'The Surrendered' By Chang-Rae Lee Has Prose That Shines, But Does It Sink To Melodrama?

05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chang-rae Lee has gained acclaim in the literary community over the past 15 years. "The Surrendered," his 480 page tome, is his fourth novel, following 1995's "Native Speaker," 1999's "A Gesture Life," and 2004's "Aloft." "Native Speaker," his first, earned Lee respect for his beautiful and exacting prose and quietly emotional and moving storytelling.

Since the publication of "The Surrendered" last week, there has been some disagreement among critics about its merits. Though none will deny the precision and beauty of his writing, and all seem to agree that his brutal descriptions of war are expert -- the novel takes place in the aftermath of the Korean War -- a number of critics have noted the melodrama that sneaks its way into "The Surrendered," and find that the characters suffer from Lee's attempt to make the book a "good read," as the New Yorker put it.

"The Surrendered" follows three characters, all dealing with different aspects of war's aftermath. This is a step outside of Lee's comfort zone, as he switches from the first-person narrative of his previous novels to a third-person perspective. Donna Rifkind, writing for The Washington Post, found that the focus on three characters took away from each. She noted "the lack of dimensionality in both Hector and Sylvie, who manage to seem vaporous and wooden at the same time." Rifkind did, however, find that the third main character, June, was developed enough to make up for the other two:

With one full-hearted portrait out of three, Lee has only partially but rather magnificently succeeded.

Other critics have not been so harsh on the book's characterization. Salter Reynolds, writing for The Los Angeles Times said of Lee's characters: "He could not hold them down, even if he wanted to." The San Francisco Chronicle praised the life in this novel that contains so much death: "its pages are breathtakingly alive." Salon also had great words for the liveliness of Lee's characters:

Characters that shoulder their way into the reader's psyche with an almost alarming vitality and Lee's organically skillful plotting are the powerful engines driving "The Surrendered."

The New York Times's Terrence Rafferty had nothing but good words for "The Surrendered." Rafferty's review focused on Lee's masterful descriptions of war and horror:

Throughout "The Surrendered," both in the past and in the present, terrible things happen, some purely accidental, some deliberately inflicted, and many that seem to exist in a kind of causal no man's land: nobody's fault, and everybody's.

The Times also praises Lee for his ability to keep the narrative interesting for the whole of its near-500 pages, a talent that perhaps is behind the San Francisco Chronicle's musing that the book is "something of a literary mystery novel." This focus on keeping the narrative moving and keeping the reader interested went too far for some, however. The New Yorker's James Wood is perhaps the most notable of these critics. The book is "alas, utterly conventional," Wood declares.

Though Wood notes Lee's "brilliance of prose" and his "relentless, cruel calm" in his descriptions of war, Wood found much of the plot to be "if not melodramatic, then certainly stagy, even bookish, a livid libretto, something made for the novel rather than made by it." Salon, also, noted this occasional slip: "Just once, Lee stoops to sheer melodrama," reviewer Laura Miller admitted, though she was quick to find the instance "forgivable."

Despite Lee's possible tendency for melodrama, it is clear that he has written a work of literature that should not, and cannot be taken lightly. His grasp of language and his harrowing descriptions of Asia in wartime are enough to have made this a worthwhile read for any of the reviewers, no matter how harsh their criticisms.

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