From the first pages of Chang-rae Lee’s new novel, Aloft, a reader worries that the novel is over before it’s begun. This is a book about the mid–Long Island suburbs, after all, a place where almost by definition Nothing Ever Happens, or at least what does happen happens in formulaic ways, a place where the challenge is how to pass the time. The absence in the center of this emptiness is Jerome Battle, scion of a local contracting firm, currently working at Parade Travel and flying his Cessna in his free time. He’s needy, demanding, selfish, hates commitment, isn’t particularly loyal, unwilling to give of himself, not overly fond of children—a Boy Scout’s motto of minor character flaws. He’s a still point in the turning world, and his dreamy, well-analyzed disengagement is galling to those around him and to a reader, too.
Lee’s first two novels, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, explored the immigrant experience. One of the themes of his novel is what happens when the river of immigration has become a delta, flowing out into the ranches and subdivisions and gated communities of Long Island. Jerry’s first wife was Korean, and American, and probably manic-depressive. Rita, the second love of his life, is Puerto Rican. His name has been shortened from the Southern Italian Battaglia, and his grandfather built his business putting in hedges and fences around the second homes of first-generation mafiosi. (There’s a Chang-rae Lee character, a Korean-American novelist married to Jerry Battle’s daughter, who says, “I guess if you put a gun to my head I’d say he writes about the Problem of Sort of Being Himself, which is to say the problem of being Asian and American and Thoughtful and Male.”) As it happens, Jerry himself has a problem with sort of being himself—or more precisely, the formulaic choices and locales and experiences his mid-Island life has provided have left him somehow incomplete as a person. It’s a novel about the end of history, and possibly the end of personality, too.
The settings—Jerry Battle’s ranch house, his son’s McMansion, the Ivy Acres nursing home, where his father has been parked—are stereotypically comfortable and barren American settings, stereotypes that ring true. His plane is relief from this blandness, this golden ghetto, and it’s no relief. It’s more of the same, a perch from which to see the sameness everywhere.
There’s trouble aplenty. His father is spiraling downward in his dotage, and his handsome son, Jack, is running the landscaping business into the ground while Jack’s beautiful wife serves caviar canapés and tools around the Island in her creamy-white Range Rover. His daughter, Theresa, discovers almost simultaneously that she’s pregnant and has cancer. She decides to have the baby, risking her own life. Then there’s his past, his late wife (the Korean), Daisy the manic-depressive, who drowned in their pool. His ex-girlfriend Rita is on the verge of marrying a friend from the old neighborhood named Richie Coniglio, who’s become a superrich corporate lawyer. This upsets Jerry, to the limited degree to which he can be upset, and drives him to tentative, ineffectual action.
The odd paradox of Aloft is that, while it has more incident than a Schwarzenegger movie—heart attack, drownings, overdoses, disappearances, high-stakes tennis matches, airborne derring-do, an attempted stabbing, a brother dead in Vietnam, a hot-air balloon down in the Atlantic—the book often seems a trifle, a melodrama manqué. Part of this is by design, as if these antiseptic suburban stage sets suck the drama and pathos out. Then, too, there’s the cauterized and unflappable Jerry Battle, who one imagines would be making wry remarks if his hair was on fire. He’s thoroughly modern, flawlessly evolved for this beige environment. His pursuit of Rita seems vestigial, an instinct that’s out of place in such an overcivilized man. His hopes and ambitions are radically foreshortened. Everything is funny, because everything is going to turn to shit—and what’s unfunny about that, looked at from a certain height?
Tonally, the book fits into that genre of male-midlife-crisis novels in which the narrator has temporarily forgotten how to want, and so pretty much just watches—the two greatest examples are Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. Lee’s book is carbonated with gorgeous set pieces about the décor of his son’s McMansion, or the death of a lion on a nature show, or paragraph-long philosophy jags and half-comic soliloquys, the noblest of sentiments punctuated by the crudest of human functions. “Pop would proudly say he was the colonist,” writes Lee, “the pioneer, the one who had to clear-cut the land and fight tooth and nail with the natives, and that I’m the settler, the follower, the guy who grooved the first ruts in the road, the one who finally overflowed the outhouse shithole, who has presided over the steady downward trend of our civilization perhaps just now begun its penultimate phase of entropy and depletion.”
Perhaps. Battle’s answer to this question is equivocal. He’s not wholly himself.
The plane is a metaphor for Jerry Battle’s remoteness, his aloneness, his posture as an observer, an outsider. For most of the book, it’s a place to hide. There’s an airy lightness and inconsequentiality about Aloft (think: Zoloft) that’s both charming and cloying. It never quite gets back to earth.