1. 4.Chang-rae Lee’s Literary Palimpsests in Aloft

4.Chang-rae Lee’s Literary Palimpsests in Aloft

成城大学 Yuko Matsukawa


Many reviewers have noted that the protagonist of Chang-rae Lee’s novel Aloft (2004), Jerry Battle, is a descendant of other middle-aged denizens of literary suburbia. For instance, in her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani calls Jerry “a spiritual relative of . . . John Updike’s Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom” and describes Jerry’s terrain as “a small patch of Long Island somewhere between Cheever country and Gatsby’s vanished green Eden.” Lev Grossman, writing for Time, notes, “Lee isn’t the first to point out that the suburbs hide uncharted depths of misery and discontentment―Updike, Rick Moody and John Cheever, among many others, have been here before.”

Indeed, Aloft can easily be read as a novel that is concerned with real estate, class, and the lives of the people who live in suburbia. This makes the novel familiar, with its retired Italian American male protagonist whose life is falling apart in the suburbs, but it has also disappointed some reviewers because they see it as a typical male mid-life crisis novel, formulaic and clichéd.

I see Aloft as going beyond the simply formulaic: Lee takes advantage of the form of the suburban novel to engage in conversations with previous literary works to respond to issues of representation and reimagine those works in the twenty-first century. He does this through Aloft’ s literary allusions to works by writers such as Updike and Cheever―the more obvious suspects―but also earlier writers who predate the post-World War II surge in suburban growth in the United States. For example, that Jerry’s long-deceased Korean wife is named Daisy immediately conjures up images of Daisy Buchanan from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as well as the protagonist of Henry James’s Daisy Miller. In Aloft,Jerry’s ex-girlfriend Rita points out how central Daisy is to Jerry’s existence: “But everything you do―or don’t want to do, more like―has an origin in what happened to Daisy, which at this point is really what happened to you.” Aloft’s Daisy eerily follows the trajectory of those previous Daisies who were tragic and unreadable objects of desire; furthermore, by making his updated Daisy Korean, Lee also charts the porous racial contours of contemporary American life. In this presentation, I explore how Lee simultaneously maps and criticizes his literary heritage through these palimpsests he creates in the novel.