When she temporarily walks out, Henry's wife, Lelia, hands him "a list" of who he is. She writes, among other things: "You are surreptitious . . . B plus student of life . . . illegal alien . . . emotional alien . . . genre bug . . . yellow peril: neo-American . . . stranger . . . follower . . . traitor. . . ."
Like the author, Chang-rae Lee, Henry is a Korean-American. Instead of a writer he is a spy; but it is clear that his spy condition is more important as a symbol than as a plot element. The plot of "Native Speaker" is garish and strained, in fact. The novel's strength lies in its portrait of a man whose national and cultural identities live a double life inside him.
Over the past 20 years the fictional mosaic of America has been filled in by writers of Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Caribbean origin, among others. Each depicts the shocks, gains, losses and alterations from the interplay of an immigrant culture with an established one; otherwise, each is entirely different.
The Cuban-American family matrix contains a civilization largely unlike that of a Mexican-American family--a fact that no longer ought to surprise us. The Chinese-American families depicted by Gish Jen and Maxine Hong Kingston--different from each other, of course--represent a rich and elaborate communal tradition. Chang-rae Lee's Korean-Americans offer a stark contrast: a painfully laborious and grimly isolated striving.
The emotional heart of "Native Speaker" and by far its most interesting aspect is the narrator's--Henry's--recollections of his immigrant father, and the anchoring these recollections provide to his hyperactive and far less convincing present-day story.
The father's money was painfully acquired in a fruit and vegetable business that started with nothing but hard work, and ended up with five well-placed stores in Manhattan. It has allowed Henry to grow up in the suburbs, go to a good college, and get a job whose antiseptic and well-paid abstraction is the antithesis of fruit handling. Antiseptic, but hardly clean: Henry works for a private intelligence agency. Its specialty is infiltrating immigrant communities on behalf of financial or political establishments anxious to know about any threat they may pose to their interests.
At the point the book begins, Lelia, a remedial English teacher, leaves for a love affair in Italy--she is fed up with her husband's masks and with what she calls "Henryspeak." Also Henry has botched an assignment. He was to keep an eye on a Philippine psychoanalyst suspected of organizing support in the United States for the deposed (now dead) Ferdinand Marcos. Henry had enrolled as a patient but made the mistake of letting himself slide into sympathetic transference. His bosses--a chilly, blithe Wasp and a warm, avuncular Greek--all but abduct him from the case, and not long afterward the doctor dies in an "accident."
With the greatest solicitousness--and an edge of threat--Henry is given a second chance. He is to infiltrate the entourage of John Kwang, a charismatic Korean-American councilman from the New York City borough of Queens. Young and appealing, Kwang has made a fortune from a small empire that started with dry-cleaning equipment and built up to manufacturing and real estate holdings up and down the East Coast. More to the point, he has begun to unite the various ethnic communities in Queens and to win the confidence of black leaders whose following has been in bitter and sometimes violent conflict with Korean shopkeepers. He may become a threat to the mayor.
What follows is an elaborate chronicle of scheming, duplicity and violence. Henry will become more and more closely drawn to Kwang, who takes him into his confidence. For a while it seems that he may resolve his own internal split. Perhaps it will not be necessary to choose between his Korean heritage and his American ambitions, and to use the latter to betray the former. Perhaps Kwang proves you can make it as both a Korean and an American. Nothing is as it seems, though; corruption and disguise are the universal price of success. Henry will end by resigning ambition and helping Lelia--now returned and reconciled--in her job of teaching immigrant children to speak English.
Lee's story of political skulduggery, a chilly corruption and a paranoid world maneuvered by hidden forces is written with a fair amount of awkwardness and a fair lack of skill. Kwang could be any ambitious political idealist turned bad. Henry's ruthless spymasters have the deceptive geniality of Le Carre characters but lack their fine and particular needles of ice. Lelia is inert: a remedial instrument to help Henry abandon his masks. Their lovemaking is so remote that we may feel we have passed by a hotel door incautiously left open.
The book's life comes mainly from Henry's recollection of his father and of the harsh silence with which he made his way. He swept floors, worked 14 hours a day, and kept vigilant, relentless track of each day's incremental gains. For a while, the family would picnic with other struggling Koreans, all of whom contributed to an investment fund--a "ggeh"--from which each, by turn, could withdraw the capital to set up a small business. Once they all began to prosper, the community broke up. Henry's father moved the family to a suburb among American neighbors he never came to know.
While the struggle was still going on, Henry's mother--who died partway along--would greet her husband's return each night with the same three sentences: "You must be hungry." "You come home so late." "I hope we made enough money today." When, in his teens, Henry sought to engage his silent father in conversation by asking about his day, his mother erupted in fury. Don't you realize, she demanded, that he hates his work, that he cannot stand selling vegetables, that he gave up his college engineering degree and his entire idea of himself in order to make a place in the United States for his family?
Lee has written a bleak portrayal of an immigrant society newer and rawer than that, say, of the Chinese and Japanese who have been coming here for generations. His book is raw as well, in its story and much of its writing. Still, the figure of Henry's father, whose love is expressed in sacrifice, whose sacrifice is expressed in harshness and whose harshness distills into an odd hint of poetry, is a memorable one.