‘Aloft’ scrutinizes trials of modern familyChang-Rae Lee’s novels are regarded by many as some of the best examples of 21st century American literature. His first two novels, “Native Speaker” and “A Gesture Life,” were received with critical acclaim for their intensely real interpretations of seemingly everyday lives.
Indeed, Mr. Lee’s penchant for capturing the unnoticed tenets of banality has earned him the reputation as the literary representative for today’s socioeconomic status quo.
His latest work, “Aloft,” is somewhat of a divergence from his former novels. While the distinctions are fairly subtle, they affect the style of Lee’s storytelling considerably. This deviation has earned “Aloft” mixed reviews from critics.
“Aloft” gives readers a look into the mundane life of semi-retired Long Island contractor Jerry Battle, who’s nearing 60. As the inheritor of his father’s company, Battle Brothers Brick and Mortar, and the resident of an affluent suburban community in Long Island, Jerry lives in a tepid swirl of anticlimactic relationships and a slowly crumbling family life.
Jerry tools about aimlessly in his nominal golden years. Too jaded and unwilling to address the entropy that affects his family, Jerry escapes by flying recreationally in a two-seater propeller plane half a mile above Long Island. Here he achieves clarity, catharsis and perspective amidst the clear blue and white that supersedes the dull tones of his earthbound existence.
But Jerry is forced to ground himself in the reality of shattering circumstances. His postmodern scholar daughter Theresa, pregnant and diagnosed with cancer, adamantly refuses treatment. Jerry’s irritable father, Hank, suddenly escapes from his assisted living facility, and his over-ambitious son, Jack, is rapidly running Battle Brothers Brick and Mortar into the ground.
When his long-term girlfriend, Rita Reyes, finally leaves after waiting for him to marry her for almost 20 years, Jerry’s old ghosts begin to haunt him. The almost surreal memory of his Asian wife Daisy’s death ignites a struggle in Jerry to redefine his perspectives and bring his life together.
What ensues is a slow, gradual process of discovery that reveals Jerry’s strengths and weaknesses to him. With his family compelled to stand together under the pressure rending it apart, Jerry’s roundabout introspections regarding personal history and the present come full circle.
Readers who thought they had Mr. Lee figured out after his first two novels will find a stylistic twist as unexpected as any of Jerry’s elaborate musings. Because of the wholly different approach Mr. Lee takes this time in his discussion of ethnic struggles, “Aloft” is not as intense and personal as his other two novels.
However, he retains the essence of his lyrical prose and manages to craft a remarkable examination of the trials that modern American families face. He also never entirely shuns his former themes, retaining a number of Asian-American characters throughout the novel who contribute to creating much of the novel’s depth.
If there’s one problem with “Aloft,” it is that the novel could have easily worked without the symbolism of denying life’s problems through self-absorbed escape. Yet the theme pans out delicately, conveying Mr. Lee’s pensive message of realizing one’s identity and struggle adequately.
by Phil Chang
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