Writing: The Surrendered
Chang Rae Lee’s The Surrendered
By Eunice Wong
Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer
March 9, 2010.
An alluring, naked woman, in Chang-Rae Lee’s haunting novel The Surrendered, appears in a nightmare. She scratches her shimmering skin and gracefully peels it off, “slowly skinning herself and revealing… not blood and tissue but the charred ruins of her insides, all blackness and collapse.”
It is a fitting symbol for the book, both exquisite and gruesome. Lee’s writing, intimate and restrained, is a deceptively elegant vessel for atrocity. Horror hangs over the book. The stream of calamity is constant: the privation and violence of war; freak accidents; rape; murder; small-town tragedies; terminal illness; addiction; and the slow grind of failure and thwarted hopes.
The Surrendered begins in Korea in the 1950s and moves back and forth to Manchuria in the 1930s and New York City, New Jersey, and Italy in the 1980s. It explores the lifelong imprint of war on three deeply damaged people: June Han, Hector Brennan, and Sylvie Tanner.
The book opens with eleven-year-old June, an orphan caught in the grip of the Korean War. The brutal deaths of her parents and older siblings have left her struggling to protect her younger brother and sister, fighting off famine and marauders. Close to starvation, she encounters Hector Brennan, an American soldier appalled by the senseless and sadistic violence of combat. He leads her to an orphanage run by the Reverend Ames Tanner and his wife, Sylvie.
Hector and June are both passionately drawn to Sylvie Tanner, “a mother and a lover and a kind of child, too.” Sylvie is vibrant but profoundly traumatized by a horrific episode during her girlhood in Manchuria, where her parents were missionaries, during the Japanese invasion of the 1930s. Hector and June’s attraction to Sylvie is that of the damaged seeking the damaged, those “who by the curse of war had been sentenced to be alone… compelled to make [their] way back to life by the force of [their] own tireless will.”
Thirty years later, June, a businesswoman in New York City, is dying of cancer. Her last wish is to find her enigmatic son who has disappeared in Europe. She locates Hector, now living in a working-class New Jersey town, his life a bog of apathy and self-loathing. The dying June persuades Hector, although they have not spoken in three decades, to join her on her final quest in Italy.
The darkness of The Surrendered is unrelenting. But Lee also creates subtle filaments of light, which glow more brightly in the black that surrounds them. Mercy, hope, the desire for “the haven of a simple, decent love,” and survival – these are the inner frame of The Surrendered:
[Sylvie] remembered her father telling her in Manchuria how this world was littered with those cut off in mid-bloom, all this wasted beauty and grace, and that it was their humble task to gather as many as they could and replant them. It didn’t matter that they were stomped and torn. That the soil was rocky and poor. She must be the sun and rain. As long as she kept vigilant, as long as they never gave up, the blooms could thrive again.
June, her capacity to love stunted forever by the war, is one of the blighted. She claims, at the end of her life, “I’ve never taken care of anyone.” But as a girl she would have given her life to protect her younger siblings, even as she struggled with involuntary fantasies of their death: the end of her burden.
Endurance, running alongside the yearning for oblivion, is the core of The Surrendered. The vivacious, high-spirited Sylvie is addicted to the floating void of morphine. Hector, a marvel of physical resilience, has one wish: “to go bury [himself] for good.”
June is the spiky embodiment of the dogged, weary will to live. On the eve of the Korean War she is a “too-tall, soft-spoken girl… content to play with much younger children.” She is forged by hunger, terror, and violence into “That orphan girl, cast in iron,” whose purpose is “to survive, always survive.” The mutations of war leave her a cold, unkind woman, deformed by the cruelty she witnessed and endured, and determined not to surrender to her ravaging illness:
Her legs were quivering and the pains from her belly and up her back and neck jolted her with each measured step, but she clenched her teeth and told herself as she had throughout her life whenever she needed to persevere that it was wartime again… when every last cell of her was besieged by hunger and fear but was utterly resolved not to flag, and never did.
And June, like all these characters maimed by war, finally yearns for oblivion:
…to shed the tyranny of this body always aching and yearning, always prickly and too aware. Even more than death, she was sure, she hated this enduring. This awful striving that was not truly living.
The cost of the “ceaseless, spearing will to persist,” Lee understands, is a terrible emotional weariness that, in its unguarded moments, longs to succumb to death, to be extinguished. But it is the persistence to live that The Surrendered honors – annihilation’s opposite, and yet also its twin. The scorching hunger for more life is carved from the contours of devastation, loss, and the mute, dragging undertow of too much brutality lived through.