“Aloft” by Chang-Rae Lee

My third book by the author Chang-Rae Lee, and the third book the powerless and nonchalant personality and attitude of the main character bothers me. Having gone through the lost Korean-American hero (“Native Speaker”), the lonely Japanese immigrant (“A gesture life”) and now the selfish Caucasian American, I have come to wonder what kind of person Chang-Rae Lee must be, to be able to go through all these divergent emotions. It’s not that I don’t appreciate his insight on the different layers of life as an immigrant or as someone who doesn’t quite belong where he/she is, I guess that I’m ‘bothered’ in the sense that I know that no amount of openness and exchange will change that bitter fact.

It’s ironic to see how we, as humans, always in pursuit of that sense of belonging, would subconsciously or even worse, consciously, build a firm wall around us to stop others from finding that sense of belonging as well. And at oft times we would choose not to belong anywhere, fully experiencing the loneliness and aloofness that choice entails.

I guess that ‘Aloft’ is different from the other two books in that the main character is what we would normally consider as already belonging to a certain status and group. Who would pity a middle aged Caucasian man in the US for being the ‘outsider’? Yet here he is, aloft, circling around his family, friends and his loved ones, without knowing how to land. While the plane that he bought from the couple who lost their son had been a symbol of love and family for the former owners, Jerry Battle uses it as a means to get away from that very love and family. As flying the plane only offers the pilot an overview of the scenery, without really being part of it, and often a clouded view, Jerry deals with his surroundings in the same manner. Maybe it’s easier for him, to be the observer, without really having to care and in return, be hurt when he least expects it.

Yet as time goes by, having it easy is not really what we want. We want to be hurt, to cry, to be angry, just as much as we want to laugh and be happy. So does Jerry. He doesn’t want to be the aloof parent who didn’t care enough to be mad at his daughter who had ran away. He wants to share the pain she goes through as she struggles with her cancer and her pregnancy, he wants to help his son with his business troubles.

The book ends with a more hopeful look than it began, as do the other two books. It’s not a ‘happy ending’ per se in its traditional sense, because really, how many of these fairy tales happy endings do we have in real life? The simple fact that we become aware of our shortcomings and manage to talk about things that we couldn’t even see before, all leading to us bearing with life and ‘carrying on’, is, in real life, good enough for a happy ending.


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