I missed author Chang-rae Lee’s recent Atlanta reading at The Carter Center in support of his new book The Surrendered. I had heard many good things about the novel, and I would have liked to hear the author talk directly about it. As it is, I picked up the novel anyway based on its near rave reviews. However, I did get to listen to Lee on Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm show just after finishing the book, which is almost as good as seeing him live.
I had read somewhere that the novel’s horrific opening scene, which features small children trying to find a safe haven in the midst of the Korean War, was based on the experiences of Lee’s father. It was good to know this going in, or I would have wondered at the author’s need to create such a brutal chain of events. It turns out that Lee was just getting started.
The novel intertwines the stories of three people: a survivor of the opening scene, a US soldier, and an American missionary. Each of these people has suffered a horrific loss in their lives, in the most horrifying ways possible. As a result, each has largely given up on life – they are the surrendered. They each self medicate in some way in order to have some respite from their pain and make it through the day. Still, the pilot light of their will to live is in danger of flickering out once and for all at any moment.
The timeline of the novel extends from the war to the approximate present. There is little joy and almost no hope for anyone involved over the years. Only two of the three live to make it out of Korea, which is the source for still more pain for the survivors. Despite trying daily to merely endure life and its pain, bad things continue to happen in their lives. It is a vicious downward spiral that renders makes it not worth living.
Reading this novel is a chore despite its many upsides: it is beautifully written, the scenery comes alive, the characters are utterly believable, and, at times the plot was absolutely gripping. But it is so challenging (for me) to read at length about people who have no interest in living. The misery in the pages can suck the joy out of an otherwise beautiful day. And I suppose that is the point of the novel – war necessarily leads to human suffering that is prolonged in many, many lives long past the dates of the actual conflict. The novel carries with it an incredible and very heavy sadness. “soul-crushing” might be too strong a word to describe this novel – but not by much.
In the interview with Michael Silverblatt, Lee says he wanted to create a sort of modern Book of Job. Except in this novel, there is no answer to Job’s (or his stand-in’s) pleas to God of “why?”. There is no point to the human suffering that hangs on almost every page. Silverblatt asks Lee a rather bold question: “Why should we read such a thing?” Lee says we should read it to “feel something”, to connect in an emotional way with war in a time when we are increasingly placed at an emotional remove from it. If any of this sounds intriguing to you, listen to Lee’s interview with Michael Silverblatt before buying the book. If you still want to read it, do so in a sunny place with loved ones nearby.