Franklin Hata, the 72-year-old narrator of Chang-rae Lee's quietly affecting second novel, A Gesture Life (Riverhead Books), has achieved what some might call the quintessential American dream. In the ritzy New York suburb of Bedley Run, where he has lived for 30 years, he is affectionately known as "Doc" Hata, the affable owner of Sunny Medical Supply. A Japanese immigrant once living in penury, Hata (once Kurohata) now occupies a "realty dream come true," a splendidly restored Tudor revival complete with a stone swimming pool, crochet lawn, and formal gardens. Once made to feel "not unwelcome" in the leafy environs of this Cheeverish community, Hata has become "unofficially, its primary citizen, the living, breathing expression of what people here wanted--privacy and decorum and the quietude of hard-earned privilege."
But A Gesture Life reveals Hata's life to have been, like his home, "a lovely standing forgery." His highly visible successes have come at the price of a Faustian bargain with his past. As the novel opens, events have tickled Hata's sense of mortality, and made him wonder if the bargain was worth it. The store that once seemed an unshakable source of pride and respect has deteriorated under new ownership, its gleaming window displays grown dusty with neglect. Hata begins to "consider how quickly the memory of the store will fade away, once it reopens as something else...and how swiftly, too, the appellation of "Doc Hata" will dwindle and pass from the talk of the town."
Then Hata accidentally sets fire to his living room, nearly destroying his life's crowning achievement. While he recovers from smoke inhalation, the only person who comes to visit him is Liv Crawford, the high-energy realty agent bidding for the sale of his home. In the hospital Hata learns that his former love interest Mary Burns has recently died. There he also learns that his estranged daughter Sunny is back in the area.
Returning to his large, empty house, Hata feels suddenly lonely, the house's spaciousness now seeming gaudy in light of its sole occupant. He begins to recall his tumultuous relationship with Sunny, whom he adopted as a toddler, and how she spited his attempts to provide her the accouterments of a well-to-do life. At age 16 she ran away from home with a notorious drug dealer while Hata worried over the shame it could bring to his household. Before Sunny leaves she makes an observation that haunts him now: "All I've ever seen is how careful you are with everything. With our fancy big house and this store and all the customers. How you sweep the sidewalk and nice-talk to the other shopkeepers. You make a whole life out of gestures and politeness."
As with Henry Park, the much younger intelligence-gatherer who narrated Lee's first book, Native Speaker, Hata's politeness sets his emotional remove in sharp relief. Later this very quality causes Mary Burns to give up on reaching Hata in any deep way.
In a series of flashbacks, Hata traces the roots of this aloofness to his experiences as a medic in World War II. Isolated in a bivouac far from real action, Hata's captain requisitioned five Korean comfort women who ostensibly volunteered for their morale-boosting roles. When they arrive Hata is shocked; they are all girls of 14 or younger. As a medic Hata must keep them healthy and able to perform their nightly duties. He quickly falls in love with one of them, an educated Korean-born Japanese-raised girl whom the company surgeon secludes and gives preferential treatment. When Hata, in perhaps his last irrational act, attempts to prevent her plundering by his fellow soldiers, he winds up effecting an even greater tragedy.
Told in the register of Hata's formal, achingly polite locution, A Gesture Life strongly calls to mind Kazuio Ishiguro's Remains of the Day. There is an elegant beauty to the restraint Lee imposes on his prose, one that precisely recreates the inner chill of a man, such as Hata, who has made himself unreachable. Contrasted with the cloying loveliness of his beautiful suburban home, Hata's emotional state blossoms as a night flower, shooting outward with each visitation to his murky past.
Once again, Lee has managed many things at once. This is a novel about family life, about the dangers of assimilation, and the differences between Japanese and Korean culture. Most successful and moving, though, is Lee's evocation of what it means to live with regret, of pulling oneself "blindly through a mysterious resistance whose properties are slowly revealing themselves beneath one, in flame-like roils and tendrils, the black fires of the past."