The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee
There’s a lot of sex in The Surrendered, Chang-rae Lee’s most recent novel, but rarely does there seem to be love involved. Sex can be an ugly, terrific act, and here Lee tears into all of its potential for emotional flagellation. The author depicts sex used as a crutch and as a drug, as a weapon and bartering tool in war. And for Sylvie, Hector and June -- characters who come to be defined by their often unattainable wants -- it represents what actualization of desire can be.
The Surrendered follows three characters whose already-complicated lives intersect at a Korean war orphanage in the 1950s. As the novel shifts between settings and points of view, we find that events that occur at the orphanage (chiefly, a fatal fire) make it impossible for the people involved to truly move on -- even if they do not acknowledge it themselves.
The reader is first introduced to June Han, a flinty war orphan, and wayward Hector Brennan, a young American soldier working odd jobs at the orphanage. Similar to his attitude toward his chronic womanizing and drinking (from which he never seems fully sated, or truly drunk), Hector has stayed on in post-war Korea because of an uncertainty of what else there is to do. Hector is as stoic and solitary as June, but the two relate only in their obsession over Sylvie Tanner, the third member of the novel’s flawed trio.
Sylvie, a reverend’s wife and missionaries’ daughter, is a sympathetic maternal figure and an object of sexual desire for both Hector and June. But Sylvie’s affair with Hector and too-close friendship with June -- one that convinces the girl that the Tanner couple will adopt her when they go back to the States -- are both marked as dead-ends, because Sylvie is plagued by ghosts of her own.
Over the course of nearly 500 pages, The Surrendered travels between the characters’ individual stories, in periods of time before and after they meet: in Korea in the midst of civil war; two decades earlier, in China during Japanese occupation; the languid, working-class town of Ilion, New York during Hector’s childhood. When we are reintroduced to June and Hector in the novel’s present day -- 1980s -- unbeknownst, they have been living across the Huron River from each other, in Manhattan and Fort Lee, New Jersey, respectively. They meet once again after some coercion on June’s part, and it is then that the complex stories behind their relationships with each other and with Sylvie begin to reveal themselves.
Lee is arguably one of the best English-language fiction writers working now. He’s been showered in praise since his debut novel, Native Speaker, and deservedly so. (Though his work previous to The Surrendered, Aloft, received mixed reviews.) There is genuine pleasure in reading Lee’s work out loud. Even the most mundane moments take on a certain sensuality because of his ability to massage words to take on a previously forgotten weightiness.
Very early on in the book, when June is fleeing her village with what remains of her family, her younger siblings find a haul of canned goods in the carcass of a downed American plane. Though June’s mother cuts up a block of Spam for her children, she herself refuses it, “professing not to like its smell… though while she was gorging on the salty, slick meat June saw her mother take a taste of her fingertips, her eyes half shut, losing herself for a moment in another time and place." It is not the last part of that line that is most arresting -- characters seem to lose themselves “in another time and place” fairly often -- but what precedes it, the simple description of savoring something as pedestrian, and grotesque, as Spam.
Elsewhere in the novel, Lee’s talents show themselves in other deceptively small moments and details: Sylvie and June “coolly whispering to each other like a pair of thieves”; Hector’s sense of his own smell, “this dried animal reek, this lower-order tone”; the same character’s imagining of what his life would be like if he had stayed in Ilion, playing out his days “in a circle no larger than the carry of a human shout.”
Lee is also clever in that he encourages the reader to dislike his characters. In the middle-age lives of Hector and June, the author exhumes the past actions and emotions that these characters would least like to address. Secrets about what happened during the last days at the orphanage aren’t meant to be easily swallowed by the reader, either. The more The Surrendered reveals about its protagonists, the more difficult it becomes to sympathize with either. Confessions of monstrous behavior emerge late in the book, just as things get more difficult for June and for Hector, as if Lee needs to maintain an equilibrium where it’s hard to take sides with his characters.
For all of Lee’s writing that is often astonishing, almost absurdly good, there are also moments where he falters. Even when the language is beautiful, the plot that it forms is shaky. The events that lead up to June and Hector’s uneasy reunion -- as June, now dying of cancer, drags Hector on a last-wish trip to Italy, to locate the wayward son born out of their one-time coupling -- are near impossible to believe. Certain mysteries about Sylvie Tanner revolve around an old cathedral town, bloodied a century ago in another war, and Lee convinces us that June’s obsessive love for Sylvie (more than for her son) has borne her there as she nears death. But in order to get his characters to Solferino, Lee enlists a private investigator, a freakish suburban car crash and a mid-life love interest for Hector; you finish the novel wishing he hadn’t. The existence of June and Hector’s son, Nicholas, is also annoying, as Lee uses the modified war-time trope of pregnancy after the characters have sex once; this comes at the end of a for-convenience marriage that brought June over to the states, and she leaves their shared apartment for good after the act.
But another part of the The Surrendered that would seem wholly unbelievable in the work of a lesser writer -- this character of Hector, who is a physical superman and all-out emotional failure -- is one of Lee’s most successful devices in the novel. Hector functions as a protagonist as well as a symbol, starting with his name and birthplace and sheer physicality. But Hector, the prince of Troy (and Ilion is an alternate name for the ancient city), is ultimately killed by Achilles, as Hector points out himself, to his adoring father. Death doesn’t happen to Hector in this novel, at least not his own. But his burden to carry with him the deaths he has caused, directly and indirectly, as well as the dark confessions of June and Sylvie, may be a worse, Beckettian fate.
For a lead character, Hector is largely silent. Because Lee allows us into the character’s head, teeming with thoughts, it may take a moment to realize that Hector’s brief spoken interactions with other characters are rare and his outbursts rarer still. But like the best quiet characters, he also gets some of the best lines of the novel.
His tirade, when she refuses to see him anymore, reveals the inner character of Sylvie, as well as his own and June’s, too. “[Y]ou’re like me,” he yells at her. “You’re frail and selfish, but you’re reckless, too. You’re a whore for love. Hope is your drug.” But what Hector doesn’t realize is that these concepts of love, hope and desire don’t have straight definitions for people like them. The Surrendered becomes a study of how these human beings navigate the places where their flawed understanding of each other overlaps.
The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee