Chang-rae Lee’s new novel, “My Year Abroad,” is, like everything he writes, considered and elegant, formal and philosophical. He’s firmly in command. He remains in command while this novel runs straight off the road and into a deep ravine. To borrow a euphemism from the world of aeronautics, this long and draggy book is a “controlled flight into terrain.”
The novel’s protagonist is Tiller, a 20-year-old college student from New Jersey. When we first meet him, he’s been through an unspecified harrowing experience. He’s in the Hong Kong airport with just his clothes, a small folding knife, an A.T.M. card and some lingering bruises, as if God has flung him from a bough.
In the food court he meets Val, a single mother in her 30s. She’s from New Jersey, too. They hit it off. Both are only children (this novel is swimming with these, and with orphans) and both are one-eighth Asian. Tiller likes to refer to himself as “a semi-diasporic postcolonial indeterminate.”
They return to New Jersey and move in together. Val has had harrowing experiences of her own. She’s in a witness protection program after ratting out her husband, who seems to have fallen out of a minor episode of “The Sopranos”: He was tangled up in rocket launchers, fake caviar and Mongolian mineral rights, and he possibly abetted terrorists.
There’s already a lot going on in “My Year Abroad” when Lee begins to backfill his narrative. We observe Tiller’s childhood, with his distant father, in a town that sounds a lot like Princeton. More important, we learn about Tiller’s emerging friendship, in the near present day, with Pong Lou, a chameleonic, middle-aged, larger-than-life Chinese-American entrepreneur.
Pong owns a fro-yo shop. He’s also a chemist who works for a pharmaceutical giant. One of his projects is the development of a premium elixir, rich with boutique additives, that can be modified to suit each consumer and may extend life. The product is to be called Elixirent, a supernal energy drink. Tiller goes along with Pong on a junket to China to try to raise money for it. It’s on this excess-filled trip that things turn dark for him.
This is probably the place to say that “My Year Abroad” is among the most obsessive food novels yet written. Teeth tear into sinew, fat or sugar on nearly every page. Pong and Tiller eat like trenchermen; they pack away feast after feast as if they were A.J. Liebling and Orson Welles going mano-a-mano on The International Herald Tribune’s expense account. In another narrative tangent, Val’s 8-year-old son, Victor Jr., is a precocious chef. He turns out dishes like tea-smoked squab and kimchi juice-pickled oyster shooters.
It’s among this novel’s implausibilities that Val and Tiller help Victor open, while they’re in the witness protection program, a pop-up restaurant in their house. People pour in nightly to eat Victor’s food and post photographs of their feasts on social media.
Nearly all of this novel’s imagery is derived from food. Tiller’s legs, at one point, are “becoming logs of luncheon meat.” He worries his face is “as distinctive as a honeydew in a bin of honeydews.” One normally talkative man suddenly goes “as mum as a cauliflower.”
Tiller and Val eat Victor’s Peking duck risotto and explode into carnal space, with Val “afterward torching me in our Thunderdome bed like I was one of Victor Jr.’s cardamom crème brûlées before cracking through the candied shell to my whipped-custard core.” (Waiter, can I have an order of that risotto to go?)
It’s overkill. Reading “My Year Abroad,” one starts to feel, as Pete Townshend wrote in a recent Who song, “over-full, always sated, puffed up, elated.” The too-muchness of food in recent fiction reminds me of a letter Lionel Trilling wrote to Norman Mailer in 1959, deploring the “new tendency to explicitness about sex” in novels.
Trilling acknowledged Mailer’s point, that sex is surely necessary in fiction, but wrote: “Put it that I am in favor of a lot of explicitness for 10, maybe 12 years; then everybody shut up.” That’s more or less how I feel about the landslide of food in novels circa 2021. I would have vastly more authority on this topic if my own writing weren’t full of metaphors drawn from the dinner table.
In his past novels, Lee’s narrators have frequently been aged. This suits him; in print, at least, he’s an old soul. It’s among the drawbacks of “My Year Abroad” that Tiller rarely sounds like a believable 20-year-old. Granted, he’s been through a lot. But Lee gives him so many groaning observations (“We’re beasts of our own burdens, which never lighten”) that he’s hard to take seriously. There’s no lightness in him. He’s all brakes and no gas.
Even harder to take seriously is this novel’s big reveal, the moment when we discover what happened to Tiller on the junket abroad, the “harrowing journey” he refers to in the first chapter. I can’t give the crucial scene away, but it’s nuts.
Lee presents a tableau that might have been concocted by Peter Greenaway for his Grand Guignol movie “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” or by Ian Fleming in an abandoned novel titled “The Spy Who Spatchcocked Me.” Suffice it to say that you will never look at dungeons, mortars and pestles, thongs, hairnets, curry, tennis umpires’ chairs and Jacques Lacan’s writing in the same way.
Lee isn’t a humorless writer, and he surely sees some mischief here too. But he plays this all with a straight face, and the scars Tiller comes away with are real.
There are good things in “My Year Abroad.” Pong is an appealing and original creation. The fact that Tiller, Val and Victor must mostly remain housebound for their protection gives this novel Covid-19-era resonance.
Lee has earned the right to write a fluky novel without shaking our respect. Sometimes, with fiction, it’s sic biscuitus disintegratum — that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
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