 133-56; and Young-Oak Lee, "Gender, Race, and the Nation in A Gesture Life," Critique 46, no. 2 (Winter 2005): 146-59. On a different note, Lowe in "Reckoning Nation and Empire" argues that the novel commemorates a missed reality through the protagonist's repetitive awakening to yet failing to fulfill his ethical responsibility for colonial violence. According to her, the novel - situated within the context of American imperialism - "performs the 'gesture life' of reckoning for an American publie engaged for much of the twentieth century in wars in Asia" (239-44).

18. Chang, "Reviewing the Model Minority Complex in a Global Context," 147.

19. Cho, "Korean Americans vs. African Americans," 203-4; Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 91.

20. Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 18.

Author affiliation:

Suk Koo Rhee is a professor of English and an adjunct professor of comparative literature and culture at Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea. His research areas include postcolonial literature, contemporary literary theory, and cultural studies. He received his PhD in English from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1995.

The use of this website is subject to the following Terms of Use