Friday, January 30, 2015

Bleak Surrender

This may be a Southern thing, but remember when you'd play limbo and chant “how low can you go?“ Okay, well the same applies to Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered. How low and how bleak can this novel go in its tapestry of pain and suffering? Now, just because I would describe the novel as low and bleak doesn't negate how amazing (if sometimes trope-cheating) the book actually was. Really, I loved it; any book that keeps me anxious until the very end is a winner. Nonetheless, as stated, there were some problems along the way.  However, a few of those problems are so precise that should I even attempt to shed light on them I would spoil the story. I don't want to do that. I absolutely can't, as it'll make some of those “problem” areas all the more dissatisfying.

Therefore, I'll give you just a little bit of what I liked and didn't like about The Surrendered

While The Surrendered opens up during the Korean War (1950-1953), it’s a post-war novel. “The misery of life after war times” is the surface overture of the novel, as three protagonists guide you along their desolation through securely interlacing stories.


The first character is an orphaned Korean teen named June Han Singer. Her journey escaping North Korea during the war opens up the novel. Struck by tragedy after tragedy, she is forced to forge her own path after the loss of her family. She’s all that’s left of the Singers. 

June's story jaunts into the future, particularly in 1986 where we find June in her late forties living in New York. Here, she’s an antiques dealer, clearing away the remains of her estate (apartment, business, etc.) to seek out her long-missing son, Nicholas. One year Nicholas went overseas and never returned home. However, through a stream of letters and postcards, June has managed to keep in contact with her son. Troubled by guilt for her lack of involvement in his childhood (except for her lying about his father, I didn't see June as a distant mother to her son), June decides to hire a private investigator to help her locate Nicholas; suspected somewhere in Rome. However, that’s not all. June is dying of stomach cancer, which brings urgency to her cause. (I found this line of plot as sort of the backbone of the novel.)

Then there’s June’s savior, Hector Brennan. Hector once worked as a GI in the Korean War. Explosive and easily agitated, Hector was released from his military duties after frequent entanglements with his superiors. The fun part is that we get to jump back into his past, his childhood. As a teen, Hector spent much of his time watching over his veteran father, who spent his time in bars drunk and searching for fights. Aside from watching of his troubled father, Hector also spent time exploring his sexuality with various neighborhood girls as well as the wives of military soldiers. One day, this exploration comes with a price. Nevertheless, after his discharge, Hector is seen wandering around Korea until his discovers young, starving June. Hesitate by her experience, June eventually takes Hector’s invitation to follow him to a local orphanage where he finds himself work as a resident handyman.

I could imagine Sylvie like this
The last protagonist, and probably the brightest of the three, is a missionary wife and daughter named Sylvie Tanner. With her own disastrous–and I mean disastrous–past trying to control and pull her back into its darkness, Sylvie’s struggles lead her to the same orphanage June and Hector arrives at. Working alongside her missionary husband, Sylvie finds herself beloved by the children at the orphanage. So much so that they all wish she'd adopt them before her journey leads her elsewhere. However, while all that innocence softens her inner, controlling demons, it’s the presence of June and Hector who inadvertently pokes at it. The two fight for Sylvie’s love, comfort and affection. Each desperate to silence their inner turmoil through the other.


So as you can tell by now, the structure of The Surrendered jaunts back and forth in time and space, guiding each of the characters' journey through nuggets and clues given early within their stories. From there, either those answers are answered through a jaunting look into the past or future. As for the setting itself, the novel jumps mainly between Korea and America during the late 1950s and 1980s (some chapters are even earlier than both). The leaping back and forth in time and space was something I did like about The Surrendered. I can understand why some readers might not appreciate the non-linear way the story is told, but I loved it. I liked it mainly because–as mentioned–it nuggets and cliff-hangs you along. And it surprises you as well. An event summarized in sparse, inscrutable detail will suddenly come to a conclusive edge only a few chapters later. Frustrating sometimes when you stop and beg the author to give you more details, but a delight when you find out that Lee didn't just leave you hanging.

Additionally, I liked the jaunting and jumping because somehow it worked with my engagement with the book. I was forced to maintain and track the unfolding of its story. I didn't tag along sheepishly. I was a part of it, much like a mystery novel where the reader has to engage and maintain elements dispersed throughout the book to find satisfaction in its conclusion.  I came into The Surrendered looking for a great story, and I really did receive it.  Even if down to the way Lee told the story.


However, I think that what really became my issue was how Lee kind of over-pushed the bleakness through the various deaths of secondary characters. So much so that I found some deaths scenes a little too forced, a little too orchestrated and would've appeared challenging if these characters’ fate would’ve been opposite to the one they were given.  Removing the many troubled, but brighter characters took away some of hope.  It also left these characters in a someone prop-like status used to further the inner ugliness of the main characters.  Additionally, it made matters inescapable how this novel would never “see the light.” It also made me, as the reader, question some of the intent of the book. Should we never believe in silver linings? Should we never have faith there is always good somewhere down the road long after the punishment of war? I just don't know with this one. All I can say is that some characters’ death took me out of the novel for a moment, and into a writer’s uncertain objective.  (What should I do with this character to increase the hardcore drama?  Oh, yeah.  Kill him!  He'll be another notch in the misery.)

The Surrendered was a gripping read no doubt. It was the book I found myself most invested in this month. I'm torn between the bleakness and the engaging execution of the story.  And while the more I read the more I realized the character's weren't necessarily going to "brighten up", it still didn't change how valid their stories were.
I think that’s enough talking about this book. We could go on all day, but I highly recommend The Surrendered.  Although I wasn't feeling Lee's debut, Native Speaker, I have to say that The Surrendered has definitely compelled me to try his debut again.  Or better yet, just go nuts on Amazon and order all of his books.

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