Review: Chang-rae Lee’s new global adventure is his most essentially American novel
On the Shelf
My Year Abroad
By Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead: 496 pages, $28
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Let’s get this out of the way: “My Year Abroad” is not Chang-rae Lee’s best novel. Not even his second best. But can we agree that even Lee’s worst novel would be better than most authors’ best efforts?
The Korean American author, whose first novel, “Native Speaker,” was nominated for a National Book Award and his third novel, “The Surrendered,” for a Pulitzer Prize, long ago established his bona fides as a writer whose attention to identity and perspective place him far above his peers. “On Such a Full Sea,” in 2014, showed that Lee also was capable of crafting superb dystopian fiction. His setting in that case was a near-future version of Baltimore known as “B-Mor,” a labor colony of fisherfolk.
Labor and its discontents are once again the focus in “My Year Abroad,” which opens with a young man, Tiller Bardmon, supporting and sheltering a woman named Val and her son Victor Jr., or VeeJ. Val, on the run from the feds because her ex-husband was a gangster, met Tiller at the Hong Kong airport when he was on the run from someone unspecified. The trio currently make their home in a rundown suburb called Stagno, trying to stay under the radar of law enforcement while functioning as some kind of family unit.
In a narrative not so much braided as twisted, Tiller soon takes us back a few years to his late adolescence in privileged Dunbar, N.J., a doppelgänger for Princeton, where Lee was a professor until 2016. (He is now at Stanford.) Tiller recounts his adventures in willy-nilly fashion, or so it seems to readers who won’t understand how it all ties together until the very end.
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Tiller, mostly white and 12.5% Asian American (“I guess you could call me Low Yella”), grows up with a single father who dithers over the woman who abandoned the family years ago. After a couple of years at a “small private college,” Tiller is dithering too, but while filling in as a golf-club caddy he meets local entrepreneur Pong Lou. Pong (as he is called throughout the novel) owns a number of local restaurants based on oddly irresistible culinary fusions — WTF Yo! frozen yogurt, Gnarly Gnoodle soups, MadMad Maki rolls and the like.
As Pong draws Tiller closer, introducing him to various cronies, the young man fails to see he’s being groomed for a mission: to help Pong introduce the Indonesian health tonic known as jamu to a huge audience, with the help of a gangster named Lucky Choi. By the time they’re on the way to the airport for “our investment trip to Asia,” Tiller feels ready for adventure.
Lucky takes them through the best the new Far East has to offer — sophisticated restaurants, gaudy casinos, sleek karaoke bars — which is when Tiller encounters Pong’s associate, over-the-top businessman Drum Kappagoda, and Drum’s daughter, Constance, “a big gorgeous nerdy-looking brute of a gal” in Tiller’s estimation. While offered other options (Lucky takes him to a brothel named Evergreen Shores), Tiller has the hots for Constance. He jumps at an invitation to Drum’s Shenzhen mountain retreat, ostensibly to witness a yoga-instructor conference.
From there, things don’t go downhill so much as every which way. Up, down, in and out, with no pore of Tiller’s body left unexamined or unscrubbed; Constance has, shall we say, a unique approach to lovemaking. As her father pursues his own road to wellville, spending hours in a sauna, Constance and Tiller conduct a lackadaisical courtship, sometimes spending hours and days together before Constance disappears for equally long stretches.
At a certain point, somehow or other, Constance’s crunchy tutor Pruitt indicates that Tiller will be moving in as his roommate. Why? It turns out that in Drum’s absence there has been a sort of palace coup. The wizened, toothless cook, nicknamed “Chilies,” forces Pruitt and Tiller to operate a giant mortar and pestle to produce gallons of Uncle Chaison’s Organic Curry Paste, in demand throughout Asia.
The author has led us to this moment so gingerly that we take Tiller’s new experience at face value. For days on end he’s doused with lemongrass, scallions and other pungent herbs and vegetables, his body so immersed in the stuff that he must be fully washed and scrubbed before collapsing on his mattress. Where and how else could a milquetoast upper-middle-class college student learn the true meaning of total enslavement, which too many people in the world still know?
It’s not just Tiller who makes “My Year Abroad” Lee’s most American novel yet. Back in the present timeline, Tiller’s life with Val and VeeJ cements the idea that reinvention and salvation are foundational myths of our national identity. VeeJ’s talent for cooking blossoms into an unlicensed supper club they call 20 Whet after their address, 20 Whetstone St. As Tiller describes it in a single whipsaw passage, VeeJ “was planning a classic hangar steak au poivre vert with garlicky hash browns, a very popular dinner that ended up being seven covers not including us, everyone crammed around the table sharing their BYOs.”
VeeJ’s drive seems limitless. Soon strangers show up from near and far hoping for a place at this table of inclusion, this church of deliciousness. But when a looming threat finally approaches the door, Tiller knows from his “year abroad” that it’s time to hunker down again; he has enough experience to know what matters most.
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So does the author, and that’s why it matters not a bit that this book isn’t his best. You could call it a “base-camp novel,” something written between works scaling greater heights. Long preoccupied with the ways identity holds people back, Lee now seems to want to write about how those things open us up, for good or ill. “My Year Abroad” shows what happens when someone like Tiller Bardmon, whose material needs have been met, risks his emotional safety without a net.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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