Originally created 05/15/04

With latest highly praised effort, novelist prepares for big time



PRINCETON, N.J. -- A few weeks ago, as novelist Chang-rae Lee was carting his clubs around a golf course near his home, two white golfers interrupted their conversation to ask whether he belonged to the club.

Lee, whose new novel, "Aloft," has been highly praised, politely told the men that, yes, he was indeed a member.

The incident served as a mildly uncomfortable reminder to the Korean-born Lee - whose novels often explore the concept of assimilation - that fitting in, even on a suburban golf course, is not all that easy.

"Questions like that make you think, 'Hmmm, they see me quite differently, don't they?"' says Lee, who speaks as precisely as the characters in his novels. "That exposes their perspective. Whereas, my perspective is not that I'm any different from anyone else. I'm just hitting golf balls."

Lee, 38, however, is different - and not just because as a golfer he has a 10 handicap. Observers have him pegged as one of the rare writers of literary fiction who could become a household name.

"Aloft," released in March, has become a best seller, its film rights sold to Warner Bros. and producer Scott Rudin; Lee has been pronounced one of America's best young novelists.

And after three novels, he is ensconced as a professor at Princeton University, where his colleagues - and friends - include Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Muldoon.

"He brings a spirit of buoyancy and youth and cultivation and warmheartedness," Robert Fagles, another Princeton colleague and the translator of critically acclaimed versions of Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey," said. "And he can turn a sentence like nobody's business."

Another Princeton associate, C.K. Williams, who recently won the National Book Award for poetry, said Lee is "really an astonishing prose stylist, and that's a gift you can't make for yourself. It's talent."

As was true with "Aloft," Lee's first two books, "Native Speaker" in 1995, and 1999's "A Gesture Life," were lavishly praised, and each won several honors, including the PEN/Hemingway award for "Native Speaker."

During an interview at his campus office, he comes across as boyish, unassuming, quick to laugh.

Lee has most often been compared to John Cheever and John Updike - best known for stories featuring white suburbanites, typically male - whose protagonists have come to regard the suburbs as an oppressive force.

While Cheever's Neddy Merrill or Updike's Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom could likely not exist outside the suburbs, Lee's characters are the sort who could survive anywhere, but choose the suburbs because they seek comfort, anonymity and the ability to control their environment. They enjoy without reservation the pleasure of flipping a switch for central air conditioning or a clicker for the garage door.

Unlike his literary predecessors, Lee holds his characters, not the suburbs, accountable for their own shortcomings. That distinction is perhaps not surprising since Lee grew up in the New York City suburb Pleasantville, in Westchester County, and thoroughly enjoyed his childhood.

The narrator of "Aloft" is Jerry Battle (shortened from Battaglia), an Italian-American on the eve of his 60th birthday who has no greater joy than flying his Cessna Skyhawk above Long Island, picking out his house from the rows of others (he has arranged lighter colored shingles in an 'X' on the roof).

He does his best to avoid family entanglements or unnecessary emotion. A retiree with far too much time on his hands, Jerry has spent his life coasting above the maelstrom, even after his first wife succumbed to manic depression and drowned in the backyard swimming pool and his girlfriend of 20 years moved out, accusing him of being emotionally lazy.

Though Jerry is honest about his shortcomings, he makes little effort to change until he has no choice. And while he is not technically an immigrant, he lives like an outsider.

Jerry concedes, for example, that he's been "just caretaking what I've been left and/or given, and consuming my fair share of the bright and new, and shirking almost all civic duties save paying the property taxes and sorting the recycling, basically steering clear of trouble."

Lee believes that today's wealthy suburbs, with their big lots and the importance residents place on privacy, can be harmful for new immigrants who find little community and few people similar to themselves.

"I think in some sense new immigrants often assimilate in terms of things, in terms of material, in terms of the accouterment of American life," he says. "I think there's a real pleasure in that, but I think maybe that's where assimilation ends because they are in these places that don't have community really. They're not really interacting with their neighbors. That's the whole point of living in a place like that. You don't have to."

Lee's model for Jerry is his Italian-American father-in-law, who until recently lived on Long Island. "A loose inspiration. Quite loose," he says, laughing. Lee and his wife, Michelle, have two daughters, Annika, 6, and Eva, 3.

Lee was born in Seoul in 1965 and moved to the United States at age 3 with his mother and sister while his father, a psychiatrist, worked at the Bronx Veterans Administration hospital.

The family lived briefly on the Upper West Side, and then in the Westchester County suburbs of New Rochelle and Pleasantville, among Italian- and Irish-Americans, where he had no choice but to assimilate.

He persuaded his parents to allow him to go away to school and attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire. After graduating, he enrolled at Yale University and then took a job on Wall Street for a year before deciding that what he really wanted was to become a writer.

After a failed attempt at a novel, Lee enrolled at the University of Oregon's creative writing program. His next novel, "Native Speaker," was published, and he was invited to start a creative writing program at Hunter College in New York City. Lee moved to Princeton's Council of the Humanities two years ago.

Despite reaching a level most novelists would envy, Lee says that he still has the mind-set of an immigrant.

"I still have that core kind of feeling which is, 'I hope that I can make it.' I think that's where immigrants start from: 'I hope I know how to get along here."'