‘A lovely, standing forgery’: Representations of the house and domestic space in ‘A Gesture Life’ by Chang-Rae Lee

Chang-Rae Lee’s novel A Gesture Life uses representations of domestic space, juxtaposed with the political space of the nation and empire, to negotiate formulations of identity and raise questions about what ‘citizenship’ means in a globalized world. The traditional immigrant narrative is subverted through the unreliable narration of Franklin Hata, which builds a fragile, constructed reality that Lee forces readers to penetrate and unravel. This deconstruction of the world of the novel leads to challenging ethical questions and a reassessment of what the traditional immigrant narrative of the American identity represents in the twenty-first century. This essay will address the meaning of these spaces and the representations of built space Lee uses to engage with conceptions of American identity.

A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee

The Korean identity of the narrator ‘haunts’ the novel, in the sense articulated by Avery Gordon[1],  just as Franklin Hata seems to haunt the house in which he lives. The house, the physical embodiment of middle-class America and material success, allows Hata to inhabit the world of the American Dream; Kandice Chuh suggests it may stand as a symbol of the ‘embodied, materialized nation.’[2] Throughout the novel, descriptions of his perfect American home are permeated with counter-descriptions of the uncomfortable, ethereal or absent presence of himself within those spaces. The impossibility of Hata genuinely ‘inhabiting’ the space of American citizenship on any real level is constantly highlighted through the ways in which his identity is misinterpreted and ‘othered’ by the inhabitants of Bedley Run. Even his ‘mercenary angel’ Liv Crawford, the realtor who saves him from the fire he starts in his home, has alternative motives for befriending him. Renny Banerjee informs Hata in the hospital that Liv rescued him from the fire and sinisterly jokes, ‘But what if you didn’t live in such a pretty house? You have to wonder. . . .’ [3] (38) Liv also sends him white roses in the hospital, ironic because ‘in Japanese tradition white is the signal color of death.’  The multiplicity of identities that are ascribed to him by members of the Bedley Run community, ranging from ‘noble old Japanese’, to ‘Doc’, to native American ‘chief’ demonstrate how unknowable he is to his neighbours, despite his assertion that ‘People know me here.’ This absence of a knowable identity also seems to plague Hata and ultimately the traumatic narrative of this absence returns to ‘unmake’ his home and the assimilationist narrative he has constructed.

In Traumatic Patriarchy[4], Hamilton Carroll argues that Lee ‘deconstructs the basic form of the bildungsroman and, in doing so, allows us to examine the pernicious logics of race and gender at its core.’ The seeming integration into Bedley Run that Doc Hata has achieved is set up at the beginning of the novel and the ensuing narrative is one that reverses the traditional notion of the bildungsroman as a journey from individuation to socialisation. Lee constructs a vivid picture of the American landscape Hata inhabits at the start of the novel, with abundant descriptions of the built environment and Hata’s prized house, setting up a strong sense of the society into which Hata has attempted to assimilate. The relative success of this assimilation is suggested by Liv Crawford’s insistence that, ‘Doc Hata is Bedley Run. He is what this place is about…You come to a place like this, Renny; you don’t make it yours with money or by the virtuous coffee color of your skin or do anything but welcomingly submit and you’re happy to do so…It has just the right amount of history, which, for the record, is welcoming and not. It’s the place you want to arrive at, forever and ever.’ (136) The lack of agency inherent in the idea that one must ‘welcomingly submit’ and the insufficiency of the signifier ‘Doc Hata’, both flag up the inadequacy of the assimilationist narrative in understanding identity. The idea of simply arriving there ‘forever and ever’ removes the possibility of any real sense of permanence or rootedness and also suggests that the surface impression is the most desirable element of the place.

