This rich emerald green with black and white contrasting colours has got to be one of the more gorgeous covers in the Penguin Drop Caps series. The initial L is in fact composed of two Ls, one a black woodblock style, the vertical line dotted with the windows of high-rise apartments, the other a white curlicue L dancing over top. Jessica Hische’s drop cap makes allusion to the New York setting of the novel, as well as the dual identities of the narrator, a Korean-American industrial spy.
On the back is the quote “Quell the old tongue, loosen the lips. Listen, the hawk and cry of the American city.” This perfectly captures Chang-Rae Lee’s lyrical style, his frequent use of the word quell (four times), and the themes of language and the urban melting-pot.
Rather than re-tell the story and risk spoiling it for you, I’d like to focus on three themes of the novel and what Native Speaker taught me about novel-writing.
Henry Park grew up speaking Korean, but has lost much of his fluency through being schooled in English, living in the suburbs and speaking English in all areas of his adult life. He’s mastered English, but still has a couple of words that give him trouble and won’t let him forget his Korean roots. His wife, Lelia, a WASPy American, is a speech therapist who works with children, both immigrants and native speakers, who are trying to improve their mastery of the sounds of English. She also writes poetry. We meet Henry and Lelia right in the middle of a low point in their marriage and one of the sources of conflict is that Henry tends to retreat into silence instead of engaging verbally with Lelia, a default strategy he calls a “blunt instrument”.
When he’s young, Henry and Lelia’s son Mitt learns to use a tape-recorder to capture their conversations. After his accidental death, sharing these tapes of his voice becomes a means for them to reconnect.
Though he’s a spy, what that really means for Henry is that he has to write reports about the people he’s investigating. For many years he’s the star writer at the office; his reports are the gold-standard to emulate. However, as he begins to work with the politician John Kwang, Henry’s writing style begins to fall apart and he is less able to communicate the facts his boss is waiting for. Kwang’s story hits too close to home.
Chang-Rae Lee has a great ear for the many accents of his characters: Hispanic, Greek, Chinese, Filipino, Caribbean, American… However, he doesn’t get tacky with trying to transcribe their pronunciation. He leaves out a few words here and there, or final consonants, and lightly, deftly conveys a whole accent in a few brushstrokes. That’s skill.
Henry’s mother dies when he’s young, Lelia’s parents are divorced, Henry and Lelia lose their beloved only son, Mitt, when he is seven years old, Henry’s colleague, Jack has just lost his wife to cancer. Every immigrant in the story deals with the ambiguous loss of leaving behind a familiar language and culture. And Henry, in his role of spy, has seen many people brought down by his probing into their lives. In fact, his last job was almost too much for him to handle emotionally since he got close to the Filipino psychoanalyst he was investigating and would have warned him of the danger he was in had he been given the chance. As momentum builds toward the climax, the death of two secondary characters is a major loss to the Kwang’s political campaign and ultimately sets in motion his undoing. But one loss is averted, that of Henry and Lelia’s marriage. I love how hard Henry tries to woo her back and tries to work on himself.
The Filipino psychoanalyst says to Henry, “Who, my young friend, have you been all your life?” This would be a good runner-up for the back cover quote, as it’s the central question of the novel. Is Henry Korean or American? How does his identity shift with the characters he plays as a spy? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? When, in exasperation, Lelia leaves him, her parting shot is a list of not-so-complimentary nouns. He wonders if this is the sum total of his identity.
Besides himself, Henry wonders about his son Mitt’s identity. He embodies the meeting of two ethnicities, two languages. Is his name “Mitt” a play on the word “Mix”? Or does it refer to a layer over the hand, hiding it without interfering with its mobility?
Another symbol of language’s role in influencing identity is the woman Henry’s father hires as a housekeeper after his wife dies. Henry calls this reserved, hard-working woman Ah-ju-ma, or aunt, but Lelia is aghast to discover one day that he doesn’t even know her real name. We can’t totally blame Henry for not knowing, but still, isn’t that how we treat those who are foreign to us, those we don’t want to accept? We have a title or category for them, but we never get to know their unique name.
Native Speaker is such a rich, complex work, I don’t have the space to get into its treatment of municipal poltics, illegal aliens, or espionage. You are just going to have to experience this lyrical, moving novel for yourself.
A novel-writer’s novel
Chang-Rae Lee is a master writer, and as I gear up to start my second novel, here are my takeaways.