A Korean American Writing in American Mainstream:
Native Speaker and Absalom, Absalom!

Young Oak Lee

I. Introduction

     Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker is primarily considered to belong to the category of the Asian American novel, a limiting category of fiction that carries themes of immigration and identity involving Asian American character and culture. Native Speaker is a story narrated by Henry Park, a second-generation Korean American, and his main concern involves another Korean American. But there is something about Native Speaker that takes it beyond this definition of ethnic literature. Chang-rae Lee has used materials and experiences available to him; but, in the end, he has placed it in another milieu. In other words, it defies the label of an Asian American novel; rather, it aligns itself within the classic American fiction. Henry Park resembles, to a great extent, a few major characters in great American literature: among others, Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, and Robert Penn Warren’s Jack Burden, in particular. These characters’ common viewpoint reflects American sensibility, in that all these characters observe their hero’s blind pursuit of ideals with a certain detachment and separateness.
     This likeness enables us to assert that Lee’s Native Speaker heralds a directional change in Asian American writings—a change in its perspectives and formations. The change is under discussion and has been diagnosed by several critics. Before, Asian American writings dealt with “the theme of Asian American racial and social identity . . .American racism, and relationships with other minority groups” (Kim 221). For, in this new land of promise and opportunity, Asian Americans found their skin color branding them as Other. Subject to discrimination, frustrations and disillusionments, Asian Americans have reflected Asian and Asian American historical and cultural traditions, separated from “mainstream” European American literature and culture, either resisting or subordinating to mainstream America’s domination (Xiaojing 4). However, as Asian Americans began to feel more or less settled in American society in the late 1980s, other dimensions were added in Asian American literary studies: themes of heterogeneity, gender, class, sexuality, postmodernism and multiculturalism (Cheung 1). Zhou Xiaojing, also making note of this change of perspective in Asian American literature studies, contends that there are alternative possibilities for Asian American writers “to intervene in dominant ideologies, and to transform American literary traditions and genres”(8). Most of them, born and/ or grown up in America, have absorbed American consciousness and imagination and think of themselves as Americans, no less than white Americans. Instead of allowing themselves to be separated and isolated from the established literary genres and traditions, Asian American writers appropriate, negotiate with and transform American literary conventions.
Lee’s Native Speaker is a good illustration of the new Asian American literature because it assimilates dominant American ideologies and literary techniques. While dealing with an Asian man’s life and ideas, the novel is profoundly American. His use of the split hero technique affords a good example. Regarded as peculiarly American, it is employed in The Great Gatsby, Absalom, Absalom!, and All the King’s Men, to name a few. Lee’s character Henry Park is the novel’s narrator as well as protagonist, as are Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, and Warren’s Jack Burden. Henry, like his predecessors, is the center of consciousness that observes, tells the story, and learns from the experience, of the hero that takes the action.
     A comparison of the split hero technique employed in Absalom, Absalom! and Native Speaker together will illustrate how a Korean American agency transcends ethnic boundaries and establishes itself in mainstream American literature, by employing one familiar American framework and a couple of major themes of American literature. This comparison will bring to light some of the aspects the two novels share, but the meaning of similarities between the two novels will no doubt provoke a discussion on the problem of literary influence. This essay does not aim to suggest that Lee’s novel shows Faulkner’s influence, or to compare these two novels in their entirety. Rather this paper proposes that Lee, growing up in America, has absorbed a sufficient degree of American consciousness to naturally share much with Faulkner and other mainstream American writers. Hence, it is a comparative study of the two complex novels, but one that limits the analysis to the two young men, their responses to their surrounds, and their development.
     Two shared aspects in these novels will help illustrate the American nature of Lee’s writing. One aspect is the resemblance of Native Speaker’s narrator Henry Park and Absalom, Absalom! ’s Quentin Compson in that each grows in his understanding of his own legacy and identity to become a writer of history. Both narrators, through a vicarious tragic experience, attain a greater understanding of the world. The other aspect is that their idols also parallel each other: John Kwang and Thomas Sutpen are both epitomes of the American dream, self-made men, originating in obscurity and rising to reputation and wealth; and they both have a hubris that ultimately brings them down.

