Chang Rae Lee is a tremendously gifted writer, and so it pained me to have to put down his latest book, The Surrendered, after 231 pages. After I decided to quit reading, I wrote the following email to my writer friend, describing why I was giving up and what I think about the distinctives of really great literature:
I got to page 231 and literally, physically had to talk myself out of throwing up more times than I can remember. I simply can’t finish this book. I feel like the book devolved into Lee trying to figure out how he could write more graphic and sickening scenes of violence and depravity with some vague bits of story thrown in between. Certainly he did not add enough story to keep me reading or to tone down the sickening scenes. Other than the little girl/grown woman who was the first main character, I could care less about any of the rest of the characters, whether they live or die. In fact, I wish they would all die because they are tiresome nihilists with absolutely no redeeming value to the story, and that way I could get back to the first woman’s story.
I’m not being a prude. I know horrifically violent and depraved things happen during wars. I think it’s important to know that. I think one of the key components of literature is to be a voice for the voiceless and Asian conflicts of the 20th century are not very well understood in the west. It’s important to make real to people the horrible things people suffered so that they won’t suffer them again.
However, the second key component of literature is that it has to shine a light on the way out. It has to offer some glimmer of redemption and way forward. I don’t necessarily mean in a Judeo-Christian way, but if you have no redemption in fiction you just have Nietschean nihilistic violence for its own sake, and that is not worthwhile in my opinion. I suppose if an author is Nietschean (and very few people really are, even if they say they are) then his fiction would necessarily have nihilistic undertones and it would be hard to put in the redemptive aspects. But I don’t want to read it.
Horrific violence and depravity have a place in literature to expose flaws in society and explain motivations. The best examples I can think of are Holocaust literature and 19th century Russian literature. Those were similar types of events to what Lee describes in Korea and China, but the difference is the redemption. Great literature shows that yes, humans are depraved and left to ourselves without the constraints of society and morality we are base and horrible, but we also have glimmers of redemptive qualities like love and kindness and that we have a human spirit that can overcome even the most dreadful past and we always have choices even when it seems like we don’t.
I feel like that is entirely missing in The Surrendered. Entirely. The characters aren’t human. They are banal, self-absorbed train wrecks, but they aren’t human. You never see them making a choice or struggling to get themselves out of their spirals. Moreover, there is really no reason for about half the violence scenes in the first 200+ pages of the book. The first chapter scenes were so layered that the entire mess of the Korean War and the dreadful impact it had on non-combatants was powerfully encapsulated. But then the next 200 pages could have been condensed to 50. Scene after laborious scene accomplished the same thing, and I got to the point where I wanted to say “OK, Mr. Lee, here’s your gold star – you proved you could write about a 13 year old girl experimenting sexually. Now, can we please return to some sort of story or theme? Seriously, what are you trying to say about this character that you haven’t already told me in 40 other similar scenes about her being sexually selfish and messed up?”
Anyway, the book seems like it was written by an author who was trying to prove his bona fides as a literary author, which is weird since Lee already is. I wish he would have written a book that addressed something about war or culture or relationships or the effect of childhood trauma on adults. Maybe the second half gets into all that, but life is too short and I hate throwing up.
This is why I probably wouldn’t be any good in a MFA program. I can’t stand writing that is out to prove some sort of technical prowess rather than telling a story or saying something something thought provoking about human nature.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. However, if you click through to Amazon from this review, I suggest you purchase Lee’s earlier book Native Speaker, which is far, far superior.