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Aloft by Chang-Rae Lee
Ups and downs of a slave to suburban style
Friday 16 July 2004
Jerry Battle flies only in fair weather. Averse to reality, he adopts a pre-emptive approach to the storms of life. Like his private plane, Aloft skims the surface of experience, banking and looping to catch familiar landmarks from new angles. Chang-Rae Lee's third novel is dominated by Jerry's voice and philosophy, which I think we're meant to regard as tender and resigned, the twilight of the American male ego.
His father, "Pops", founded the landscaping business, which Jerry ran. Now semi-retired at 59, Jerry observes his son Jack at the helm. An Italian-American on Long Island, Jerry is a widower whose Korean wife, Daisy, drowned in their pool. Rita Reyes first rescued then sustained his family for 20 years. Tired of being an "almost step-mother", she has wised up and dumped him. He mopes, wants her back, but serially consorts with his hapless receptionist.
Jerry's his life is about to become a little too real. His pregnant daughter, Theresa, has cancer; her fiancé, Paul, has writer's block; Jack is bankrupting Battle Brothers, and Pops has gone Awol from his retirement home. But Jerry has "a supernatural ability to short circuit the needs of others", his attitude to tribulation being rueful acknowledgement.
This is unsurprising in a bloated consumer society where everyone has opted for ease and convenience. All the manual labour was done by his father's immigrant generation, and Lee is good on the contrasts between Pops's pioneering spirit and Jerry's detachment, as well as on the plethoric trappings of wealth.
Lee has an enviable facility and, though one can coast on his clever, captivating prose, he loses altitude half way through the book. He is a style-slave, who excels at spiffy riffing on not very much. One's sense of the narrative is undermined, each forward step cancelled by an attenuated flashback or hip disquisition on New York suburbs.
Ultimately, Jerry is forced to confront the bad weather he has so adroitly evaded. The entire Battle clan come to reside cosily under the same roof, all pulling together, Disney fashion, for the greater good of themselves. The contrivance is disappointing, its crude self-congratulation appropriate to Hollywood - and not to the novel of a sophisticated and often brilliant writer.
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