II. The Split Hero Frame
     Native Speaker uses the split hero frame that is used in Absalom, Absalom! The narrator-protagonist represents consciousness and sensibility, and the man of action, experience. The eminent critic Philip Rahv pointed out the dichotomy of the American mind: “a dichotomy between experience and consciousness—a dissociation between energy and sensibility” (1). While this disunity, what Rahv calls “the ills of a split personality” (3) in American literature, denotes the divisiveness of the American imagination, it seems to have found an expression in the form of the novel as a split hero representing each-- one sensibility, the other experience. The duality of the American imagination is repeated in the split hero frame. Both Quentin and Henry, introverted and passive, while observing their respective heroes with great interest, try to avoid committing themselves to life. The narrator’s stance seems to relate to the dichotomy of the American mind as well as the psyche of the American writer, which often reflects more as a commentator and evaluator than a creator of events.
     Though they narrate the story, both Faulkner’s Quentin and Lee’s Henry learn as much as they inform. In his detached position in life, Henry Park in Native Speaker resembles Quentin, who, affected by his father’s negative attitude to be disillusioned with life, “now and always has been a shadow verging on nothingness” (Madden 117). Like Quentin, Henry does not want to become actively engaged in reality. He is described by his wife Lelia as being “surreptitious,” an “illegal alien,” an “emotional alien,” a “stranger,” and a “spy” (5). Her perception of Henry points to his insistent distancing from the reality of relationships. Though he is “an amiable man [and] can be most personable,” as he himself describes, he does not engage himself in any genuine way in human relationships. Lelia feels with a pang the emptiness in their married life together.

That I didn’t know how you really felt about anything, our marriage. Me. You. I realized one day that I didn’t know the first thing about what was going on inside your head. Sometimes I think you’re not even here, with the rest of us, you know, engaged, present. I don’t know anymore why you do things. What you really want from me. I don’t know what you need in life (126).

According to her, they have lived like perfect strangers. Lelia seems to possess only the foggiest idea what her husband thinks of their marriage, of his wife, or himself. She feels that she can hardly fathom the depth of his thoughts. More devastating is the fact that sometimes she finds him not present then and there.
     Henry does not exist in any form of human relationship. His gaze reveals this non-existent relationship with the world:

He’s not looking at anything in particular, his gaze too fair. Too fair all around, as though he couldn’t offend anybody. So he looks friendly, he looks like he’d be willing to talk to you, but really because of the way his gaze circles about you, gets at your outline instead of your live center, you think he’s really stepping back as he approaches, stepping back inside and back away from you so nothing can get around or behind him (92).

His gaze, wandering around but not focusing, is a quintessential image of his non-involvement and non-participation.
     Moreover, his job as a spy, “the perfect vocation for the person [he] was” (127), insightfully crystallizes his status as an Asian in a whites-dominated society. For, spying is a profession that presupposes non-involvement. He is expected to “stay in the background” and to be “unapparent and flat” (44). Thus, his profession becomes a metaphor of his social status as an observing and detached immigrant. He exists as “a comely shadow who didn’t threaten” people (53). He has been accustomed to nearness all his life, but not closeness—he has only known proximity (130). Watching his clients from this measured distance, and writing “tracts of their lives, remote, unauthorized biographies,” Henry regards himself as “the most prodigal and mundane of historians” (18). He is orbiting the world, safely separated from it. Though not as much anguished as Quentin, Henry chooses to live a life of non-involvement, distancing himself from the world around him, until he is forced to come out of his own shell.

