Author: Chang-rae Lee
Publisher: Riverhead Books/Penguin Group, USA
Page Count: 343
By Rev. Mark Ralls
(UMCom)—On the surface, Jerry Battle’s life couldn’t be better. Semi-retired at 59, he has money in the bank and time on his hands. A beautiful girlfriend. Successful kids. Plenty of friends. With all this, why does he feel so rotten?
Battle is the despondent protagonist of Chang-rae Lee’s newest novel, Aloft. Lee’s first two novels, including the PEN/Hemingway Award winner Native Speaker, feature Korean-Americans struggling with their identity as they assimilate into a new culture. In Aloft, Lee shifts his attention to a cultural insider already living out the American dream.
Yet, Battle still struggles. He is paralyzed by the nagging sense of emptiness that so often accompanies wealth and stability. In this way, he is reminiscent of other famous characters in American literature. John Cheever’s Neddy Merrill (The Swimmer) copes by scaling neighbors’ fences and stroking a few laps in their pools. Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling (The Moviegoer) endures his emptiness by sitting through double matinees. For Battle, the answer is flight. He is only at peace with himself when he is aloft, flying solo in his three-seater Cessna “a half mile above Earth [where] everything looks perfect to me.”
Battle’s favorite pastime is a metaphor for his life. He longs to live above the fray, to escape the messy entanglements of love and family. Yet, his emotional detachment has caused something inside him to slip out of gear. He no longer simply goes aloft. He is aloft, emotionally and spiritually untethered. He has severed the ties that ought to bind. Recalling his part-time position as a travel agent, Jerry admits, “I’m one to leap from the mat to aid all manner of … tourists and other wide-eyed foreigners but when it comes to loved ones and family I can hardly ungear myself from the La-Z-Boy….”
Implicit in Lee’s portrait of Battle is a critique of contemporary American life. We may not live in Battle’s world of mini-mansions, subzero freezers and private tennis courts, but we probably recognize at least some of Jerry’s problem in ourselves. In an age characterized by the dogged pursuit of more – more possessions, more stability – many of us feel disconnected, aloft. Lee’s novel helps us to see that an unexpected feature of achieving our American dream is a vague dissatisfaction, a listless distraction from the things that matter most.
Lee nudges us toward such self-reflection by creating an unusually intimate bond between reader and protagonist. He achieves this through several creative techniques. For instance, he has Battle occasionally interrupt his narrative with a direct address to the reader, like some actor slyly grinning into the camera. Once when Battle is flying, he experiences an odd rush watching his Long Island home fade beneath him. “I’m disappearing,” he thinks. Then, he whispers an aside to the reader: “Let me reveal a secret,” Battle confesses, “I have been disappearing for years.”
Such “unscripted moments” not only allow us to see the depth of Battle’s problem, they also may help us to recognize the ways we are diminished when we withdraw from the ones we love.
Lee also restricts our view of the world to Battle’s distorted perspective. We see the world solely through his eyes. As a result, other characters seem undeveloped. Even primary characters, such as Battle’s children, Jack and Theresa, come off as two-dimensional. While this may seem like a weakness in the writing, it is actually an effective means of empathy. We are forced to walk in Battle’s shoes and experience his life as our own.
This intimate connection makes it all the more jarring when a series of personal crises threaten to awaken Battle from his self-imposed slumber. His girlfriend walks out. His pregnant daughter is diagnosed with cancer. His son is caught “cooking the books” at the family business. And, when it seems things couldn’t get any worse, Battle’s irascible father goes AWOL from his nursing home.
Somewhere in these terrible events lies the possibility of redemption. When the novel ends we find him sitting in a large hole. The earthy image couldn’t contrast more with Battle’s favorite hobby. Battle is beginning to see that aloft is no way to live. He is reconsidering his motto, “There is no use flying if you can’t fly alone” and rediscovering the peculiar joys of gravity. We leave him muttering to himself, “I’ll go solo no more, no more.”
Aloft is no easy read. Yet, it is an important book with an important message. It is a parable for our age, warning us against the peculiar dangers of our upwardly mobile pursuits and calling us back to the ties that bind us to one another and keep our feet firmly planted on the ground.
The Rev. Mark Ralls is pastor at St. Timothy United Methodist Church in Brevard, N.C.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.