A GESTURE LIFE By Change-rae Lee Riverhead Books 356 pp., $23.95
Fitting in and conforming to existing standards appear to be the guidelines to a successful life for Franklin Hata, the protagonist of Chang-rae Lee's exceptional new novel, "A Gesture Life." Once again, this gifted young author has given us a beautifully tapestried story of seeking identity and acceptance in another culture while remaining separate from the tug of it.
For more than 30 years, "Doc" Hata has been an upstanding resident of Bedley Run, an affluent suburb outside New York City, where he had emigrated from Japan following World War II. This venerable man seems the epitome of responsibility, stepping through the minutiae of each day with thorough accountability. He is always at his appointed post, lives an orderly life, even meticulously prunes his property so as not to offend the neighbors.
Yet the reader soon begins to realize that Franklin Hata is emotionally unreliable as a narrator. He is so concerned with propriety and maintaining control that the telling moments of his life seem to have slipped away from him before he has realized their significance.
"All I wished for," he says, "was to be a part (if but a millionth) of the massing, and that I pass through with something more than a gesture life, a decorous existence of sign and shadow."
"Doc" Hata is Korean by birth, adopted at the age of 12 by a Japanese family. He has spent the better part of his life trying to be what he thinks others expect him to be: first, a dutiful Japanese son; next, an obedient, dependable medic in the Japanese Army, where his Korean parentage still causes undercurrents of prejudice; and, finally, a reputable Asian expatriate in a middle-class American community.
As soon as Lee establishes the routine of Hata's quiet life in retirement, a minor accident lands him briefly in the hospital. This makes him suddenly vulnerable and precipitates a series of events where he must begin to acknowledge the humanity of others and discover his own.
While all this is unfolding, Hata dredges back through his life, examining long-untouched memories. The reader learns, for instance, of Sunny, Hata's adopted daughter, who abruptly left his home after her rebellious high school years.
The pattern of this broken relationship with his daughter repeats itself with Mary Burns, a delightful widow who loves him dearly but slowly drifts away from their liaison as Hata refuses to emerge from his safe shell of detachment.
The mystery of Franklin Hata's careful and proper uninvolvement with life is slowly unraveled as he ruminates over his war years, when he was ordered to take charge of the well-being of a small group of Korean "comfort women" assigned as prostitutes to his camp.
It is not until the end of the book, when Sunny has reentered his sphere, that he is provided the possibility of life-saving redemption. He observes toward the end of the book, "I feel I have not really been living anywhere or anytime, not for the future and not in the past and not at all of-the-moment, but rather in the lonely dream of an oblivion, the nothing-of-nothing drift from one pulse-beat to the next, which is really the most bloodless marking-out, automatic and involuntary."
Chang-rae Lee's elegant and lustrous prose is precisely right as the voice of this touching and troubling man.
*Verity Ludgate-Fraser teaches junior-high English at Berkeley Hall School in Los Angeles.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society