After greatly enjoying Chang-rae Lee’s first book, Native Speaker, I was looking forward to his next work. While it covers important themes and topics and was well-written, I found A Gesture Life much less engrossing and more difficult to engage with than Lee’s previous work.
I think my problem getting into the book was that the main character is utterly unlikeable, but not in an interesting villainous way. Rather, he is totally banal, living his life on the surface, never achieving deep relationships, contenting himself with gestures rather than actual acts of conviction (hence the title, “A Gesture Life”). If you can stick it out through the first section of the novel however, you’ll be much more interested in Lee’s dealing with Japanese occupation armies during World War II. That topic, while difficult and violent (horrifically so, I should warn you; if you can’t stomach descriptions of wartime atrocities this book is not for you), is important. One of Lee’s main themes in this book is what political philosopher Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil” – and Lee does an excellent job of showing how ordinary people become complicit in horrible crimes. As a society we need to understand this about human nature so we can be on the lookout for it in ourselves and our culture.
I was interested that Lee ended the book without any hint of redemption for the main character and wondered what the author was saying with that choice about human capacity for evil, someone’s ability to change, human nature, and so forth. This really would be an excellent choice for a book club if your club members are inclined to philosophical discussion and can handle historically accurate violence.
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