The latest novel from Pulitzer Prize finalist Chang-rae Lee (“Native Speaker,” “The Surrendered”) seems at first as though it’s going to be a rowdy rollick. Its prose is jazzy and jokey. Its plot immediately takes preposterous twists and turns.
Unfortunately, “My Year Abroad” grows simultaneously sillier and duller the longer it goes on. Extravagant flights of fancy outstay their welcome, and irrelevant flashbacks sometimes stop the narrative in its tracks. The novel has its moments, especially in its first 100 pages. But it’s never a good sign when you finish a book wondering what on earth the author was trying to accomplish.
Twenty-year-old narrator Tiller Bardmon is, in his own words, “an amenable boy” recently “smashed to raw bits by circumstances too peculiar to recount.” In the wake of his dreadful year abroad, Tiller has shacked up with Val, a single mother who has “a lot of years on me.” Serving as de facto stepdad to Val’s 8-year-old son, Victor Jr., Tiller is able to contribute to household expenses thanks to an ATM card tied to a bank account that seemingly never runs out of funds.
Val and Victor Jr. are living under a witness protection program after she turned her husband over to the authorities for a money laundering and tax evasion scheme in which she was also implicated. Stuck in a dead-end town that Tiller dubs “Stagno,” Val, Tiller and Victor Jr. function as an ad hoc family unit. Val and Tiller are drawn together by a powerful sexual attraction, a fondness for pot and the fact that they’re both one-eighth Asian. But there are problems. Val has unexplained self-destructive tendencies (“Sometimes, for no reason, I ruin things”), and Victor Jr. is attracting too much attention to this under-the-radar household, thanks to his precocious talents as a gourmet chef.
About that ATM card: It belongs to Tiller’s former mentor, Chinese American pharmaceutical entrepreneur Pong Lou who, one year earlier, swept Tiller off his feet after discovering his expertise as a yogurt taster. (Pong owns a chain of yogurt stores in Tiller’s hometown). Pong talks Tiller into helping him with his scheme to market “jamu” — “an Indonesian health tonic … made from fruit and herbs and roots” — to upscale yoga studios all over the world.
Asia is the most promising outlet for Pong’s jamu, and it isn’t long before Tiller is whisked off to Shenzhen, China, to meet Pong’s business partner, Drum Kappagoda. All seems well at first — but when Pong vanishes, leaving Tiller in charge, things deteriorate quickly.
Drum’s femme fatale daughter snares Tiller and subjects him to a most unusual sexual act. (“I should apologize,” he says, “for perpetuating more rank mythologies about Asian women and their erotic practices.”) Tiller also falls victim to “a sadistic pidgin-speaking chef” whose curry-making methods aren’t exactly sanitary.
Tossed in with this over-the-top lampooning of racial stereotypes are brothel visits, some profuse vomiting, a near-lethal surfing escapade in Hawaii and an interminable karaoke scene in which Tiller discovers, to his amazement, that he’s a marvelous singer. There’s also a sober flashback to Pong’s Chinese childhood during the Cultural Revolution that feels as if it comes from a totally different book.
A few thematic variations emerge. Pong and Tiller both lost their mothers early, so they have that in common. Food is central to both the Stagno and Shenzhen narratives, but it’s hard see what point Lee is making with it.
The void at the center of Tiller’s character seems to be Lee’s central concern. “I had no idea what the world wanted from me, or how I might please it,” Tiller says, “but it seemed clear that the best chance I had to glean anything of my destiny would be as a ready adjunct to [Pong].”
The prose, exhilarating at first, becomes more and more of a liability as the book progresses. At times it feels as if Lee is vying for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award. (“I’m a comet of devotion hurtling straight into the loam of her goodness,” Tiller enthuses about Val. “I’m her ever unemerging seed, and what I know is of the darkest primeval satisfactions.”)
Lee does excel at scene-setting, whether recounting Tiller’s first impressions of Shenzhen or describing a favored watering hole in Tiller’s suburban New Jersey hometown.
“The Chop Station,” Tiller explains, “purports to be a bespoke local gem but is actually a chain restaurant in disguise, an overspacious and overpolished dark-wood-paneled club-style room with Edison bulb lighting and carmine-colored banquettes and a ghoulish glassed-in refrigerated gallery of mold-encrusted sides of aged prime beef, this and every other detail focus-group-engineered to make you feel you’ve arrived with buttery aplomb into a well-deserved prosperity, where even if you’re not running up a corporate tab you can’t deny yourself the Kobe double porterhouse.”
Passages like that, with their giddily piled-up clauses, are good satirical fun. But there’s way too much nonsense and detritus to wade through in “My Year Abroad” to make it worth seeking them out.