Friday, March 05, 2004

So I pick up this week's New York Times Magazine and see, above Bill Murray's head, a startling headline: "An Asian-American Updike." Here I thought that Asian American writing was a young, vital literature, full of growth and innovation; and now it's gone and produced, of all things, an Updike. Sheesh.

Then I thought: Who on earth could this "Updike" be? It couldn't be anyone I'd ever heard of. And what would an "Asian American Updike" sound like, anyway? Was it really possible to imagine Updike's aggrieved voice of WASP male privilege--now mostly heard in crotchety and misogynist New Yorker reviews--transposed to an Asian American? (Imagine, for comparison, labeling some author "the black Updike" or, better yet, "the female Updike.")

And then I thought: Oh no. I know who this is going to be about. And I open the magazine and sure enough, there it is--a profile of Chang-Rae Lee.

Now, I'll confess to being at least a moderate fan of Lee's work. Native Speaker is, for my money, one of the smartest and most readable Asian American novels, and the high-gloss accomplishment of Lee's surfaces is generally earned by the often shocking hollowness beneath--a condition that Lee links obliquely, though never, to his credit, deterministically, to the experience of Asian Americans. Native Speaker is, in a lot of ways, an extended riff on Ellison's Invisible Man; Lee's Asian American protagonist is a private investigator capable of "passing," invisibly, in a wide range of social situtations (and ethnic categories).

But the Updike comparison gave me pause. Charles McGrath's profile is called "Deep in Suburbia," and I quickly realized that the idea of the Asian American Updike was really a corollary of the idea of Asian Americans as model minority--whiter than white, as it were--so that Lee's disappearance into the privileged suburbs of New Jersey could be made an analogue for Updike's own New England pedigree. (Much is made of Lee's education at Exeter and Yale.)

And, of course, it helps explain how the stiff-upper-lip New England patrician could be replaced by the Asian American; McGrath spares no stereotype in accounting for Lee's apparently "emotionless" personality:

Those who doubt his untroubled existence can point to the obvious: Lee is, to start with, a Korean-American, and Korean-Americans of his generation are known for concealing their feelings.

Since Lee is only about nine years older than I am, and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 3, I just have no idea where this statement is coming from, if not from the same idea of Oriental reserve that I got so worked up about (generationally inappropriate, it would seem) last April. Lee's own remarks in the essay show that he knows better, remarking of his mother, "how interesting and smart, and sometimes aggressive, she could be, but it was always in Korean. She could never be that person in English."

McGrath's profile is littered with these kinds of tidbits; at the same time that he's holding up Lee as a model of perfect assimilation, he presents it with a kind of disbelief, as if it were a mystery how any white community could simply accept Asians in their midst: " not to have had a problem fitting in or making firends at school, even though after the Lees moved to the suburbs he was usually the only Asian in his class." Hey, I've been there too. My own experience of it was that it wasn't until years later that I was able to think about the difference between usual childhood teasing and meaner stuff that might have come out of racism, precisely because of my isolation from other Asian Americans. As Lee puts it: "The funny thing about growing up in a town where you're one of a few Asian kids or minorities is you don't really see yourself. Everyone else sees you, and you get a kind of vibe, but you don't really see yourself."

It turns out Lee has a new book coming out. But the book I'd really like to see is Lee's abandoned first book, allegedly titled Agnew Belittlehead, which is described as "heavily influenced by Thomas Pynchon," with "both Byronic verse and fantastical or science-fiction elements," and "completely intellectualized" with "nothing to do with people, nothing to do with humanity." Robot Tim says: bring it on.

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