Lee uses representations of build space and domesticity throughout A Gesture Life to explore notions of citizenship in a postnational world. The site of domestic borders is constantly challenged throughout the novel and the concept of ‘home’ is set up only to be deconstructed and the traumatic absence at its core revealed. Lee’s novel can be read as a ‘post-apocalyptic narrative’ as defined by Teresa Heffernan[5]. She extends James Berger’s definition of the post-apocalyptic narrative, to suggest ‘that we live in a time after the apocalypse, after the faith in a radically new world, of revelation…post-apocalyptic culture understands loss as existing alongside the historical archive, further complicating the desire to unveil.’ (p.6-7) Heffernan argues that we live in a world ‘that does not or cannot rely on revelation as an organising principle’ and as such we must find other ways to interpret the ‘absent referent that haunts these narratives’. The absent referent in A Gesture Life can be read as signifying the essence of ‘home’ and the space in which the possibility of an authentic identity is located. The absence of that location, destroyed in the novel by the dominance of patriarchal imperialism, removes the possibility of any such authentic identity being established. The grand, Bedley Run house that Hata describes towards the end of the novel as ‘a lovely, standing forgery, pristine enough and old enough that it passes most every muster’ (352) is never a site where a sense of home can be fully realised, however hard Hata tries. The house seems to act as an expansive exterior shell, housing the closest thing that Hata has to a sense of home; the tiny piece of black cloth Sunny discovers hidden in one of Hata’s boxes. This is the only physical link Hata has to his Japanese/Korean past. It can be read as the ‘black’, severed from his original Japanese name of ‘Kurohata’ in his American identity as Hata and as a symbol of ‘K’; the narratives of Korea and Kkutaeh that he holds at the traumatic core of his identity.

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In the first chapter of A Gesture Life the narrator, Franklin Hata establishes the environment in which his narrative will unfold. The American town, which Hata names himself as Bedley Run, is first introduced through an image in a magazine article of ‘a meadow that had been completely cleared for new suburban-style homes, just white stakes in the ground to mark where the streets would be.’ It is presented as a sketch, an idea of a place where American suburbia can be constructed and realised. Although Hata sees the image as ‘sterile and desolate, like fresh blast ground’ he is drawn to the place by the accompanying text that notes the ‘peaceful pace of life’. The disjuncture between the image and the words is an early introduction to the unreliability of Hata’s narration and as the narrator fleshes out his description of the town, Lee has provided an early indication that the words may not reflect the reality. The allusion to nuclear destruction created by ‘fresh blast ground’ becomes more significant when taken in the context of Hata’s proclaimed Japanese identity. At the very start of the novel, Lee introduces this subtle reference to military aggression of the United States towards Japan, only to subvert this later with the revelation of Hata’s own part in the military aggression of Japan towards Korea.

Bedley Run then is built up from an image of ‘sterile and desolate’ land and the structure of the narration leads the reader from this image, through the streets of the now realised town via the medical supply store Hata previously owned, on to Hata’s street, his house and finally the room in which his daughter Sunny once lived. This structure creates a direct association between the construction of the idealised town and the creation of Hata’s perfect American home, which he describes as standing ‘amid a copse of mature elm and oak and maple…warm and lighted’. The final image of Hata painstakingly ‘patching and repainting the ceilings and walls’ of the room that his daughter is said to have left in a hurry, ‘running [his] hand over the surfaces’ to ensure ‘the whole project was quite satisfactorily done’ reinforces the fabricated nature of the environment in which Hata inhabits. Hata’s narrative focus on the physical perfection of the built environment attempts to distract from the absence at the heart of his description, of a sense of home, but only serves to highlight it. Lee employs this technique of unreliable narration to alert the reader to the constructed nature of Hata’s sense of identity.

The second chapter builds on this sense of a void at the centre of Hata’s character and once more the focus is on the built environment. Hata’s description of his ‘two-storey Tudor revival…large house with its impressive flower and herb garden, and flagstone swimming pool and wrought iron conservatory’ reads like an estate agents pitch and its desirability as a commodity is confirmed by the realtor Liv Crawford. The narrative tone shifts when Hata invokes the Freudian notion of the uncanny in his admission that ‘this feeling I’ve come to expect, this happy blend of familiarity and homeyness and what must be belonging, is strangely beginning to disturb me.’ The swimming pool becomes a site where Hata feels he is ‘someplace else’ and acts as a prompt for the recollection of the narrative of a man who swims across America ‘walking in on his neighbors and scaling property walls and crossing busy parkways’ eventually returning to his own home, which ‘to his desperate confusion, he finds locked up and deserted.’ Hata interprets this as having three possible interpretations, firstly that the swimmer ‘has begun, whether knowing it or not, a sort of quest or journey, and ultimately finds himself, if in spiritual disillusion’. This echoes the idea of the bildungsroman that Lee’s novel is consciously subverting and here highlights the form only to provide alternative readings, suggesting that we as readers might do the same. Another reading Hata suggests is that the swimmer has ‘simply gone mad’ and ‘his project is one of escape’, thus removing meaning from the actions of the swimmer. A third interpretation, which he admits to coming to from the notes at the side of the text, highlighting the act of interpreting, is that the swimmer is ‘making fitful passage through epic “seasons of life”. Multiplicity of meaning and notions of multi-narratives are highlighted here in the reading of a text about a man that mirrors Hata’s own position as ‘the swimmer’. This connection between Hata and the mysterious swimmer, who crosses all the constructed boundaries of his suburban landscape but is unable to access his own home, is highlighted through Hata’s own imagination:

