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Chang-Rae Lee’s Global Novel

Bubbling under the cacophony of the city or suburban mundaneness is the sound and the fury of an unutterable desperation for acceptance, family, and something that will endure

A novel that takes the form of a transnational adventure, Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad came to us at an ironic milestone: the one year mark of the Covid-19 pandemic, that, along with ravaging societies around the globe, catalyzed severe and ongoing travel restrictions. In Lee’s new novel, a Chinese American entrepreneur, Pong Lou, and his rambunctious associates whisk away Tiller Bardmon, an American college student, on a gustatory extravaganza and rollicking, life-changing trip across the world. Tiller, our self-professed average-joe narrator, tells the reader that there is nothing special about him, not even his mommy-issues. His impressionability, pliability, and eagerness to please are part of why he gets swept up by the charismatic Pong. 

The novel opens with Tiller’s self-contradiction: “I won’t say where I am in this greatish country of ours…” he declares, before he proceeds to describe “Stagno,” an unremarkable American suburban every-town, where he lives with Val, a young single mother and her son Veej. As we will come to realize, this instance of paralipsis that opens the novel is emblematic of Tiller and part of what makes him so endearing—his die-hard optimism and the way he cannot help but do, try, say, hope, in spite of himself.

The novel toggles between Tiller’s present life with Val and Veej, where they toil at building a happy, normal existence out of a life in witness protection; his earlier life in Dunbar; and his at turns zany and harrowing adventures abroad, including a near-death surfing accident in Hawaii, and drunken karaoke and S&M sex in Macau and Shenzhen. In this novel, Lee is expressly interested in the global—investigating Western attitudes, Eastern stereotypes, capitalism, global trade, and cultural immersion. Ultimately, Lee gets at something universal—that whether in Shenzhen or Macau or even in Stagno, bubbling under the cacophony of the city or suburban mundaneness is the sound and the fury of an unutterable desperation for acceptance, family, and something that will endure.

The novel openly demonstrates its interest in inverting and subverting genre. In an interview with scholar Wesley Yu at the Odyssey Bookshop, Lee jokingly called My Year Abroad his “mid-life crisis” novel and affirmed that with it, he wanted to try to get outside of genre. If genre itself is a kind of defined space, experimenting with genre in this novel takes the form of a literal misadventure. The “year abroad” experience, commonly packaged as the Eurotrip, or the American road trip, is here a zany transnational Asian adventure; and even though our protagonist is from a college town, we don’t get the “campus novel,” but a global, everywhere-else-novel.  Indeed, My Year Abroad runs the gamut of allusions. A reader may start out thinking they were going to get a novel like How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, only to find themselves spun dizzily around à la Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The novel is at parts Around the World in 80 Days, at parts To Live, while in Pong we get Jay Gatsby reborn and restyled as a successful Asian immigrant. 

My Year Abroad uses a historical realist mode in painting Pong’s backstory yet indulges in a truly wacky hysterical realism (think giant human-powered pestle and mortar sweatshop for mass producing curry that is literally flavored with blood, sweat, and tears) in putting Tiller through the ringer during his time in Asia. In drawing from various genre novels while being itself multiple, fragmentary, and existing as assemblage, the novel displays Lee’s superb mastery of the literary canon while allowing the novel to divulge its enterprise as something beyond merely toying with genre—even exploding it altogether.

Chang-rae Lee is often praised as a master prose stylist. But his achingly, perfectly beautiful prose—which has, in the past, struck me sometimes as overwrought, stylized, and embellished to the point of being florid—carries the mark of something I have suspected is endemic to many immigrant writers, Vladimir Nabokov being the most famous of them all. Nabokov’s stylistic virtuosity is diligently remarked upon; first, because it is an objective fact, but more often in fact as a gesture to his foreignness—as if so flourishing a mastery of the English language by a “foreigner” is as much cause for suspicion as it is for awe. Indeed, in a recent New York Times interview Lee professes to being gripped by moments of anxiety around language and belonging, what he calls “the immigrant alarm”: “I don’t belong here. I don’t really know the language, figuratively and literally.” John Cheever is often the American writer that Lee is compared to because of Lee’s allusions to Cheever’s stories and his interest in the milieu of the American suburb, but I have always felt that the American writer Lee is most reminiscent of is in fact another immigrant writer—Nabokov, the ultimate prose stylist.

