three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
user_rating: 
0

A-AloftJerry Battle, a white 59-year-old retired Long Islander, is detached from his life. His depressed Korean wife, Daisy, drowned in their swimming pool 20 years ago and his brother disappeared in Vietnam. More recently, he doesn’t understand his daughter, Theresa, who expresses her anger towards ethnic exploitation through her teaching. After years of running a landscaping company founded by his Italian father, he now works part time as a travel agent, dreaming of fleeing a life that successfully "short-circuit[s] dealing with the needs of others."

What’s one to do but leave it all behind? Master of avoidance, sensitive, and decent but accused of "lazyheartedness" by his daughter, Jerry finds release in navigating his small Skyhawk plane over the neighboring towns and coast. "I can’t see the messy rest," he says, "none of the pedestrian, sea-level flotsam that surely blemishes our good scene." But a series of familial crises spirals him down to earth. As he ponders his ties to the past and present, Jerry starts to realize the difficulties of resisting the tug of others’ lives.

Riverhead. 352 pages. $24.95.

Critical Themes

Suburbia and its discontents. Lee mines suburban New York’s ennui, moral decline, and spiritual amnesia by peopling the dark, well-trodden path of John Updike and John Cheever with America’s newest ethnic groups. "I don’t think I’m re-imagining Westchester as any kind of literary landscape," he said, "but I do think in some ways I’m rediscovering the kind of people who live there" (San Diego Union-Tribune). Lee reworks Updike and Cheever’s territory, focusing less on assimilation and more on Jerry’s navigation through a "golden 20th-century self-made American [life]" (New York Times Book Review).

A new "ethnic"? Aloft departs from Lee’s first two award-winning novels, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, which recount the experiences of immigrant outsiders. Jerry Battle (Battaglia in the prior generation) is a cultural insider. Aloft suggests that Lee is not restricted to a career as Asian Americans’ literary spokesperson. Instead, notes the Boston Globe, the novel shows how other Asian-American writers can "unshackle themselves from the limits of ethnic literature."

Flying solo. Since Jerry flies his plane only at the start and end of the novel, the metaphor for his escapist nature could feel forced. Should "such a lovely image sail through 300 pages, largely untouched?" asks the Detroit Free Press. Yet most critics adopted the metaphor, absence notwithstanding. Aloft "ends up," notes the Chicago Tribune, "as a homily in praise of gravity, though the ride that Lee provides fulfills the continued promise of lift."

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The writing, with the exception of an occasional bombastic passage, is clear, knowing, often humorous, sometimes mordant . ... In short, it’s a terrific book." Sharon Barrett

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Lee carefully navigates his novel so that it comes down on the harmless side of affirming human ties. … In English prose that rises to heights above merely mundane sights and thoughts, Aloft offers intimations of that [joyful] condition." Steven G. Kellman

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Readers will cringe at [Jerry’s] mistakes because they are the simplest of human missteps: He cares, but doesn’t show it until it’s too late." Jessica Slater

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"By turns drolly incisive and elegiac, penetrating and poignant, Aloft, though a departure for Lee and more stylistically colloquial than Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, is as provocative as it is evocative." Gordon Hauptfleisch

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Lee writes with humor and acuity, swirling comic wit and subtlety into scenes so mundane and yet so poignant that the heart sighs in recognition." Jackie Pray

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Whether you find the new book a joyous revelation, an ascent in Lee’s career, or a betrayal and a wrong turn depends, I think, on how much you had invested in him as a spokesman for a particular ethnic experience, and in how predictable you like your authors. … And Lee’s previously established preeminent theme—in the midst of life we are in death—forms the core of the book." Paul Di Filippo

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Like Richard Ford in Independence Day, Lee is extremely adept at satirizing this uniquely American and relentless obsession with real estate and home improvement, epitomized in Aloft by Battle’s son and wife and their nouveaux riches friends. … [But] Aloft isn’t a perfect novel." Don Lee

Hartford Courant 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[The prose] just doesn’t sound tough enough. … And although he may never convince us that a working stiff, even an upper-middle class working stiff, thinks like a poet-philosopher, he pulls us inside Jerry’s skin, and we share in all his love and confusion and his fully realized humanity." Kit Reed

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he most impressive thing about Aloft is Lee’s determination to resist the cliches of suburban dysfunction. … But there is enough life in Jerry—and around him, in the various generations of his messy, striving extended family—that half [of a character] is almost enough, and certainly better than nothing." A.O. Scott

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"I admit that I wanted an edgier novel than the one Lee has given us." Charles Matthews

Detroit Free Press 3 of 5 Stars
"Is Lee after a grander statement about the impotence of the modern American in the face of plenty (a thoroughly done genre, but never mind), which leaves him unable to savor life? … I’ll leave it to you to decide whether to subtract a point for weak character development, or whether just to chalk it up to some unexpected turbulence in Lee’s third outing." Marta Salij

Newsday 3 of 5 Stars
"Aloft, Lee’s latest, is chock-full of missteps. … Chang-rae Lee has loosed his tight authorial control and created a messy piece of genuine life." Claire Dederer

San Francisco Chronicle 1 of 5 Stars
"[D]espite this potentially heavy material, the book is surprisingly thin, the plot and characters sketched more like a film treatment that will depend on big stars and flashy direction to bring it to life." Ken Foster

Critical Summary

Lee, a Korean American named by The New Yorker as one of its 20 writers for the 21st century, positions Aloft within two major streams of postwar American literature: ethnic assimilation and suburbia. He blends both into a modern context, focusing on one man’s discovery of his place in a chaotic world that has already delivered acceptance and material comfort. It’s not a tale about suburban dysfunction, but a "story of hovering" between flight and reality (New York Times Book Review). Aloft shows that Lee can hold his own not only in suburban territory well-mapped by literary giants, but in a white man’s mind as well.

"For Lee and his protagonists," notes the Washington Post, "the Faulknerian motto about the inescapable past is the rule that, for better or worse, governs their lives." For Jerry, whose wistful, gentle, and confused voice pierces each page, the past nearly paralyzes him. Despite his escapist nature, he’s a likable guy on a healing path. He often lapses into his daughter’s postmodern jargon, which reveals Lee’s slack grip on his narrator’s voice. Indeed, Aloft’s prose is generally looser and less effective than in previous novels. Lee and his protagonist nonetheless act as insightful guides to modern life. Jerry takes curmudgeonly stabs at Long Island’s material obsessions; Lee mocks multiculturalism’s intellectual overkill. (Theresa’s fiancé writes about "The Problem with Being Sort of Himself—namely, the terribly conflicted and complicated state of being Asian and American and thoughtful and male.") Other characters seem thinner, defined by ethnicity. And the story of Jerry’s domestic mess takes too long to start, deflating the drama. Although the novel isn’t perfect, it strikes at the heart of alienation, identity, and belonging. And in our multicultural nation, "what could be more American than that?" (Boston Globe).