Chang-Rae Lee. Native Speaker. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995. Print.
This book was recommend to me by a fellow English teacher whom I respect a lot. I also heard Mr. Lee speak recently and, frankly, I thought I could identify with him. Yes, part of his story is that of a second generation Korean immigrant (which I am not), but a lot of Lee’s personal story, especially his education and some of his writing experiences (NOT writing success, certainly) were things I could identify with. His story and his book are far more American than they are Korean. Also the school where I teach has a good number of Korean students, with a few Korean-Americans as well, so I thought I could learn a few things from the book.
Native Speaker is very well-written: sensitive, attentive to detail, and wildly plotted. It is, in effect, a Great Gatsby for recent immigrants. The last chapter deliberately echoes Gatsby with a reference to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and the style of the last few paragraphs. In the long run, Native Speaker is more upbeat than Gatsby. While Gatsby’s narrator suggests it is nearly futile to row against the tide, Native Speaker’s narrator describes his wife’s ESL speech therapy at the very end: “I hear her speaking a dozen lovely and native languages, calling all the difficult names of who we are.” (324) Yes, whatever else you think about the United States, America sometimes seems like the Book of Revelation’s description of heaven: “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues…”(7:9)
The book is also Gatsby-like in that in that the main character is making a living in a questionable manner. He is not exactly Mafia, but he is a political spy whose job is to bring ruin into the lives of popular politicians who threaten the establishment. Unlike Jay Gatsby, he does get out of the business, but like Gatsby, he pays a price.
Like The Great Gatsby, Native Speaker is about the American Dream, but the disjunction with recent immigrants who have not assimilated instead of a Midwestern farm boy trying to make it in the big bad city. How does one “assimilate” into the American Dream? The narrator’s father does succeed by hard work and by keeping his Korean prejudices and customs. He is very distant and stoic, but he “makes it,” though at an emotional price that makes his son Henry Park feel robbed.
The elder Mr. Park is contrasted with John Kwang, a Korean politician, who is very effective at befriending and getting support from many of the nationalities in his New York City district. However, he is brought down because of a Korean custom (or two) that come across as illegal in America. He succeeds in part because of some of the traditions he keeps, but those same traditions bring him down. Though a politically successful American politician, he has not learned enough to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and flow gently down the American mainstream, either.
Henry Park, like Nick Carraway in Gatsby, also comes across as slightly detached. But that detachment makes his narrative sound reliable, and everywhere in the story he sees this crazy, lively promise called America.