“From up here, a half mile above the Earth, everything looks perfect to me.” So begins Aloft, the third novel from Chang-rae Lee. From the cockpit of his personal airplane, Jerry Battle, Aloft’s protagonist, can view the world in tidy packages: dimensions of architecture, angles and lines, straight highways running parallel up and down Long Island. From 10,000 feet, Jerry rejects the tangled reality of his life, namely, his difficult relationships with his dead wife, ailing father, estranged girlfriend, pregnant daughter, and the son who is running the family business into the ground.
Jerry prefers his view of the world from the sky; he is a solo flyer, by choice. His wife’s death (was it suicide or an accident?) and the other troubles of his life don’t matter while he’s airborne. He is a man surrounded by unfinished business he doesn’t want to acknowledge, facing his sixtieth birthday and his own mortality. Flying solo in his plane mirrors his disengagement from life; from the sky, the world far below him is as untouchable as he himself wants to be.
In his semi-retirement, Jerry has taken up work in a local travel agency, sending people away to some of the destinations he has visited on his own through the years. He admits that he has a fantasy of traveling continuously for the rest of his life, knowing that constant travel means, “that you’ll never quite get intimate enough for any trouble to start brewing.”
Jerry’s disengagement from the real comes at a price. He believes that, since his wife died over twenty years ago, he has had enough sorrow and pain for one lifetime, and so chooses to ignore the obvious pain of his family in the present. He finds himself being drawn unwillingly into his family’s tangled lives, trying to make meaning out of the past and present as a materially, but not emotionally, successful man.
The novel’s narrative jumps back and forth from Jerry’s past to his present, and the reader gets a view of the choices he has made, as well as his mistakes. Told from Jerry’s viewpoint, the text wanders like his thoughts, in a complex, intellectual and beautiful prose (though Jerry frequently sounds more like an English Ph.D. than a man who spent his life as reluctant owner of a landscaping company).
The language of the text reveals the author himself, who teaches writing at Princeton University and has been voted one of the twenty best writers under forty by The New Yorker magazine. This sense of high intellectualism injected into the narrative of this 59-year-old man, though beautifully written, feels unrealistic. It can be frustrating to read, as one long sentence will often make up a single paragraph, and phrases like, “…it has begun to read like some ominous Occidental ideogram, this admonitory vision of the two-sided hook,” don’t sound believable coming out of the mouth of Jerry, a self-described “average American guido.” You will, however, want to keep turning the pages of this book, as many things are happening in Jerry’s world, but with so much going on, you may also long for a rest along the way.