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Princeton Teacher Packs Novel With Torture, Vomit, Porn: Books

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The cover jacket of "The Surrendered." It is the fourth novel by Chang-rae Lee. Source: Penguin via Bloomberg

March 22 (Bloomberg) -- If you’ve been yearning for a good, juicy depiction of missionaries being maimed, raped and killed, you’ll want to check out “The Surrendered.”

Chang-rae Lee’s fourth novel jumps back and forth between New York and New Jersey in the mid-1980s, South Korea in the early ‘50s and Manchuria in 1934, which is where the missionaries get it. The Japanese soldiers of that era, like their Nazi allies, did horrible things, but they’ll always be a blessing to novelists bent on showing the depths of depravity.

Lee’s principal characters are a girl orphaned in the Korean War, who by 1986 is a widowed cancer patient with a fugitive son; the Irish-American GI who takes the starving 11-year-old to an orphanage, by 1986 a janitor with a drinking problem; and the slutty wife of the minister in charge of the institution (the missionaries are her back story), who becomes an obsession for both of them.

A big, square epic in the mold of those mid-century best-sellers in which all the stories have back stories and the back stories have back stories, “The Surrendered” plugs along sucking energy from outbreaks of physical and emotional brutality interlarded with chunks of soft-core cornpone:

“Then he kissed her mouth and she turned but he held himself against her and when her own mouth softened all of his fury seemed to find her, his hands running over her as if she were difficult clay and he was desperate to remake her.”

Beautiful People

Lee renders his heroes with the kind of awe that would suit a biography of the Holy Family. They’re extraordinary in the familiar best-sellery way: “shockingly beautiful” but tormented demigods who mope around like the lost children of Greta Garbo, frosty on the surface and scorching underneath.

Also a little stinky. (“His smell was gamey and sharp.”) Lee doesn’t shy away from bodily odors, or emissions, either -- I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that incorporated so much vomiting.

It isn’t out of place in a book that revolves around an alcoholic, a morphine addict and a victim of stomach cancer, but it’s startling. Few descriptions of first dates in recent fiction can match this one for frankness:

“She was now cooing something, too, and he asked her to repeat herself but then she suddenly pushed away from him and stepped off the road, down into the thigh-high grasses and weeds ... He figured she needed to relieve herself and was impressed that she didn’t care about propriety and so heeded her but soon enough he could hear her gagging in the distance.”

I got a little queasy myself.

How About a Joke?

Shallowness that asks to be taken seriously, a critic observed years ago, is an embarrassment. A joke here and there might have helped, but humor seems to be out of Lee’s range.

So does plotting -- a surprising deficit in a deeply respected novelist (his earlier books include “Native Speaker” and “A Gesture Life”) who teaches at Princeton. The story line climbs for upwards of 400 pages toward a reunion in Italy that falls through: long buildup, fast letdown.

Two characters who have served their purpose are dispatched via a lumbering deus ex machina. (Since the instrument of their destiny is a car, I suppose it’s a machina ex machina.)

Junk has its place, certainly, but I prefer mine unadulterated -- i.e., shameless. When it tries to pass itself off as profundity, it really is an embarrassment.

“The Surrendered” is published by Riverhead (469 pages, $26.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Craig Seligman at cseligman@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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