[BOOKS] Novelist Chang-rae Lee Pens Highly Praised Novel
- Novelist Lee Pens Highly Praised Novel
Wed May 12,12:24 PM ET
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS, Associated Press Writer
PRINCETON, N.J. - A few weeks ago, as novelist Chang-rae Lee was
carting his clubs around a golf course near his home, two white
golfers interrupted their conversation to ask whether he belonged to
Lee, whose new novel, "Aloft," has been highly praised, politely told
the men that, yes, he was indeed a member.
The incident served as a mildly uncomfortable reminder to the Korean-
born Lee whose novels often explore the concept of assimilation
that fitting in, even on a suburban golf course, is not all that
"Questions like that make you think, 'Hmmm, they see me quite
differently, don't they?'" says Lee, who speaks as precisely as the
characters in his novels. "That exposes their perspective. Whereas,
my perspective is not that I'm any different from anyone else. I'm
just hitting golf balls."
Lee, 38, however, is different and not just because as a golfer he
has a 10 handicap. Observers have him pegged as one of the rare
writers of literary fiction who could become a household name.
"Aloft," released in March, has become a best seller, its film rights
sold to Warner Bros. and producer Scott Rudin; Lee has been
pronounced one of America's best young novelists.
And after three novels, he is ensconced as a professor at Princeton
University, where his colleagues and friends include Nobel
laureate Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Muldoon.
"He brings a spirit of buoyancy and youth and cultivation and
warmheartedness," Robert Fagles, another Princeton colleague and the
translator of critically acclaimed versions of Homer's "Iliad"
and "Odyssey," said. "And he can turn a sentence like nobody's
Another Princeton associate, C.K. Williams, who recently won the
National Book Award for poetry, said Lee is "really an astonishing
prose stylist, and that's a gift you can't make for yourself. It's
As was true with "Aloft," Lee's first two books, "Native Speaker" in
1995, and 1999's "A Gesture Life," were lavishly praised, and each
won several honors, including the PEN/Hemingway award for "Native
During an interview at his campus office, he comes across as boyish,
unassuming, quick to laugh.
Lee has most often been compared to John Cheever and John Updike
best known for stories featuring white suburbanites, typically male
whose protagonists have come to regard the suburbs as an oppressive
While Cheever's Neddy Merrill or Updike's Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom
could likely not exist outside the suburbs, Lee's characters are the
sort who could survive anywhere, but choose the suburbs because they
seek comfort, anonymity and the ability to control their environment.
They enjoy without reservation the pleasure of flipping a switch for
central air conditioning or a clicker for the garage door.
Unlike his literary predecessors, Lee holds his characters, not the
suburbs, accountable for their own shortcomings. That distinction is
perhaps not surprising since Lee grew up in the New York City suburb
Pleasantville, in Westchester County, and thoroughly enjoyed his
The narrator of "Aloft" is Jerry Battle (shortened from Battaglia),
an Italian-American on the eve of his 60th birthday who has no
greater joy than flying his Cessna Skyhawk above Long Island, picking
out his house from the rows of others (he has arranged lighter
colored shingles in an 'X' on the roof).
He does his best to avoid family entanglements or unnecessary
emotion. A retiree with far too much time on his hands, Jerry has
spent his life coasting above the maelstrom, even after his first
wife succumbed to manic depression and drowned in the backyard
swimming pool and his girlfriend of 20 years moved out, accusing him
of being emotionally lazy.
Though Jerry is honest about his shortcomings, he makes little effort
to change until he has no choice. And while he is not technically an
immigrant, he lives like an outsider.
Jerry concedes, for example, that he's been "just caretaking what
I've been left and/or given, and consuming my fair share of the
bright and new, and shirking almost all civic duties save paying the
property taxes and sorting the recycling, basically steering clear of
Lee believes that today's wealthy suburbs, with their big lots and
the importance residents place on privacy, can be harmful for new
immigrants who find little community and few people similar to
"I think in some sense new immigrants often assimilate in terms of
things, in terms of material, in terms of the accouterment of
American life," he says. "I think there's a real pleasure in that,
but I think maybe that's where assimilation ends because they are in
these places that don't have community really. They're not really
interacting with their neighbors. That's the whole point of living in
a place like that. You don't have to."
Lee's model for Jerry is his Italian-American father-in-law, who
until recently lived on Long Island. "A loose inspiration. Quite
loose," he says, laughing. Lee and his wife, Michelle, have two
daughters, Annika, 6, and Eva, 3.
Lee was born in Seoul in 1965 and moved to the United States at age 3
with his mother and sister while his father, a psychiatrist, worked
at the Bronx Veterans Administration hospital.
The family lived briefly on the Upper West Side, and then in the
Westchester County suburbs of New Rochelle and Pleasantville, among
Italian- and Irish-Americans, where he had no choice but to
He persuaded his parents to allow him to go away to school and
attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school in New
Hampshire. After graduating, he enrolled at Yale University and then
took a job on Wall Street for a year before deciding that what he
really wanted was to become a writer.
After a failed attempt at a novel, Lee enrolled at the University of
Oregon's creative writing program. His next novel, "Native Speaker,"
was published, and he was invited to start a creative writing program
at Hunter College in New York City. Lee moved to Princeton's Council
of the Humanities two years ago.
Despite reaching a level most novelists would envy, Lee says that he
still has the mind-set of an immigrant.
"I still have that core kind of feeling which is, `I hope that I can
make it.' I think that's where immigrants start from: 'I hope I know
how to get along here.'"