My Year Abroad is a book about appetite, about wanting more (and more and more, and infinitely more). It’s a story about how our appetites can make us and unmake us. It’s… very weird, if that’s your thing.

cover of My Year Abroad, by Chang-Rae Lee

Being a small-c catholic reader who came from fantasy means that I have a great appetite (appetite! a theme!) for weird literary fiction, where weird can mean anything from “xenophobic haunted house” (White Is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi) to “eating turtles to be immortal” (The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanigahara) to “inventing a fictional blues song whose made-up singer then haunts you because racism” (White Tears, Hari Kunzru). Though, uh, as I write this list, which I did while glancing at my litfic shelves, I am detecting a decided preference for haunted things and structural oppression.

Maybe that is why I did not get on so well with My Year Abroad! Nothing and nobody is haunted1 and there is not much structural oppression although there is lots of Wealth. And I am not very interested in Wealth. No rich people are eaten in this book, by the way! Despite several alluring moments when you think they might be! Do not expect a “Soylent Green is [rich] people!” moment, for you will be disappointed in that expectation, as I was. Eat the rich. Or at least heavily tax them. Or at least enforce the existing tax laws on them.

Half of My Year Abroad is about Tiller’s odd, circumstantial encounter with Pong, a businessman who scoops Tiller up one summer to help with his business (why? we never know!), an experience that has left Tiller scarred and traumatized. The other half, interspersed, takes place in the aftermath. Tiller has attached himself to an older widow, Val, and her son, who are in witness protection and whose well-being Tiller has grown to care deeply about.

While the Pong sections of the books are the ones that verge most clearly into surrealism (which I tend to love), I struggled to feel connected to Tiller’s adventures with Pong. In part this is because they were so episodic, but in larger part because Tiller doesn’t feel connected to them. In both halves of the book he’s chasing a sense of connection and belonging that has been largely absent to his life before Pong. But with Val and her son, he’s able to carve out a role for himself, to make himself an active participant rather than a sightseer in his own life. My Year Abroad has drawn comparisons to The Great Gatsby, and perhaps to nobody’s surprise, I still do not love a Nick Carraway.

Lee’s writing tends towards the maximalist, with mouth-watering (and occasionally stomach-churning) descriptions of food and place. He’s as lavish describing a poorly-recalled college karaoke night as a gourmet four-course meal, and the book does succeed in conveying the too-much-ness of a wealthy (or in some cases simply an American) lifestyle. It is a long book. I am very old and tired.

I would add for readers a content warning for the latter fifth of the book, when things get particularly dark and weird. Val has persistent suicidal ideation and makes several suicide attempts; Tiller is coerced into unpaid labor; a terminally ill character attempts to save his own life through alchemical measures that are doomed to failure; and Tiller gets roofied and raped by his host’s daughter Constance. (He doesn’t say no, but also is unable to resist or give consent due to being high, and Constance has deliberately drugged him in order to get him in that state.) I wasn’t quite able to figure out how the book felt about the rape — Tiller clearly feels weird about it but also describes it as “the greatest ever itch for the greatest ever scratch.” Admittedly it’s hard to apply real-life morality to something as surreal as My Year Abroad’s final act, but overall I felt like this sequence, and Tiller’s subsequent relationship with Constance, played into the idea that men constantly want and enjoy sex and thus can’t be raped. I overall felt very icky about it.

So! Yeah! I love weird litfic but this specific one was not my cup of tea. Or jamu. Or mercury. (That’s a little My Year Abroad joke for you.)

Note: I received a review copy of My Year Abroad from the publisher; this has not impacted the contents of my review.

  1. except by their own, figurative, demons

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