III. The Downfall of American Heroes
     The heroes in Absalom, Absalom! and Native Speaker resemble each other not only in their remote personality and their pursuit of solitude, they are also similar in the fact that they admire men of strong will and action as their heroes. If Quentin and Henry are men of thought, lacking in action, Thomas Sutpen and John Kwang are men of action, who make decisions and pursue their goals actively. Quite unlike their narrators, these two heroes, confident in themselves and their actions, pursue their goals in an Emersonian manner and are brought down by their hubris.
     Sutpen and Kwang are great men in that they both built themselves up from nothing, but, in the process, commit the sin of pride due to that innocent trust in their righteousness. Kwang in Native Speaker reveals a kind of pride similar to that which Sutpen possesses--similar Emersonian traits coming from overly inflated confidence in one’s judgment. Kwang is an attractive, outgoing figure. Originally from Korea, but quite unlike most Koreans, Kwang speaks “a beautiful, almost formal English” (23), and has become an impressive, handsome, irreproachable mayoral candidate and a self-made millionaire (23). Unlike most Koreans, who are satisfied being a respectable grocer or dry cleaner or doctor, Kwang’s thoughts are centered on a larger family, his constituents: he emerges as “a larger public figure who was willing to speak and act outside the tight sphere of his family” (139). He is different from Sutpen in that his ambition is public, when Sutpen’s is to establish a private family line; yet the attitude Kwang takes to achieve his goal is similar to Sutpen’s in the sense that they both go overboard, creating their own principles without regard to general rules either customary or legal. As Sutpen has overlooked the general conventions of society, Kwang, buoyed by “an expansive, truly American vision” (Dwyer 76), transcends law and regulations in order to help immigrants settle. To him the whole immigrant society constitutes a family: “This is a family, he reminds me, grasping it with both hands” (279: Lee’s italics). As a family man, Kwang cherishes and honors the institution and loves “the pure idea of family as well, which in its most elemental version must have nothing to do with blood” (146). Kwang’s concept of family transcends the bloodline—a notion more American than Korean-- unlike Sutpen who was fixated onto the pure bloodline; this Asian American seems to expand the concept to embrace all Americans. In this expansion Kwang seems to be a true inheritor of the Whitmanesque America.
     Similar to Sutpen, who tries to manipulate his fate regardless of social mores, Kwang, by stretching the law, creatively adopts a system to make his way into political leadership. Under the rationale of aiding unprotected immigrants, Kwang designates himself as caretaker, whose authority eventually deviates from the general practice of the law. For instance, he uses ggeh, a Korean money club, to serve his goal. Usually the ggeh are small and based on trust among the members:

Reputation is always worth more than money. In this sense we are all related. The larger ggeh depend solely on this notion, that the lessons of the culture will be stronger than a momentary lack, can subdue any individual weakness or want. This the power lovely and terrible, what we try to engender in Kwang’s giant money club, our huge ggeh for all(279-280).

Though this system allows an easier access to money for the people in need of it, its problem is that it is illegal, because money transactions are made privately, as within a family, “without chits or contracts” (280), which means that they do not keep records and so are prone to tax evasion. Kwang has attempted to control the money mechanism, and, through it, to control people. He believed that he could trust people; it was his innocence and excessive confidence of himself that blinded him to the nature of humanity. He did not see the treacherous nature of the system, which failure, according to Henry’s father, was “bad hubris” (280).
     Interestingly enough, the immediate factor that destroys these two heroes, Sutpen and Kwang, is hubris in the issue of race and ethnicity both. Sutpen’s trouble is of course his “innocence” in regards to the racial reality of the American South, that he underestimates the true value of the negro. The society is based on slavery and his design and his Mississippi estate would not exist without the support from the “othered” race (Morrison x). As Maritza Stanchich points out, the black contribution to Sutpen’s mansion is essential (611). Kwang’s problem is likewise related to that of race and ethnicity. Kwang, representing the target race, has overstepped the boundary of the law and that of race as well as an Asian American.

[W]hen someone like Kwang attempts anything larger, there’s instant suspicion. Someone must step up and pay to send in us hyenas. We’ll sniff him out. We eat our own, you know (288).

The status of an Asian descendant serves Kwang as an original sin, a limiting factor in social and cultural mores. Not only the dominant but also the othered race, which has internalized the existing system of values, expect that he, as an Asian American, should respect the restrictions imposed on him.
Sutpen and Kwang are heroic figures that both protagonists of Absalom, Absalom! and Native Speaker encounter, observe, admire, and learn from; these great men of lowly origin demonstrate their superior ability that raises them to a higher status in wealth and leadership, and follow through the course to their ultimate goals, only to face destruction, because of their exceeding confidence in their ability to act.

IV. The Role of a Historian
     The two novels, Absalom, Absalom! and Native Speaker, seem to echo each other in the changes in each of their protagonists. Through witnessing the fall of their heroes, the narrators, not the heroes themselves, achieve spiritual growth. Quentin Compson and Henry Park are greatly shocked and disillusioned by the fall of their idols, Sutpen and Kwang. They learn to accept the vision of humanity and society.
Though he tries to defy it, Quentin knows that he was born to a sense of Southern history. He grew up hearing stories in which “the mere names were interchangeable:”

His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth (7).

