For anyone who’s ever worried that contemporary literary novels fail to address crucial historical narratives or juicy, red-blooded romance (most recently, the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s editor noted that “novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars,” while Katie Roiphe lamented that “the cuddle [is] preferable to sex” for our “youngish male novelists”), Chang-rae Lee’s fourth novel is an antidote to the anxiety. To even summarize The Surrendered is to risk sounding like a movie-trailer voice-over: two damaged loners confront the sins of their shared past. Love and grief, sex and death wreak havoc in a world torn by war. While such descriptions may be unfair to Lee’s craft, they point to a truth about his latest novel, which does everything a big, ambitious book should do — it transports, mesmerizes, and touches the heart — but does so with a kind of lyrical hyperbole in both plot and prose.
Trading the emerald-lawned suburbs of Aloft, Lee’s last novel, and the eloquently distant first-person narration of the earlier A Gesture Life for darker locales and more visibly wounded main characters, The Surrendered weaves together parallel stories of war’s effects on the human spirit, one set in 1950s Korea, the other in 1986, in New York City and Italy.
June Han is 11 when the Korean War breaks out and her father, falsely accused of being a spy for the North, is shot in a public square, while her 14-year-old brother is beaten and then conscripted into the ROK army. June flees south with her mother and her remaining siblings — an older sister and seven-year-old twins — in a wave of similarly desperate refugees. They are soon penniless and starving, hunger “ris[ing] in them like well water during the spring rains, accruing to them each day until the feeling, oddly enough, was like an unbearable plenitude, this pressing flood of hollowness that would not recede.”
When June’s mother and older sister are killed by rocket fire, and the twins meet an even more gruesome fate (one based on the death of Lee’s paternal uncle), June is alone until the war’s end, when, half-dead from hunger and thirst, she meets an American soldier named Hector Brennan. A preternaturally handsome son of hardscrabble Ilion, New York, Hector has been discharged from the Graves Registration Unit, in which he did the “ghoul’s work” of retrieving dead bodies from the field of combat, and is making his way to New Hope, an orphanage south of Seoul. June warily follows him.
June becomes a ward of New Hope and Hector its handyman, and both keep resolutely to themselves until the arrival of an American missionary couple, the Tanners, disturbs their mutually exclusive solitude. Beautiful, ethereal Sylvie Tanner — who has “bright, golden hair,” a “milk-hued throat,” and her own terribly tragic past — quickly inspires an obsessive love in both, and what follows is an unspoken but fierce battle between these two misfits, a war of silences and tiny subterfuges that will have disastrous consequences.
While Lee’s central theme is the psychological toll of mass conflict, his prevailing metaphor is that of private appetites and the troubles they cause. June’s consuming desire to be adopted by Sylvie creates a rift between Sylvie and her husband, which Hector then deepens by taking Sylvie to his bed. And Sylvie has her own destructive hungers, for sex and opium.
The shifts in narrative tone that marked the author’s debut, Native Speaker (in which Lee moved from expressive emotionalism to brusque spy-talk) have been smoothed over entirely in The Surrendered. Lee writes of torture and desire in the same poetic, lush — even loving — prose. Here is Lee on the breaking of a Chinese reverend’s arm: “The report of the sound was as clean and fine-grained as a calligraphy brush being snapped in two.” And here he is on sex in a rickety lawn chair: “And it was in this marble calm that [she] took on a sudden shine, her skin and hair lustrously abloom with the wondrous feel of stopped time, her heart as well as her mind momentarily unburdened of their accreted regrets, self-lacings, those long-ingrained gravities…”
The Surrendered‘s love-triangle past is complemented by a present-day quest that, despite its urgency, lacks the power of its sister plotline. June, now 47 and diagnosed with stomach cancer (“it was almost laughably ironic, that the cancer should be in her stomach. That she would die with her belly full”), hopes to locate her estranged son, Nicholas, before her death. She also intends to introduce Nicholas to Hector, whom she hasn’t seen for almost two decades and who has no idea that his single miserable coupling with a 19-year-old June has produced an heir.
Hector, now a janitor and a barfly, is tentatively embarking on a sweet relationship with blown-rose Dora, and has no interest in speaking to June or to Cline, the PI she’s hired to locate Nicholas, who has been stealing antiquities all over Europe. But in a deus ex machina moment of almost thrilling hubris, Lee dispatches the roadblocks of lusty Dora and dour Cline in a single move, leaving the old enemies to ally themselves for the journey to Italy, their son’s last known location.
The Irish drunk, the beautiful missionary, the tough-as-nails orphan: Lee boldly takes literary clichés and breathes life into them, with varying degrees of success. (Proud, self-contained June is more believable than wary Hector, who, in the midst of punching a man’s face in, thinks “that transmogrification was less a process magical than something geologic, pressure and heat still the most mystical forges of the realm.”) Then, too, there’s Lee’s embrace of coincidence and ironical twists of fate, as well as his enthusiastic deployment of the sorts of issues and crises that tamer literary fiction might address one or two at a time: in The Surrendered, there’s alcoholism, drug addiction, pugilism, dismemberment, torture, rape, murder, horrific accidents of all sorts, thievery, adultery, suicide, arson, and identity theft, not to mention numerous incidents of vomiting. But then again, this is a book about a war and its enduring burdens.
The Surrendered is hardly the first of Lee’s novels to feature elaborate plotlines, great tragedies, or moments of sweeping sentimentality, but it is the first to do so with unrelenting earnestness. The casually comic reveries of Jerry Battle in Aloft and the lively musings of Henry Park in Native Speaker have given way to a third-person narration that offers no ironic distance from trial and travail. By creating a world full of enormous, inscrutable forces and populated by characters with dark histories (even poor, doomed Dora had a stepfather who raped her, and who shot her in the neck during a duck hunt), Lee seems to reach for an almost operatic portrait of suffering. And the redemption available to these poor souls? It comes primarily through the lovely language their sorry fates are told in.
But we should admire Lee’s authorial fearlessness, his refusal to write familiar stories of quiet despair. Barring a few moments that strain credulity and a few more moments of overworked prose, The Surrendered is a satisfying novel: flawed but entrancing, and unabashedly human.