Review and thoughts: The Surrendered

by Intermittent Rain ~ April 22nd, 2012. Filed under: Thoughts about Writing.


* Modified February 23rd, 2013 *

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately and not much writing. One of the recent reads is “The Surrendered” by Chang-rae Lee. As is always the case, I’m writing about it not for a scholarly review but to note “writerly” aspects that I’ve thought about.

A little prior to this I read Murakami and with his novels I am aware that he is writing in Japanese and the writing that I read is translated. The books (I’ve read two of his novels now) have some unusual use of language and I often wonder to what extent this is his writing style, or a Japanese way of presenting writing, or simply the translator having difficulties. I don’t know that I’ll ever know for sure so I don’t pay too much attention.

But as far as I can tell Chang-rae Lee writes in English and “The Surrendered” was not written and then translated. It’s still possible that English was not his first language or that he simply carries with him some some elements of other cultural presentation or phrasing, but some elements of his writing seem odd to me.

One element is his use of commas. Somehow in my development as a writer I’ve become an overuser of commas and often have to suck a number of them out when reviewing, so perhaps I’m overly sensitive to what I perceive to be improper or at least less that ideal use of commas. Chang-rae Lee’s writing sometimes reminds me of my own difficulties with their use. From his book,

It was massive and impressive to his boy’s eyes, built from blocks of granite and with a medieval-style tower, and within its soaring buttressed wooden ceiling above the nave, the supports and walls were clad in a limestone that shone brilliantly in the daytime from the light that streamed in through three high, narrow stained-glass windows over the main entrance.

I’m not sure about the use of the comma near the middle. Here, without it:

 It was massive and impressive to his boy’s eyes, built from blocks of granite and with a medieval-style tower, and within its soaring buttressed wooden ceiling above the nave the supports and walls were clad in a limestone that shone brilliantly in the daytime from the light that streamed in through three high, narrow stained-glass windows over the main entrance.

Another example.

There was a separate small chapel off the nave, devoted to the Annunciation, and Hector was surprised how well he could recall it now, the narrow space like a miniaturized chapel with its smaller altar and cross and off to the side a stature of a remarkably beautiful Irish-faced Mary, who could have been one of his sisters.

The last comma makes me uncomfortable, but if you remove it the related but separate statement about the Mary figure being similar to his sisters is not set off enough.

There was a separate small chapel off the nave, devoted to the Annunciation, and Hector was surprised how well he could recall it now, the narrow space like a miniaturized chapel with its smaller altar and cross and off to the side a stature of a remarkably beautiful Irish-faced Mary who could have been one of his sisters.

Or maybe the two separate sections of sentence could be split right in the middle with a semi-colon? I don’t know what’s ideal here.

There was a separate small chapel off the nave, devoted to the Annunciation, and Hector was surprised how well he could recall it now; the narrow space like a miniaturized chapel with its smaller altar and cross and off to the side a stature of a remarkably beautiful Irish-faced Mary, who could have been one of his sisters.

These are just two examples grabbed from sections of text within the same chapter; other examples similar to these are everywhere within the novel.

Part of the issue arises because he, like many writers, likes to use long sentences and when you try to combine many related but not sequential phrases in one sentence, things can get hairy. As with the sentence that I just wrote. 🙂 At the same time he contrasts these long sentences with occasional short statements, but there were a few times that I found these short lines unnecessarily abrupt and blunt. They felt less like an important statement being highlighted and more like a speed bump that you feel but didn’t see coming.

A couple other items of note. I was not aware until I completed reading and began doing some internet searches that Chang-rae Lee  is male. For some reason I had the sense that the author was female, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps the perspectives of the female characters seemed more vivid to me than the male characters, or maybe it’s, as my partner says of my own writing, that his writing has a female style. I have a sense of what that means but without really understanding it.

Also, when I researched I expected to find references to D. H. Lawrence because I found the description of the relationships very Lawrencian, but in my limited searching I found no one else making that connection. Perhaps it’s old news and has been discussed in reviews of his earlier works but it seems that his earlier writing has been done in first person and I don’t think that same Lawrencian way of describing relationships would be as common in first person, but here I’m only guessing.

I said that this was not intended as a review of the book, but if you are reading this and thinking about reading it, do so. I particularly admire the depth of the story and the exquisite way in which he juggles story lines from different points in time, presenting them in a sequence that strengthens the effect of the story rather than adhering to any straight-line double time line. One casual reviewer had difficulty with this which made me sad because  Chang-rae Lee has done this so well that if you have trouble with it, well, it’s just sad.

 

 

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