‘It is an unnerving thing, but when I was underneath the water, gliding in that black chill, my ‘mind’s eye suddenly seemed to carry a perspective high above, from where I could see the exacting telling shapes of all: the spartan surfaces of the pool deck, the tight-clipped manicures of the garden, the venerable house and trees, the fetching narrow street. And what caught me, too, was that I knew there was also a man in that water, amidst it all, a secret swimmer who, if he could choose, might always go silent and unseen.’ (p. 24)

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The triple perspective that Hata takes on here highlights the multiplicity of his identities within the American landscape he inhabits. It also creates an awareness of the difficulty Hata faces in experiencing his own sense of self, in the convoluted way he expresses his desire to ‘always go silent and unseen’. The swimming pool, symbolic of the American suburban landscape, becomes the site where Hata experiences a disconcerting sense of alienation, despite his continued assurance that he belongs there, which prompts firstly the ‘near-conflagration’ he starts in the family room and later, the movement of his narrative into ‘the black fires of the past.’ (152)

Lee uses representations of domestic space and the built environment on one level, as structures that highlight the traumatic narrative at Hata’s core, through the juxtaposition of their solidity with the ephemeral ‘politeness and gestures’ from which Hata builds his life in America. On another level, the constructed nature of American suburbia is highlighted through the unreliability of Hata’s narration. The subjectivity that Hata constructs in that environment is in part made possible by the ‘object’ that Hata becomes within it, through the eyes of the other Bedley Run residents. Anne Anlin Cheng re-examines the politics of assimilation and ‘passing’, drawing attention to the complex nature of the relationship between subjectivity and objecthood, and suggesting that this is particularly important to engage with in the case of people who have been ‘historically objected’[6]. Questioning the separation between ‘acting like yourself’ and ‘acting like some-one else’, Cheng suggests that the act of making oneself ‘invisible’ in society to disguise ‘otherness’ can be read as asserting agency rather than relinquishing it. To complicate the meaning of social visibility, Cheng moves away from the widely accepted idea that recognising racial otherness and ensuring narratives of difference are made visible are more progressive approaches and posits that our understanding of ourselves is so reliant on our ‘compulsive taking-in’ of the Other that a new ethics of interaction between human subjects is necessary, however difficult to articulate. Cheng considers a ‘politics of vision’, drawing on Lacan’s notion of the Gaze to highlight how desire, particularly for ‘mastery’ (of the self and of the ‘Other’) problematises the relationship between the subject and the ‘Other’. As James Kyung-Jin Lee states, ‘The emergence of the contemporary subject, lodged in the democratic discourses of citizenship, depends on the constant displacement of others, often racially marked and thus rendered vulnerable to premature death. The very liberal (even sometimes liberatory) impulse of cultural politics in the United States is governed by the absent presence of imperial desire and of the coded but very visible effects of empire: reservations, ghettos, military bases in Seoul, nursing schools in the Philippines.’[7] This ‘absent presence of imperial desire’ is at the heart of Hata’s narrative; his American home, the physical embodiment of his attempt at assimilation into Bedley Run, is kept empty by his own desire to subject Sunny to his domination, in a repeat of his abjection of K.

