Monday, July 23, 2007

Native Speaker: A Review by Matt Salesses

This is the fourth of a many-part series written by the staff and editors of Fringe Magazine, who will be reviewing books from the Pool as part of the 25 Books Project.

How could you not love the opening to Chang-rae Lee's PEN/Hemingway award-winning *Native Speaker,* in which narrator Henry Park's wife, having decided to take a break from their marriage, leaves him with a note calling him a "B+ student of life... yellow peril... traitor, [and] spy." Those first two insults are the best (if we're judging on cruelty and humor) but the latter two end up scuba-diving Henry into the cove of his Korean-American identity. It turns out he *is* a spy, at least by profession, and this theme of spying, of cultural mask-wearing, of between-ness, is at the heart of the novel and of Henry's shortcomings in life and marriage.

As the novel progresses, we learn about Henry's job in cultural espionage, going forward in time, while delving into his problematic marriage to beautiful, white, speach-therapist Lelia, going back. Henry's latest mission involves getting close to political up-and-comer John Kwang and taking notes on his activities for some unknown, but definitely shady, client, using their shared Korean heritage as bait. Henry, it seems, is quite good at his job, as his whole life has prepared him for this sort of obsequious fitting-in. The same characteristics that make him good at his job, however, seem to have annoyed Lelia to the point of her leaving to seek out one or more implied affairs in Europe. Henry's faults have also been compounded, we learn, by the death of their only son under a pile of neighborhood kids.

While these plots are intertwined beautifully on a thematic level, the marriage does tend to be more engaging in terms of its emotional connection to the reader--even to this reader for whom the themes of the novel hit close to home--because the connection between Lelia and Henry is filled with a type of intimate longing that is lacking in the relationship with John Kwang. Kwang's political intrigue lends the book forward movement and dramatic tension, but the real key to Henry's character lies in Lelia, and the key to the book comes from the same deep well of humor and cruel truth as her opening note. In their falling apart and coming together is the clash of race and love and identity and understanding, handled with a prose that, at its best, hits hard and fast and can leave you stopping for breath. It seemed to me, turning the pages, that the times I looked away were when I knew Lee had caught me, returning in my head to the net of words and truths it sometimes hurt to read. No lie.
Matthew Salesses is a Fringe reader and assistant fiction editor at Redivider Journal. Google him. Name your pets after him. Seriously. Read books that matter.

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