Chang-rae Lee

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A Gesture Life

Lee, Chang-rae

Last Updated: Dec-06-2006
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


Franklin Hata, comfortably retired from his medical supply business, reflects on his life--a life that spans several continents, three cultures (ethnic Korean brought up in Japan and emigrating in adulthood to the U.S.), service as a medic in World War II (in the Imperial Army of Japan), adoptive fatherhood, and a fizzled out romance with a well-to-do suburban Caucasian widow. At first out of place in the wealthy New York suburb where he settled, Hata has worked hard to achieve acceptance there, taking pains to fit in, creating no disturbances, never complaining, even when provoked by thoughtless schoolchildren or narrow minded adults.

The major disappointment of his adult life has been his tempestuous relationship with his adopted mixed-race daughter, Sunny, who left his home to live on her own when only a teenager. Even failed parenthood, however, has been absorbed by Hata. For although Hata claims that he had always wished to "pass through with something more than a life of gestures," (299) in fact he has labored to maintain equilibrium with a carefully designed "gesture life" of daily routine and superficial social niceties.

In the idleness of retirement and the solitude of his large, empty Tudor home, disturbing memories impinge on these routines and force a re-evaluation of his life and his relationship with the estranged Sunny. As a young medic during World War II, Hata had undergone an emotional and moral crisis when he fell in love with one of the Korean "comfort women" brought into his care in the Japanese army camp (in Burma) to which he was assigned. In the midst of rape and murder, Hata had to make choices, and these choices he can no longer justify to himself.

Further, he comes to understand that his relationship with his daughter has been colored by those long ago events. "In a way, it was a kind of ignoring that I did, an avoidance of her as Sunny -- difficult, rash, angry Sunny -- which I masked with a typical performance of consensus building and subtle pressure, which always is the difficult work of attempting to harmonize one's life and the lives of those whom one cherishes." (284)

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