“There are those who would say that I too keenly sought approval and consensus, and if over the years I’ve erred on the side of being too grateful, well so be it. I think one person can hardly understand why another has conducted his life in such a way, how he came to commit certain actions and not others, whether he looks upon the past with mostly pleasure or equanimity or regret. It seems difficult enough to consider one’s own triumphs and failures with perfect verity, for it’s no secret that the past proves a most unstable mirror, typically too severe and flattering all at once, and never as truth-reflecting as people would like to believe.”
Once again, with Chang-rae Lee’s lyrical, quietly powerful novel A Gesture Life, a work of fiction is the lie that tells the deepest truths – who we really are, and the lengths we go to deny that truth.
In the charmingly rustic, affluent village of Bedley Run in upstate New York, Franklin Hata has built a life of tranquility, material success, and some distinction. An ethnic Korean born in Japan and raised by a prominent Japanese family, Hata served as a medical officer in the Japanese army in World War II. In the early sixties, he emigrated to the United States, where he carefully selected Bedley Run as the place to build a new life – it reminded him of the small Japanese city where he grew up. There, he settled and opened a medical and surgical supply store.
As the novel begins, more than thirty years later, Hata is early into retirement. He can, and does, look back with satisfaction on the fruits of his hard work and more importantly, the success of his assimilation into the community. From the beginning, he had carefully tended every personal interaction and ensuing relationship as he tended his immaculately cultivated garden. He recalls the “few small difficulties” in the early years – chalked statements out front on the sidewalk, occasional taunts, axle grease slathered on the dumpster handles – but he never reported them or confronted the perpetrators. And eventually, they became his patrons after all – “they would speak to me as if they had never done the things I knew they had done, they would just make affable small talk and docilely ask my advice as they might from any doctor, their eyes wavering and expectant.”
“The good Doc Hata,” as he is now known to the inhabitants of Bedley Run, has achieved the American Dream. He resolves to direct his energies “toward the reckoning of what stands in the here and now.” In spite of his efforts however, amidst the ordinary events and pleasantries of daily life, he begins to realize that “this happy blend of familiarity and homeyness and what must be belonging, is strangely beginning to disturb me.” Long buried memories begin to intrude. Alone in his beautiful home, swimming in his pool, having achieved what we all hope for in our later years, he observes himself:
“It strikes me that it could be a scene of some sadness as well, of a beauty empty and cold. It is an unnerving thing, but when I was underneath the water, gliding in that black chill, my mind’s eye suddenly seemed to carry to a perspective high above, from where I could see the exact telling shapes of all: the spartan surfaces of the pool deck, the tight-clipped manicures of the garden, the venerable house and trees, the fetching narrow street. And what caught me too, was that I knew there was also a man in that water amidst it all, a secret swimmer who, if he could choose, might always go silent and unseen.”
But the good Doc Hata can no longer choose to go silent and unseen. His carefully constructed life of propriety and accommodation, gesture upon gesture, including one a most profound gesture of atonement, begins to unravel. Masterfully, Lee slowly reveals the mystery, the secret shame buried in the deepest part of this man’s soul.
Beautifully written though it was, this novel was difficult to read – it is a painful story. For a significant time into the book, I could not decide if Hata is a sympathetic protagonist or not. He is inscrutable. I am still not sure and I’ve recently re-read the book. But it doesn’t matter – just as with my initial reading, I was again glad that I stayed with him. The book is a moving reminder of how easy it is to judge from the safe distances of time and space. For me, it asks those most difficult questions – what would we have done, what could we have done.