Cheng reads Lee’s novel as exemplifying the problematic nature of assimilation narratives and considers the conflicting states of marginalisation and a desire for ‘mastery’, in a colonising sense, embodied in Hata. In considering what it means to be visible, Cheng highlights the uneasy relationship between racial visibility and social recognition and suggests that Lee’s novel asks us to reassess the impact on the psyche of a subject who lives out their existence through ‘passing’ for something that one is not and how this positionality complicates questions of ethical conduct, in relation to the self and other people. The questions of ethical conduct that Cheng draws attention to are explored in Lee’s novel through Carroll’s notion of ‘traumatic patriarchy’ and the narratives of US/Japanese imperialism that Hata is both victim and perpetrator of. The domestic space of Hata’s American home, becomes a site rendered problematic for Hata because it necessarily holds the narrative of his rape and abjection of Kkutaeh, who on one level represents Korea, however convincingly he blends into American suburbia.

The appearance of assimilation masks the traumatic narrative of his own betrayal of his homeland, represented by his rape of Kkutaeh. The description of Hata physically conquering the female body of ‘K’, which he imagines as a house, genders the concept of home and nation: ‘I never meant for this but I could no longer balk, or control myself, and then something inside her collapsed, snapped clean, giving way like some storm-seiged roof, and then I descended upon her, and I searched her, every lighted and darkened corner, and every room.’ (295) Lee render this ‘othering’ and invading of the home, that Hata necessarily undertakes in his role as medical officer with the Japanese imperial forces, to highlight the trauma and paradox at the heart of his assimiliationist narrative. The ‘searching’ that he describes is for a true sense of ‘home’, untarnished by imperial forces. This is represented through the desire he has for her sexual purity, something he has already destroyed by raping/invading her.

In ‘Manifest Domesticity’, Amy Kaplan explores the tradition in American literature of the interconnection of representations of domestic spaces and those of empire: ‘To understand this spatial and political interdependence of home and empire, it is necessary to consider rhetorically how the meaning of the domestic relies structurally on its intimate opposition to the notion of foreign. Domestic has a double meaning that links the space of the familial household to that of the nation, by imagining both in opposition to everything outside the geographic and conceptual border of the home.’[8] The narratives of US and Japanese imperialism within Lee’s novel are explorations of how the expanding of empires, both military and cultural, destroys the subjectivity of those who are not ‘domesticated’ into the ‘conceptual border of the home.’ The revelation of Hata’s Korean identity comes a significant way into the novel: ‘Most of us were ethnic Koreans, though we spoke and lived as Japanese, if ones in twilight.’ (72) It seems, from the fine American house he carefully describes and his self-identification as Japanese at the start of the novel, that Hata has been successfully assimilated into the ‘conceptual border of the home’ created by first the Japanese military empire and secondly American cultural imperialism. The acknowledgement of his ‘otherness’ that motivates his desire to assimilate into American suburbia is highlighted by his obedience to the social rules of the community, where ‘being neighbours means sharing the most limited kinds of intimacies, such as sewer lines and property boundaries and annual property tax valuations.’ (43) Hata recognises these boundaries, another example of representations of the domestic space mirroring that of empire, when he states: ‘I must have given them the reassuring thought of how safe they actually were, how shielded, that an interloper might immediately recognise and so heed the rules of their houses.’ (44) The fact that this boundary is crossed by Mary Burns and refused by Sunny highlights the gendering of these spaces, reiterating the patriarchal power structure that underpins notions of domesticity and empire. Hata’s abjection of the Asian women in the novel and his inability to be anything but ‘other’ to the white American women once again highlights the inter-related condition of his subject and objecthood.

