Review: Chang-rae Lee’s World Adventure “My Year Abroad”

On the bookshelf

My year abroad

By Chang Rae Lee
Riverhead: 496 pages, $28

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Let’s put that aside: “My Year Abroad” isn’t 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, has long established his bona fides as a writer whose attention to identity and perspective sets him far above his peers. 2014’s “On Such a Full Sea” showed that Lee was also capable of creating superb dystopian fiction. His setting in this case was a near-future version of Baltimore known as “B-Mor”, a fishing colony.

Work and its discontents are again the focus of “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 federal government because her ex-husband was a mobster, met Tiller at the Hong Kong airport while on the run from an unspecified person. The trio currently live in a run-down suburb called Stagno, trying to stay under the radar of law enforcement while functioning as something of a family unit.

In a tale less braided than twisted, Tiller soon takes us back a few years to his late teens in privileged Dunbar, NJ, a lookalike of Princeton, where Lee was a professor until 2016. (He’s now at Stanford .) Tiller recounts his adventures willy-nilly, or so it seems to readers who won’t understand how it all comes together until the very end.

Tiller, mostly white and 12.5% ​​Asian American (“Guess you could call me Low Yella”), is growing up with a single father who is hesitant about the woman who abandoned the family years ago. After a few years at a “small private college”, Tiller is also hesitant, but while replacing the caddy at a golf club, he meets local entrepreneur Pong Lou. Pong (as he is known throughout the novel) owns a number of local restaurants based on weirdly irresistible culinary fusions – WTF Yo! frozen yogurt, Gnarly Gnoodle soups, MadMad Maki rolls and more.

As Pong approaches Tiller, introducing him to various pals, the young man fails to see that he is prepared for a mission: to help Pong introduce the Indonesian health tonic known as jamu to a large audience, with the help from a gangster named Lucky Choi. . By the time they’re on their way to the airport for “our investment trip to Asia,” Tiller feels ready for the adventure.

Lucky introduces them to the best the new Far East has to offer – sophisticated restaurants, garish casinos, stylish karaoke bars – that’s when Tiller meets Pong’s associate, exaggerated businessman Drum Kappagoda and Drum’s daughter, Constance, “a big, beautiful, nerdy-looking bully” according to Tiller. Despite being offered other options (Lucky takes her to a brothel named Evergreen Shores), Tiller develops a crush on Constance. He jumps on an invitation to Drum’s mountain retreat in Shenzhen, ostensibly to attend a yoga instructors’ conference.

From there things don’t get so bad like in every way. Top to bottom, inside and out, with no pores of Tiller’s body left unexamined or unrubbed; Constance has, shall we say, a unique approach to love. While her father goes his own way to Wellville, spending hours in a sauna, Constance and Tiller lead a nonchalant courtship, sometimes spending hours and days together before Constance vanishes for equally long periods.

At some point, somehow, Constance’s crusty tutor, Pruitt, indicates that Tiller will move in as a roommate. Why? It turns out that in Drum’s absence, there was something of a palace coup. The shriveled, 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 cautiously that we take Tiller’s new experience at face value. For days he is doused in lemongrass, scallions and other pungent herbs and vegetables, his body so immersed in the substance that he must be thoroughly washed and scrubbed before he collapses onto his mattress. Where and how could an upper middle class milquetoast student learn the true meaning of total enslavement, which too many people in the world still know?

It’s not just Tiller that makes “My Year Abroad” Lee’s most American novel to date. Back in the current timeline, Tiller’s life with Val and VeeJ cements the idea that reinvention and salvation are core myths of our national identity. VeeJ’s talent for cooking flourishes at an unlicensed supper club they call 20 Whet after their address, 20 Whetstone St. Popular diner that ended up being seven covers without us everyone crowded around the table sharing their BYOs.

VeeJ’s drive seems limitless. Soon, strangers are showing up from near and far in the hope of getting a seat at this table of inclusion, this church of delights. But when an imminent threat finally approaches the door, Tiller knows from his “year abroad” that it’s time to retreat again; he has enough experience to know what matters most.

So does the author, and that’s why it doesn’t matter that this book isn’t his best. You might call it a “base camp novel”, something written between works that reach greater heights. Long concerned with how identity holds people back, Lee now seems to want to write about how these things open us up, for better or for worse. ‘My Year Abroad’ Shows What Happens When Someone Like Tiller Bardmon, Whose Material Needs Have Been Met, risks his emotional safety without a safety net.

patrick is a freelance reviewer who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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