Quentin is gradually drawn into the vast stream of history, first hearing and witnessing Rosa’s rage, constructing, with his Harvard roommate Shreve, the story of Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon, and finally coming upon the fugitive criminal and witness of the past crime. As he gains insight into the history of the Sutpens and the South, the effort to deny his role as a reservoir of the regional history is blown apart; he realizes that he cannot in the least extricate himself from the past. On top of his misfortune of having a bad father(Porter 171), 1  the image of the dying Henry, “already a corpse,” (298) is permanently attached to his vision. Even though Sutpen had been long dead before Quentin was born, and none of that past concerns him, still the legacy of “the failure of human intentions in history” (Miller 157) is there claiming his attention. Sutpen’s story has grown, through a full participation, into his own story (Lockyer 51). His profound awareness of interchangeability of names is revealed in his perception of himself as a vessel of historical truths.
Henry Park’s initiation into his cultural legacy and bond with humanity begins to take place when he encounters John Kwang, for whom he feels “a pin-ache of unneeded love on top of the respect and hope and plain like of him” (132). Kwang seems to be “a natural leader of people” (132). Henry’s antenna, which used to be cut off and withdrawn, is caught and gradually drawn into the web of humanity centered on Kwang. Assigned to spy on Kwang, Henry soon tries to shield the object of his activity from the one who employed him to spy, for he feels “as if [he] were offering a private fact about [his] father or mother to a complete stranger” (147). This protective attitude of his seeing Kwang in light of his parents reveals that he feels a certain fraternity or affinity with Kwang. Henry had difficulties understanding his father and his ways of doing things. His father never tried to communicate with him, but always treated him in an authoritative manner. Father’s silence and his weak exhibition of love and affection toward his family, especially his wife, is incomprehensible to Henry. His father’s seeming indifference shuts him out and makes him resolve not to yield or surrender to him.
     This is why Henry has found a surrogate father in Kwang. Unlike his father, Kwang seems to be “a natural American” (326): “For so long he was effortlessly Korean, effortlessly American” (328). In him, Henry sees a free individual whose consciousness is clear and unbound in terms of ethnic conflicts. Kwang becomes Henry’s model and hero:

Now I don’t want him ever to lower his eyes. I don’t want to witness the submissive dip of his brow or the bend of his knee before me or anyone else. . . I am here for the hope of his identity, which may also be mine, who he has been on a public scale when the rest of us wanted only security in the tiny dollar-ships and churches of our lives (328).

Henry sees in Kwang the possibility of a composite identity, in which, despite the color of his skin, one feels comfortable and enjoys leadership in a whites-dominant society. It seemed to Henry that Kwang, unlike his father, has been successful in giving himself a new blended identity on a heroic scale. Beneath his admiration of Kwang, Henry relishes his contempt upon his father’s inferiority.
     The change in Henry’s attitude occurs when he witnesses the failure of Kwang’s endeavor to attain higher goals in life. Henry realizes that he has underestimated his own father’s life and that his own life, compared with Kwang’s or with his father’s, looks very small and meager:

His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth (7).

I am [my father’s] lone American son. . . And yet I am bestowed only with the meager effect of his hard-fought riches. . . For what I have done with my life is the darkest version of what he only dreamed of, to enter a place and tender the native language with body and tongue and have no one turn and point to the door (333-334).

In contrast to Kwang and his father, who were eager to achieve something in their own lives in the new society, Henry has, at most, tried, with the benefit of wealth given by his father, to blend well into society. So conscious of his difference not only in skin color but also in the language his father and other immigrants use, he has made it his goal in life to sound native enough to belong, and not to be turned away. The adult Henry now “recognizes in his father’s and in other immigrants’ speech, not their inferiority, but their vitality and their ardent desire to live and work to make something of themselves in America” (Dwyer 79). He hears what the stilted English tries to express, not how correctly it is expressed. Henry’s reconciliation with his father and, through him, with the immigrant society becomes complete, when he hears immigrants talking in their stilted English and remembers his father:

We listen to the earnest attempts of their talk, the bits of their stilted English. I know I would have ridiculed them when I was young: I would cringe and grow ashamed and angry at those funny tones of my father and his workers, all that Konglish, Spanglish, Jive. . . . But now, I think I would give most anything to hear my father’s talk again, the crash and bang and stop of his language, always hurtling by. I will listen for him forever in the streets of this city. I want to hear the rest of them, too, especially the disbelieving cries and shouts of those who were taken away. I will bear whatever sentence they wish to rain on me, all the volleys of their prayers and curses (337).

