I'm always curious about what Chang-rae Lee is up to, even if I don't always love the result. Lee captivated me — and a multitude of other readers — with his 1995 debut, Native Speaker, about the insider-outsider situation of that novel's first-generation Korean American main character.
Native Speaker was layered with humor, absurdity, sharp social observation and loss. In contrast, I thought Lee's 2014 dystopian novel, On Such a Full Sea, fell uncharacteristically flat (though it was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award).
His new novel is called My Year Abroad and flat it is not. This exuberant novel weighs in at almost 500 pages and takes readers on an excursion out of the New Jersey suburbs and across the Pacific into some of the more luxurious reaches of Asian megacities. Along the way, the novel's main character, a rising American college junior named Tiller Bardmon, who's one-eighth Asian and otherwise white, gets a hands-on education in entrepreneurship, hedonistic excess and worker exploitation.
Tiller retrospectively narrates this travelogue and, I'll say at the outset, that he's an odd choice for this central role. He's an empty vessel; one of those passive young men who appears to have no driving interests and, perhaps, only two saving graces: He's funny and he's willing to be led. Consequently, Tiller allows himself to be led into some strange situations.
In the present-time of the novel, Tiller is living with a 30-something woman named Val and her 8-year-old son, whom he met at the Hong Kong Airport on the way home from his overseas expedition. Val is hiding out in a witness protection program and Tiller dryly dubs the nondescript suburb they're tucked into as "Stagno."
A year earlier, Tiller was living with his single father in a different American suburb, a more upscale "Stagno." Tiller was killing time, waiting to leave for his college semester abroad. Here's how he describes that rite of passage enjoyed by privileged college students:
[M]y small expensive college ... and the semester abroad program were one and the same in terms of people and anticipations. Namely: we were generally well-off and generally bright and generally interested in the things worth being interested in like sustainability and creativity and equality and justice, but also generally keen on hooking up and cool beaches and cheap authentic-enough ethnic restaurants and making connections with people who might offer opportunities for cultural and professional experiences that were life-changing but hopefully not too much.
That passage, for me, encapsulates everything fabulous and wearying about My Year Abroad, a novel I feel deeply mixed about. Lee's writing style, as usual, is alive with wit and satiric social commentary. But Tiller is such a walking personification of ennui that it's hard to care very much about what happens to him on the alternative adventure he stumbles into instead of his planned semester abroad.
Here's how it begins: One day, while making pocket change for his impending trip, Tiller is caddying at a golf course and meets a Chinese businessman named Pong Lou. "Pong," Tiller tells us later in the novel, "was one of those people who always seem freshly popped from the tennis-ball can." For reasons that remain obscure to the end, Pong invites Tiller to be his assistant on an investment trip to Asia. And, because Tiller is, as he tells us, one of the "99.9 percent [of people who] simply orbit," he agrees.
In the months that follow, Tiller trails Pong into lavish deal-making dinners in China and high-stakes casinos in Macau. Readers familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald's over-the-top short story "The Diamond as Big as The Ritz" will hear echoes of it in Tiller's climactic adventure at a mad billionaire's estate. I guess, like "Diamond," My Year Abroad can be read as a critique of capitalist desire run amok. Or not. Maybe there's no grand take-away here. For despite its expanse, My Year Abroad doesn't carry Tiller — or us readers — as far as we might expect. As an excursion, the novel mimics Tiller's own earlier description of those college semester abroad programs: boisterous and fun, but a bit light on core content.