Throughout the novel, descriptions of the perfect American home are set-up, only to be revealed as unfamiliar; a space highlighting the absence of a real sense of Hata’s identity. ‘I’m sure something is afoot, for I keep stepping outside my house…looking at it as though I were doing so for the very first time, when I wondered if I would ever in my life call such a house my home,’ (p.22) Hata tells us, shortly before he sets fire to the family room. The sense of a past where once the house seemed alien, draws our attention to the effort Hata has made to ‘belong’ there. His recollection of a photograph in which his daughter Sunny is playing the piano, turns out to be merely a picture of the piano, the domestic setting empty and haunted by the absence of a true family, even in his photographs. Towards the end of the novel, Hata highlights the absence at the heart of his sense of self: ‘Now and then, I sometimes forget who I really am. I will be sitting downstairs in the kitchen, or on the edge of the lounger by the pool, or here under the covers of my bed and I lose all sense of myself…Then I might get up in the middle of the night and dress and walk all the way to town, to try to figure once again the notices, the character, the sorts of actions a man like me, what things or set of things define him in the most simple and ordinary way.’ (285) This image of Hata traversing the streets of Bedley Run, searching for his sense of identity, emphasises the impossibility of him finding it in the American suburban landscape. It suggests that he is haunting the house and town in which he lives, searching for a tangible sign that will tell him who he really is. The return to his house prompts a fleeting sense feeling of redemption: ‘When I reach the house and close the front door it’s then I think K has finally come back for me. It is the moment I think I feel at home.’ The notion of return is echoed in the sense that K has come back ‘for’ him rather than to him, as though she has come from a place that he wishes to return to, a home that he is unable to find in Bedley Run. When Hata is haunted by the memory of Kkutaeh, the repressed narrative that his own cannot fail to return to, he wishes that, ‘she were some wondrous, ethereal presence, that I was being duly haunted’ but she appears to him as ‘absolute, unquestionably real, a once-personhood come wholly into being.’ (286) The corporeality of K can be read as a sign that Hata has now become the displaced, spectral presence in her narrative; the absence at the heart of his identity is the story of her fate.

The novel ends with Hata selling the house and contemplating the ‘spectres of his history’ that inhabit the space. As Carroll suggests, the house ‘stands as a memorial to Hata’s unspoken history, an archive of the trauma of his past.’ (609) The structure of the house can be said to act in a similar way to the form of the novel, in that it creates the illusion of an assimilation narrative whilst undermining the possibility of any such narrative. The impossibility of assimilation is foregrounded by the sense of absence at the heart of Hata’s identity. The ‘absent referent’ that haunts this narrative remains out of reach at the end of the novel: ‘Let me simply bear my flesh, and blood, and bones. I will fly a flag. Tomorrow, when the house is alive and full, I will be outside looking in. I will be already on a walk someplace, in this town or the next or one five thousand miles away. I will circle round and arrive again. Come almost home.’ (356) The absence of a sense of ending here links to Heffernan’s sense of the post-apocalyptic narrative where a sense of ending is denied, keeping the sense of loss separate from the grounding of teleological conclusions. The morality implicit in a firm sense of ending, either in death or redemption, is also absent, removing the possibility of moral judgement from the frame. The American landscape becomes globalized in the sense that Hata will pass through ‘this town or the next or one five thousand miles away’ and in doing this he will ‘arrive again’ at where he started. The homogeneity of domestic space as an extension of the American ‘empire’ is suggested; a space that will always confirm his ‘otherness’ and place him, and people like him, ‘on the outside looking in’. The carefully constructed American home that Hata prized is ultimately a space that cannot inhabit as the carefully constructed form of the novel does not allow another assimilation narrative to be told. Lee uses representations of domestic space, particularly the image of the home, as a space through which to explore the limitations of assimilation narratives and the traumatic histories that can be obscured.

This essay was originally written in 2008 as part of my MA in American Literature and Culture


[1] Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, (Minneapolis, University of Minneapolis Press, 1997)

[2] Kandice Chuh, Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique, London, (Duke University Press, 2003)

[3] Chang-Rae Lee, A Gesture Life,  (London: Granta Books, 2001)

[4] Hamilton Carroll, ‘Traumatic Patriarchy: Reading Gendered Nationalisms in Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life’, Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 51, no.3, 2005, 592-616

[5] Teresa Heffernan, Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism and the Twentieth-Century Novel, (University of Toronto Press, 2008)

[6] Anne Anlin Cheng, ‘Passing, Natural Selection and Love’s Failure: Ethics of Survival from Chang-rae Lee to Jacques Lacan’, American Literary History, 17.3 (2005) 553-574

[7] James Kyung-Jin Lee, ‘The Transitivity of Race and the Challenge of the Imagination’, PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5, (2008), 1550-1556

[8] Amy Kaplan, ‘Manifest Domesticity’ in The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture, (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard UP, 2002)

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