Henry’s acceptance of his father as he is reflects the young man’s growth in an understanding of human values, awakened by Kwang’s pursuit of ideals and consequent failure.
     But Jeffrey Santa Ana and Joseph Jeon have overlooked the changes in which Henry perceives himself now. In his materialist reading of emotions in Native Speaker, Santa Ana argues that, though Henry develops an empathic connection with Kwang, he “remains as cynical and anxious as ever” (37). And Jeon, describing Henry as “the inveterate outsider like Gatsby,” concludes that his essential racial identity has not changed (210). Despite his racial identity as Korean American, however, Henry does change, as far as his view of himself and other immigrants is concerned. Unlike in the past, he comes to appreciate his father’s effort and endeavor to confront the racial America on his own ground. And the fact that Henry joins his wife and tries to be part of the endeavor to help assimilate immigrants affirms his acceptance of and reconciliation with society and the world. While Quentin enters into an ambivalent relationship with the South, Henry moves “from outsider/spy to willing participant in the American family with all its attendant sadness and hope” (Dwyer 75). Quentin Compson, disillusioned and in despair, reluctantly accepts the role of a historian trying to figure out the meaning of the story of Thomas Sutpen and of the South, who rebelled in his youth, rebuilt his life in wealth, but succumbed to failure in his grand design of a white supremacist dynasty in the American South. Henry Park has lived a life of detachment as spy and immigrant, until he witnesses John Kwang, a model member of the minority who has risen from an Asian orphan to celebrity and leadership, collapse at the height of his career due to his well-intentioned manipulation of capital for the immigrant community. Henry is a repeat of Quentin: he is changed into a participant, though in his role as assistant to his wife, he sounds almost as resigned and abnegated as Quentin.

V. Conclusion
     This paper has presented similarities and differences between Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Lee’s Native Speaker, focusing on their principal characters, to illustrate how the new Asian American literature’s incorporation of dominant American ideologies and literary techniques. As has been noted, Native Speaker is a novel that transcends definitions and boundaries. It explores “with the conventions of genre and of narrative, with racial invisibility and disappearing acts, with linguistic fluency and rhetorical style—on levels both formal and thematic” (Chen 638). The negotiation with traditional literary conventions in terms of style and theme as witnessed in Chang-rae Lee’s novel seems to have opened a way to the transformation of the Asian American writing as well as American traditional writing. As a writer to whom identity as an American has been a constant concern, Lee seems to have produced a book strongly reminiscent of Absalom, Absalom! “Henry’s tale . . . is not just American immigration history, but American history itself” (Dwyer 74). Quoting Kathryn Hume, Jeffrey Partridge declares, “We have opened American literature up, and . . . we cannot and should not go back to previous monocultural practices. . . . we must embrace diverse contemporary forms, and shape our worldview in the light of other worldviews” (463).
    Thus, a comparison of Lee’s Native Speaker and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! reveals that the two novels share similar traits and techniques. This may lead to a possible conclusion that forthcoming Asian American fiction cannot be labeled simply as ethnic writings; they are no longer distinguishable from the European American counterparts except in their subject matter. These affinities and parallels show that Lee’s imagination has been steeped in the classical literary tradition of America, and that, by subsuming it and adding Asian American subjectivity to it, he has also helped to enrich and transform the predominantly white American literary tradition into one with balance and diversity in terms of ethnicity.

1 Carolyn Porter contends that Faulkner addresses the authority of patriarchy in Absalom, Absalom! and that Mr. Compson is a bad father, quoting John Irwin for reference. See John T. Irwin, Doubling & Incest/ Repetition & Revenge. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 68-69.

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Copyright (c) 2007 Young Oak Lee