“Let me simply bear my flesh, and blood, and bones. I will fly a flag.”
Chang-rae Lee’s novel, A Gesture Life, is a slow, emotional exploration of the complications that arise in the diasporic communities of the globalized last century. Chang’s quiet narrative hints at the darker complications of national loyalty and questionable morality, as readers are simultaneously led through the recollections of World War II and the peaceful everyday life of Franklin Hata, a Japanese-American immigrant who served as a medic in the Japanese army.
From the beginning, Franklin, or Doc Hata as the sleepy town of Bedley Run calls him, is a man with many secrets. His first-person narrative opens the book with a clear distinguishing of his identity within the town; immediately, Hata establishes: “I somehow enjoy an almost Oriental veneration as an elder” (Lee 1). The reference back into another culture separate from the American suburb he finds himself in now, an “Oriental veneration”, hints at how highly Hata values his culture as a Japanese man. An identity conflicted, however, by Hata’s own conscience: he is plagued by the memories of K, a Korean comfort woman he had known during the war. Hata often imagines her in the empty vestiges of his large manor, cloaked in a black flag and whispering about the possibilities of a family.
Hata’s obsession with the memory of K is disturbing, although the reader is not immediately made aware of the details of their relationship. His narrative, which spins slow, wondrous, with the casual tone of an elderly man reminiscing on the best memories of his life, quietly reveals the darker undertones of war: he recalls his sexual assault of K with a fond quickness that lulls the reader into a false security, and offhandedly mentions her murder by Japanese soldiers as a sad, albeit unpreventable event. In the same breath that he deludes himself into thinking that he remains unaffected by the war, Hata tricks the reader into thinking of the war as a temporary, harmless subject in the run of his life. Despite reassuring himself on the security of his own position, Hata finds himself isolated by the people of Bedley Run; although they do not know of his complicated past, he is an immigrant bachelor landed in the middle of an American nuclear suburb, completely isolated by the own politeness that he himself perpetrates against everyone else in the town.
Almost accidentally, Hata resigns himself to watching. In particular, he forms an one-sided friendship with the Hickeys, a typical American family composed of Mr. Hickey, Mrs. Hickey, and their terminally-ill son. Hata grows a curious interest in the Hickeys that he almost fails to admit to himself — and by extension, the reader, as Hata’s narrative is always composed of half-truths — and in the in-betweens of his interactions with the Hickeys, another truth is revealed to the reader: Hata has a daughter.
In the aftermath of the war, Hata had adopted a child orphaned by the war as a reptenance for his past actions. Specifically, he refers to his desires as, “I did not want innocence so much as I did an erasure reaching back” (Lee 290). From the beginning, Sunny and K are inexplicably tied in a way that Hata does not mention to himself nor Sunny; however, he raises Sunny as if he is indebted to her, by keeping her at arm’s length and giving her material items with high expectations. Throughout the course of Sunny’s childhood, other characters, including Hata’s girlfriend at the time, note how Sunny is talented and well-behaved for her age, but that Hata seems to hardly share a connection with her. Sunny’s “innocence” that she brings into Hata’s life as a child seeking a family is rejected by Hata, who is too haunted by the invasive, unresolved memories of his past with K to accept Sunny as she is. To Hata, Sunny represents the war in everything she does: although she is too young to remember it, she is a product of a time he wishes he could erase completely, and yet keeps reminding himself of as a self-inflicted punishment. Continuously throughout his interactions with Sunny, Hata seeks a kind of “erasure” that is impossible to obtain, a forgiveness from the dead that drives Sunny further away from her father figure.
Whenever Sunny is mentioned, Hata unconsciously delves back into his memories of the war, bringing up snippets of his time serving as a medic for the reader to piece together what Hata himself may be unwilling to confront: that he feels guilty, both in his national identity as a Japanese man and in his failure to obtain any kind of stable family. Of his parents, whom Hata mentions very little and only in the context of his childhood, suggesting he no longer kept in contact with them into adulthood, he says: “I am only certain in my honouring of them, which I am always failing in. But that is a child’s lifelong burden” (Lee 244). With the associated guilt of his unaddressed past, it is no surprise that Hata’s inclination of family is twisted and barely-alive, which results in his mistreatment of Sunny and her running away from home as a teeenager. Hata lets her, and loses contact with her soon after, unwilling to maintain the pretense of family he had originally set out to achieve.
But not all is lost, it seems. Chang’s novel tells a story of loss, grief, and guilt, but also hints at a bittersweet resolution for Franklin Hata. After he has admitted the entirety of his feelings for K to himself — and the reader —Hata wills himself to seek out Sunny once more, finding her in the neighbouring town with a son. As he wonders with himself whether he should reconnect with the daughter he had wanted so long ago, Hata realises he is “afraid not of death but of the death of yet another living chance” (Lee 332), and uses this unusually straightforward revelation to meet a now-adult Sunny and Thomas, his grandson.
Sunny is a single mother, and once more Hata laments on the loss of the ideal family unit as a result. He notes that Sunny has “been thus tempered by her life” and is now forced to address “this innocently crouched old man who once tried to conduct himself like her father” (Lee 213). Though Hata’s narrative is self-depreciating, it is also truthful and honest, a far cry from the polite half-truths he had previously addressed the reader with. Chang masterfully spins the latter half of the book into a slow story of resolution, telling the tale of a recovery that is imperfect, but speaks to the importance of progress beyond anything else. Sunny does not fully trust Hata with the finer details of her life, not does Hata ever completely forget K and the “darkest fires” (Lee 262) that her memory stirs within his heart, but Doc Hata seems to come to a revelation part way through the novel on the ways that he is unable to change the past, and how he must confront the present in order to give way to the future.
Perhaps it would be wrong to say Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life is a masterpiece; the slow-paced narrative and sudden burst of exposition in the form of Hata’s flashbacks towards uncomfortable war-time truths make it a hard book to sit down and acknowledge in its entirety. Franklin Hata, in as far as being a reliable narrator goes, is as far away from someone readers can trust as he could possibly get. Despite all this, Lee writes of family and love with a familiar, bittersweet sense, a realistic reflection of the many complications that a life well-lived through generations of tradition and decades of strife can bring upon an individual identity. Franklin Hata may be a frustrating, infuriating protagonist, but he is realistic in a way that allows for pity, understanding, and anger, existing simultaneously as a warning and an exploration to the extremes that love can drive a simple person towards.
Lee, Chang-rae. A Gesture Life. Riverhead Books, 1999.
Lee, Chang-rae. A Gesture Life. Riverhead Books, 1999.