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[BOOKS] Novelist Chang-rae Lee Pens Highly Praised Novel

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  • chiayuan25
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 13, 2004
      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
      the club.

      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
      easy.

      "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
      business."

      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
      talent."

      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
      Speaker."

      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
      force.

      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
      childhood.

      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
      trouble."

      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
      themselves.

      "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
      assimilate.

      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.'"

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