Questions and Topics for Discussion
At 59, Jerry Battle is coasting through life. His favorite pastime is flying his small plane high above Long Island. Aloft, he can escape from the troubles that plague his family, neighbors, and loved ones on the ground. But he can’t stay in the air forever. Only months before his 60th birthday, a culmination of family crises finally pull Jerry down from his emotionally distant course.
Jerry learns that his family’s stability is in jeopardy. His father, Hank, is growing increasingly unhappy in his assisted living facility. His son, Jack, has taken over the family landscaping business but is running it into bankruptcy. His daughter, Theresa, has become pregnant and has been diagnosed with cancer. His longtime girlfriend, Rita, who helped raise his children, has now moved in with another man. And Jerry still has unanswered questions that he must face regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of his late wife.
Since the day his wife died, Jerry has turned avoiding conflict into an art form—the perfect expression being his solitary flights from which he can look down on a world that appears serene and unscathed. From his comfortable distance, he can’t see the messy details, let alone begin to confront them. But Jerry is learning that in avoiding conflict, he is also avoiding contact with the people he loves most.
Written with a captivating urgency, Aloft is a witty social critique of contemporary suburban America and a deft portrait of a man struggling to balance his responsibilities with his freedoms. It is the story of Jerry Battle learning to cope with life’s messy details, and the redemption he finds when he finally chooses to immerse himself in them.
ABOUT CHANG-RAE LEE
Chang-rae Lee burst on the scene with Native Speaker, which won numerous awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award. His second novel, A Gesture Life, established him as one of the preeminent writers of his generation. Now, with Aloft, Lee has expanded his range and proves himself a master storyteller, able to observe his characters’ flaws and weaknesses and, at the same time, celebrate their humanity.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSJerry’s relationships with the three women in his life are complicated and inter-related. What were the happiest moments of the life he shared with Daisy? Why did Rita help Jerry raise Jack and Theresa when he denied her the opportunity to have children of her own? Why doesn’t Jerry do more to help Kelly in her most desperate moment of need?
On the surface, Paul and Jack are completely different: Paul is a small, wiry bookworm, an out-of-work writer, while Jack is a natural-born athlete and manager of the Battle family business. But while the differences are apparent, both men practice a form of denial with regard to their relationships with their wives. How are both men governed by the demands of these relationships? Discuss the differences and similarities between Jack and Paul as they try to cope with the conflicts of their married lives.
Why is Theresa determined to have her baby—even at the cost of her own life?
When Jerry goes to Richie’s house to look for Rita and is reluctantly drawn into a high-wager tennis match against him, he allows his plane, Donnie, to be the collateral with which he will play. Donnie is Jerry’s favorite escape. Is his potentially sacrificing it enough to show Rita that he wants her back? Why does Rita decide to stay and help Jerry put his family back together again?
Discuss the metaphor of flight as it relates to Jerry’s propensity for escapism and for distancing himself from the problems that arise in the world.
How does Jerry deal with Theresa’s illness differently than with Daisy’s?
When Hank sounds sick over the phone, Jerry admits to his disbelief in “the Real.” Jerry continually tries to ignore “the Real,” to float beyond it until the trouble has passed and someone else has dealt with it. How does this attitude affect his ability to raise Jack and Theresa? Theresa later praises Jerry for his parenting skills. Would Jack feel the same way toward his father? Does Jack, instead, pity himself? Why?
When Paul and Jerry are in Pop’s bedroom watching TV, Paul explains that the problem with the world is that everyone is too self absorbed: “They think they can go anywhere and do anything, as if none of their actions has any bearing except on themselves.” Jerry often characterizes himself in much the same way. Does he avoid feeling guilty by believing his problems originate with Daisy’s death? Does he excuse all his family members of their faults with the same justification? How, if at all, does learning more about Daisy’s last few hours change Jerry’s opinions about himself?
How do you think Jerry characterizes Theresa’s death? Was it his fault? Hers? How would Jerry view Daisy’s death in contrast? What is your interpretation of the circumstances that lead to each woman’s passing?
The novel begins with Jerry flying in his plane and ends with him stepping into a rectangular hole in the ground that will later be a pool, lying down, and looking up at the sky. Discuss the symbolism of the book’s final image and how it relates to the metaphor of flight throughout the rest of the novel.