As with all of Lee’s novels, My Year Abroad, too, has a darkness that simmers just under the surface, a latent horror that creeps in and solidifies into recognition only after the first reading is through. I have always read Lee’s A Gesture Life as a rewriting of Lolita; in My Year Abroad, we get yet another go around. Much of what happens in My Year Abroad feels trippy and madcap, and Lee adroitly balances his depiction of kooky Asian characters on the knife edge of stereotypical caricature and something like honest representation (the drunk Asian bro seems like a dumbass, but who doesn’t have an Asian friend who goes buck wild at karaoke?). Dolores Haze gets taken on an awful road trip around the United States, accruing nothing but misery; Tiller, too, is taken for a spin, but around the globe, where he is titillated, yes, but also essentially assaulted, tortured, and trafficked. That Tiller is a curious, over-eager, and horny  mostly-white young man makes this perhaps harder to detect on the first pass, but it’s there. If one of the most popular readings of Lolita in 1960s Cold War United States was that it was an allegory for an unscrupulous Old World—the European pedophile professor come to pillage the New World symbolized in  young waif Dolores Haze—then My Year Abroad similarly reflects the fears in our present moment around shifting global economic and political powers. The novel portrays the anxieties around moving out of the American century and into the Chinese century, depicting an increasingly powerful China which is dangerously and violently inhospitable (to the West). In Pong Lou we see the direction in which the world is turning, and in My Year Abroad we get both the United States’ paranoid fear of an imagined Asian retaliation (Lee crafts a terrifying and funny metaphor in the character Chilies, whose hatred of white foreigners and glee in torturing them feel like a demented fantasy around the East revenging itself against the West) and the United States’ horrified vision of a growing hegemonic East. 

Lee has often been compared to Kazuo Ishiguro and has said in interviews that he admires Ishiguro’s work, though he demurs to suggestions that their work is actually alike. The New Yorker lauded Lee’s 1999 A Gesture Life for being “A wonderful mixture of Richard Ford and Kazuo Ishiguro” and his more recent On Such a Full Sea, published in 2014, is said to “[recall] the work of Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro.” These comparisons are revealing in the specificity of their combinations: a unique Asian American writer is only made legible through the invocation of a prominent white man American writer and another ethnically East Asian author, a giant in the field of world literature known for the universality of his style. But with his latest novel, Lee puts these comparisons to rest. In My Year Abroad, Lee’s voice is wholly and recognizably unique. Dragooned into crafting his most affable character to date, Lee’s masterful prose comes fully into its own—his prose is delicate yet self-abasing in tone, muscular yet sensitive, bawdy and truly hilarious (Tiller reassures himself of his sexual maturity by describing his balls as “twee neat goolies” with “an educated hang”). Descriptions of Tiller’s tribulations, for example, are as abject as they are effective at eliciting a kind of horrified hilarity, inviting one to reflect on the ways that humor and suffering interact: 

“This was some serious pharma, a funky, deep medicine that was juicing my nerves and keeping me upright even as I was certain it was also poisoning me… I must have looked like an afterbirth, my body streaked with curried slicks of sweat, snot, tears, and pee… I was totally depleted, as spent as a one-ply sheet of toilet paper and useless for anything more.” 

For readers of contemporary fiction, though, it is of course happy serendipity that Kazuo Ishiguro and Chang-rae Lee have published new novels only a month apart in 2021. Disciplinarily, this has important implications for the growing field of world literature. 

