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The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee

September 19, 2010

Chang-Rae Lee’s novel, The Surrendered, is a long and ambitious novel about the ravages of war on individuals. I agree with C.K. Williams estimation that it is “a cosmic war novel, about any and all war.” Lee adds to this, saying that the novel is about  “[h]ow the cost and anguish and suffering [of war] is expressed by modest figures…very singular, real and modest people struggling with every day and human struggles.” (interview with Jennifer Gilmore in the Rumpus

In the first chapter of the novel, Lee writes movingly about eleven-year-old June, one of the main characters, who is fleeing to the south of Korea. Having lost the rest of the family, she is in charge of her two young siblings. As the children journey south, Lee interrupts to move back in time, showing in scene the violent deaths of her father, mother and older sister. Because June is eleven, we know she is old enough to understand and remember these horrific losses, and we are prepared to witness the toll on her, in her future.

As if these deaths weren’t enough, Lee describes, in the final pages of the chapter, how June loses her young brother and sister. They are riding on top of a train, in the night, and June has kept them wrapped up in a threadbare blanket she stole from an old farmer couple. As the dawn approaches, “the train suddenly and violently bucked, sending [June] hurtling against the metal rib on the front side of the well. She struck it headfirst and was dazed for a second and when she opened her eyes she was half hanging off the edge between the cars” (27) Though June has not yet realized it, most readers will already understand that her siblings have not been so lucky. Lee subjects the reader to June’s search, on the ground, for her siblings. Others are also on the ground, some injured, some looking for family members. The worst of this is that June finds her brother when he is not yet dead. His leg has been severed and while June attempts to apply pressure to stop the bleeding, the train begins to move again. While she calls for help, she is urged by others, by adults, to get back on the train. She attempts to carry her brother, but as she is doing so, the tourniquet she created falls off and “blood poured out as if from a spigot” (29) so she puts him down, and, after promising she will return for him, runs to the train.

Each of the other two main characters of The Surrendered, Hector–the American G.I. who leads June to an orphanage, briefly becomes her husband and fathers her only child–and Sylvie, an aid worker at the orphanage and the woman June and Hector are both deeply attached to and in love with, have encountered similar acts of war-related violence.

I would have expected that, given the graphic descriptions of the horrors of war and the damaging excesses of violence that these characters are forced to participate in, I would be be filled with empathy for them, riveted by their stories, and forgiving of their flaws. And I was attached to them, I wanted to find out what happened, I read the book to the end. But I was not moved in the way I would have thought. I didn’t cry. I’m not passing the book along to my friends. Why not?

The answer is easiest with the character of Hector. Here is a man who, for reasons that are not explained, has the ability to drink alcohol like a fish, glass after glass after glass, and never get drunk, in addition to which, every time he is physically injured, he heals quickly and easily. Lee dramatizes this repeatedly throughout the novel, scene after scene of Hector, at various times in his life, drinking but never getting drunk, getting in knock-down-drag-out fights but never getting so injured that he was not fine the next day. I found myself feeling confused, distanced, even annoyed. Perhaps because these traits are, in an otherwise realistic, psychologically probing novel, so patently unreal, I experienced the insistence on them as off-putting.

This could be simply a personal allergy. When everyone was reading and raving about The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, I didn’t like the novel much, primarily because I was annoyed by the fact that the time traveler, the husband, always woke up in a new time naked. I understand (more than I do Lee’s choice with Hector) why Niffenegger would have had to do this. Since he was traveling to different historical times, his clothes, in these other times, would have dated him and given him away. Still, I found it clumsy and annoying, and I couldn’t get past it.

Sylvie, the child of missionary parents and wife of a minister, is a beautiful, tragic figure who calls forth the love and sexual desire of both Hector and June. She is also a heroin addict. I’ve read other novels with heroin addicts as central characters, so it isn’t the heroin per se that I find off-putting; it’s Sylvie’s languorous helplessness to what’s wrong with her current life, which, as far as we can see, is mainly the drug itself. Perhaps it’s her lack of fight, her lack of will to even engage in the world. As I mentioned, all the main characters experience extreme acts of violence. Sylvie, as an adolescent, is forced to watch her parents, and the teacher she is in love with, killed at the hands of Japanese soldiers during the occupation of China. We are shown this, again in scene, and while I was horrified by what she had to experience as a young woman, I was somehow not with her, not inside her later, when she appears as a damaged woman.

The last war novel I can remember being completely riveted by is Chimamanda Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun. I don’t remember the acts of violence being quite as unsparingly described, but I felt more empathy for and attachment to the characters in that novel than the ones in this one. I have a sense, which I don’t want to fully own, that it is because of the terrible woundedness, the unrecoverable brokenness, of the characters in The Surrendered that I can’t become fully attached them. I feel bad about that. I feel like I should give them that. That’s not to say that there are not, in my view, flawed choices in some of the characterization, like the one I mentioned about the characterization of Hector. But in the end, it might be that none of these characters are capable of life, capable, to any real extent, of going on, that brings me to the limit of my empathy.

June is the most difficult example. When she is eleven, she experiences horrific violence and loss, and has to make an unbearable choice. As adults, we know that in all likelihood, her young brother would have died if she had stayed with him, and then, perhaps June herself would have died as well. But June doesn’t know this, and June doesn’t die. And I feel for her. She goes to live at the orphanage where she is described as being mean, selfish, and violent. (I’m reminded of the stories of children who are adopted from orphanages, children who, despite all the loving attention of their adoptive parents, cannot change, grow and thrive.) Sylvie, for reasons that are not explained but are most likely related to her own woundedness, takes June under her wing. But with the exception of a single scene in which June lets a younger orphan sleep next to her, we aren’t shown anything positive about her. Even in a sort of love scene between June and Sylvie, June furtively caresses Sylvie while she is either asleep, in a daze of heroin, or simply unwilling to be awake and participating (which doesn’t make me like or relate to either of them). It’s this piling on of negative examples that stretch me too far. Then, in the scenes of June as an adult, we come to understand that she has, in her own estimation but also in the evidence of the traits of character of her son Nick, failed as a mother.

Lee says in The Rumpus interview that he’s interested in how people (or characters) construct themselves. “I’m more interested in the psychic intricacies that they build up and try to run away from, and how they self-construct. A lot of my work is about self-construction.  Here, it’s those folks who are deeply wounded and bewildered.  They’re not just victims of trauma; they’ve been shaken so forcefully that they don’t quite know how or where to stand.” At the end of the novel, June, who is dying, forces Hector to travel with her to Italy to search for her (their) missing son. In addition to his usual drinking and fight, he is really very sweet and caring with her, bringing her whenever she asks for it the only thing that she will eat, lemon ice. When she is almost at the end, he asks her, “‘I wonder if you would have taken care of me. If I was the one who is sick. [June] looked at him unwaveringly. ‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘I’ve never taken care of anyone'” (464). The reader knows that this is actually untrue, that June, all those years ago, took tender care of her younger brother and sister. But she has constructed her identity around this other image of herself, as someone who is hard and uncaring, and always has been.

The Surrendered is an interesting book, but a hard book, with three characters that suffer, in a way, from the same disease. If looked at as an anti-war book, a cry of rage against such killing, it fulfills all expectation.

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