Book Review: A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee

A Gesture Life
A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I almost love this book, but a few things keep me from it.

First, though, I’ll tell you why I love it. I love the way the story unfolds. Chang-rae Lee takes his time revealing the story. It comes out in bits and pieces from the first-person perspective of Doc Hata, just as a person would generally reflect on his own life. A scene comes to mind, then something else jumps in and we follow that thread for a bit, then back to the original scene, which is now colored by the tangent. I luxuriated in the language and found myself hypnotized by the writing. I closed the last page and looked at the clock and did a double-take: it was 2am. I love when a book transports me like that.

One of the little pebbles in my shoe along the journey of this book is a time issue. I had (and still have) a lot of trouble figuring out how old Sunny is at the end of the book. Doc Hata says at one point that he hadn’t seen her in nearly 13 years and that now she would be twenty-two. Except that we know he saw her when she was 18. Maybe he meant that he hadn’t really seen her since she was 9, before the rift between them began to widen? Maybe he meant she was thirty-two? This would make more sense given that he mentions a few wrinkles and grey hairs, which are more common in the over-thirty set than the twenty-two-year-olds I’ve known. Maybe this is just an editing snafu, but man does it rankle me.

The other part that keeps me from loving this book is the despair of it. Doc Hata is a man who has lived a number of identities, all shaped by and for the culture around him. He’s Korean and works to become Japanese. He’s Japanese and works to become an American. He’s a medic and becomes a doctor (at least in the eyes of the people in his town). He’s a chameleon, which is, I think, why it’s so hard for anyone to get close to him. How can they know who it is they’re dealing with? How can they put their trust in someone whose identity is so slippery?

Then there’s Hata’s sense that, because he’s around when tragedy strikes those around him, he somehow attracts tragedy (cum hoc, ergo propter hoc). He sees himself as the opposite of a lucky rabbit’s foot, and he convinces himself that those around him would be better off without him. He seems to feel as though he’s unintentionally deceived them into believing that he’s helping them through their misfortunes when they wouldn’t have had any misfortunes at all if he’d kept his distance.

While it’s illogical, it’s not unrealistic that Hata believes this. On the contrary, his world-view and his view of himself are all the more tragic because they’re totally realistic, and all the more unsettling because of the personal connection I feel to these beliefs. I can relate to Hata’s search for a place and an identity, and I can relate to his attempts to make some order out of the causes and effects in his life. I’ve not experienced anything to the degree that Hata has, but as a life-long nomad, I’ve done my share of trying to fit in and trying to discover who I am in relation to the wheres and whos of my current stop, wherever and whenever that might be.

This was a beautifully written gut-punch of a story, but I couldn’t love it because it carried the much-too-real aroma of the despair and futility that lurks just beneath the surface. Acknowledging that despair by loving this story seems too dangerous; I prefer to keep my distance from it.

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