American literature has generally been cleaved from the field of the global anglophone or world literature for reasons of linguistic and cultural hegemony. The term Global Anglophone also emerged in literary critical discourse as a kind of successor to earlier disciplinary categories such as postcolonial and World Literature (both of which are also politically fraught). But this distinction of American literature as outside of World Literature is one that presumes American literature to be white. American literature in fact includes or should include a whole array of indigenous and diasporic categories. Scholars such as David Damrosch and Rebecca Walkowitz now highlight and emphasize literary networks and social processes in thinking about World Literature. In the age of globalization, literary studies has had to reconsider how books are written across the globe and therefore also how they are marketed and categorized. This can be a moment for rethinking literary categories and fields. Homi Bhabha argued in The Location of Culture, that “the very concepts of homogenous national cultures, the consensual or contiguous transmission of historical traditions, or ‘organic’ ethnic communities—as the grounds of cultural comparativism—are in a profound process of redefinition.” Indeed, Bhabha offers ways to think about cultures and multiculturalism that are precisely concerned with destabilizing established boundaries or borders. This certainly is true of American literature and with increasingly urgent calls to decolonize syllabi and the university, the canon of American literature has been expanding to include more Asian American works as well as diasporic literatures.

With his dizzying international novel, Lee’s canonical status as an Asian American writer inserts into a broader category like the “global novel,” agglutinating extant work by other Asian American/international writers such as Ruth Ozeki into an increasingly visible category. The significance of this goes beyond Lee’s experimentation with genre for not only does it, as Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “[redefine] the fabric of the Great American Novel itself,” it also redefines the fabric of World Literature, inscribing (Asian) American novels into the field and in so doing, decenters whiteness and recenters American literature as Asian American, diasporic, and so on. Lee’s many unraveling allusions anchor My Year Abroad to not only the most canonical of western texts, but also tether it to contemporary international writers, linking it to the world. David Damrosch’s definition of world literature, after all, is an active one: “world literature is not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading, a mode that is as applicable to individual works as to bodies of material, available for reading established classics and new discoveries alike.” By considering transnational or global novels by Asian American writers such as Lee (and others such as Ruth Ozeki and Viet Thahn Nguyen) this way, both world literature and the American Novel can be reimagined and made more expansive. 

Lee’s work has always been interested in race in the United States and in this novel, his perceptiveness comes through precisely at the tiniest moments. In a brief aside at the start of the novel, Tiller describes an incident where his friend, Wendell Chung, ski-goggled and marooned from his family at the ski lifts, chats with an elderly white couple who, upon leaving him, tell him to “Have fun with all the slopes!” It takes a moment for the reader, as it does for Wendell, to recognize what has happened. It’s not a grammatical slip of jumbled prepositions because “the old dude was grinning too archly.” Lee duplicates for the reader with surgical precision the humiliating insult of racial microaggression, the injustice of misrecognition, the impotence and complicity of being on the receiving end of racist derision—the edge of the writer’s scalpel so keen that one is bleeding before one knows it.  

Tiller, we are told, is the American Everyman—one eighth Asian. When asked on their trip if he is related to Pong, Tiller rationalizes that he may have shared an ancestor with Pong at some point through a contortion of logic, taking the idea of blood quantum to its reductio ad absurdum. But taken seriously, this demonstrates a way for us to think about our radical connectedness—the ways in which our lives are inextricably entwined, our fortunes deeply interdependent. By the end of the novel, Tiller’s uncommon name is somewhat illuminated in the imagery he uses to give shape to his wish: speaking to Val about their fledgling garden, Tiller says, “I want to keep us planting.” A tiller, after all, is defined as someone who tills the soil. Lee’s final allusion thus turns to Voltaire’s Candide, a similarly picaresque bildungsroman, and Voltaire’s imperative that “one must cultivate one’s own garden.” Tiller realizes that the best of all worlds is made in the act of participation, in collective action, and in reflexivity: “this is the world I want to shape myself to; this is the world that I want to shape me.” My Year Abroad is expansive and capacious in the ways it brings the reader to various other geographies, histories, and politics; in building this web of relations, it demonstrates the indelible interconnectedness of the world-making endeavor.