The Heart of the Matter
Or, How the New Yorker Tore the Heart Out of Aloft
by Chang-rae Lee
(Riverhead Books) $24.95
A piece of Chang-rae Lee's novel Aloft was excerpted in the New Yorker in January. Entitled "Daisy," it was an articulate, quiet, and sad account of an inarticulate, loud, and colossally insensitive American everyman named Jerry Battle. A self-described Guido jerk, Jerry was both impressively self-centered and wholly observant--an improbable combination--and his first-person narrative voice inspired both pity and awe.
The events of the excerpted story centered around his wife, Daisy, tipping into madness. In one scene, after a cop brought Daisy--completely composed, shod in Keds and wearing only a blue tarp--home in the middle of the night, Jerry found her making tuna salad in the kitchen. "But the strange thing was that she did it all so casually, as if a nude woman in sneakers chopping vegetables at three in the morning after a neighborhood police sweep was de rigueur around here, our customary midsummer night's dream." Jerry was sharper than he should be, his writerly descriptions prettier than possible for such an obdurate jackass, but the story's language and tightness pulled you along.
The New Yorker prints excerpts from novels as short stories all the time. The problem with this particular excerpt is that it happened to be the very heart of the book. Lodged just before the middle, the chapter's all a flashback, culminating in Daisy's young death; it's the part of the book that glimmers opalescent and alive and quivering, animating to the best of its ability the rest. Elsewhere in the novel, Jerry Battle is pushing 60, but the death of his wife is what has informed all his other relationships, or lack thereof. If you've read the excerpt, it's deflating to anticipate it--and more so to reach it, reread it, and soldier on, realizing that it's the best part of the book.
The young Jerry Battle's ham-fisted mishandling of Daisy's madness is terrible, as he takes his equally assholish father's advice ("'Don't you know how to handle your wife yet?... you have to squash her every once in a while, I mean completely flatten her'"). But the young Jerry is at least tensely engaged, his rage and fear flaring out; the older Jerry is a full-fledged escapist, complete with the symbolic hobby of flying his own small plane, and he indulges in dolorous philosophizing as his late-middle-age life collapses around him. He analyzes his breakup with his longtime girlfriend, the consumerism of his grown son, the intellectualism of his daughter and her husband, and the influence his elderly father still exerts on him; he ponders progress and race and the emptiness of life, all to not much avail.
The book as a whole amounts to Jerry Battle's relentless examination of his supposedly unexamined life, and the voice and the character, already incongruous in the excerpt, don't hold together for the long haul. As his family falls apart, the flying metaphor becomes heavier and heavier ("And perhaps over time it's this already anticipated turbulence that brings a family most harm, the knowledge unacknowledged, which at some point you can try and try but can't glide above") until, in a dramatic conclusion worthy of a made-for-TV movie, he finds himself aloft and blind in a fog, conquering his fear while carrying precious familial cargo.
That Jerry Battle's realization that he's not a solo flyer feels contrived, that his ponderous interior monologue mismatches his persona, that the book as a whole doesn't maintain the pace of that chapter at its center--all this is forgivable. Aloft is grueling at times, engaging at times, you love Jerry Battle and you hate Jerry Battle--the body of the book is good. But that heart is gorgeous.