In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee recalls a writing teacher telling him that he has a chance to become the first big Korean American novelist. Then, in 1995, Chang-rae Lee published his debut novel, Native Speaker, and Chee’s teacher rethinks the goal: “Well, you’ll be the first gay one.”
As Chee points out, Lee was not really the first Korean American novelist, but in retrospect the publication of Native Speaker did anticipate the upswell of Korean American writing over the next twenty-five years. Even if we limit ourselves just to the recent award-winning novelists, besides Lee and Chee we have Susan Choi, Min Jin Lee, and R. O. Kwon, among many talented others. In 1995, Native Speaker arrived in a literary market in which the absence of Korean American fiction was so thorough it wasn’t recognized as an absence. Now, in 2021, Lee’s sixth novel, My Year Abroad, arrives not to break new ground as the Korean American novel but instead to add to the ever-growing catalog.
With this in mind, it’s fitting that My Year Abroad circles back to the thematic interests of Native Speaker: Korean American identity, male intimacy, obsession, conspiracy. Since its publication Lee has moved widely from Native Speaker’s grimy New York and 1990s politics into historical fiction, dystopian fiction, fiction without a focalized character who is Asian or Asian American. And so, it feels like after spending much of his career expanding his reach, Lee has returned home to see how the set of concerns he began with have aged—and how they might inform a novel written and set not in Clinton’s America, but Trump’s.
The superficial similarities are pretty clear. The narrator of Native Speaker is Henry Park, a first-generation Korean American and an informational spy of the surveillance age: more Foucault than Fleming. Embedded in the election campaign of Korean American New York councilman John Kwang, Park sees the possibility of real progress in Kwang’s charisma, self-possession, and vision of a multiracial, coalition-based politics—at least until he discovers the political conspiracy that drives the novel’s plot. My Year Abroad is narrated by Tiller Bardmon, a one-eighth-Korean twenty-year-old college student who leaves behind his gentrified frozen-yogurt job to fall in with Pong, a charismatic and breezily competent Chinese American businessman who whisks Tiller around the world in a sensual cyclone of multinational capitalism. This makes up one half of the novel’s plot. With Pong as advisor and father figure and friend, Tiller hones his palate, a sensitivity of taste not just for food and drink but for all kinds of sensory experience. The second half of the novel sees Tiller, returning from his trip with Pong after it collapses into bizarre conspiracy, build an unusual domestic life with single-mother Val and her son, Victor Junior, who are in witness protection. The three hide out in Stagno, a post-recession exurb, until their anonymity is triply threatened by Val’s depression, the family’s loneliness, and Victor Junior’s sudden ripening into a self-taught chef of fine cuisine at age eight.
The notion of an eight-year-old without culinary training producing “tea-smoked squab” and “Peking duck risotto finished with black truffle butter” from a suburban kitchen suggests not only the novel’s fascination with taste but also its general disposition: everything is brimming and overfull, the energy a constant buzz. If Native Speaker is brined in ’90s noir, My Year Abroad (like many of its readers) has been aged in the internet. It’s a weird novel, but not in the way Thomas Pynchon or David Lynch are weird. Nothing in My Year Abroad breaks open the metaphysical possibilities of the world: there are no ghosts, visions, or aliens here. But nearly everything has been knocked askew, the frame set just slightly off-kilter. Tiller trails a gangster on a kid’s bicycle. An aging businessman seeks alchemical immortality by sipping mercury. Eventually, there’s a gargantuan mortar and pestle overseen by a crazed, ostensibly Marxist chef.
The novel feels random in the colloquial, spending-too-much-time-online sense: the pattern that strings the plot together is associative rather than logical. Everything that happens during Tiller’s year abroad arises as suddenly for the reader as it does for Tiller. Each turn of the plot is like a surprise appetizer dropped onto your plate by an unseen waiter. Like the courses of this strange meal, the beats of the novel are tied together by hunger: Tiller’s, for an identity and cross-generational mentorship and a sensory experience of life. And the reader’s, for a glimpse of how the novel’s five hundred pages are going to set, to cohere. That’s the best one-phrase snapshot of My Year Abroad: it’s a hugely hungry novel.
Put differently, and with its patterns of taste and flavor in mind, My Year Abroad is a kind of literary tasting menu. Its constituent parts, to run with the comparison, include both the well-aged and the fresh. Its most frequent canonical references are to The Great Gatsby and Dickens. Pong unfolds to Tiller (who calls himself a “forlorn Pip”), and Tiller’s obsession with Pong unfolds to the reader, in ways familiar to anyone who knows the beats of Gatsby’s plot. Lee’s last line is a famished rewriting of Fitzgerald’s: “Yet we keep on. Eyes open, mouths wide. Ready.”
Likewise, the novel plucks tidbits from recent literary fiction. The juxtaposition of an aesthetic education and suburban drear recalls Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. As in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a character eats heavy metals for their supposed medicinal and magical properties. The novel’s late turn to conspiracy and the search for immortal life wouldn’t be out of place in something by David Mitchell. Even the Gatsby riff might remind us of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel Killing Commendatore, a reworking of the same book. And these are just a few: there are nods and nudges towards Joseph Conrad, Stephen King, Don DeLillo, and others.
It’s a dizzying catalog of references. If My Year Abroad is a tasting menu, it’s a very long one, and the flavors don’t always fit together—though the attempt is audacious. It prefers the personal to the political, the palate to the protest. This is the most striking difference between Native Speaker and My Year Abroad. Behind Henry’s individual problems in Native Speaker is a basic political fact: many people of color live in grimy-1990s New York, all carved up into neighborhoods and towns and voting blocs, and solidarity looks impossible. Hence the appeal of councilman Kwang: he can talk about cross-racial coalition in upbeat language. It’s peak ‘90s liberalism: multicultural tolerance will win the day, eventually, because racism is about ignorance, not about power. It’s not radical, but it is politics.
But in My Year Abroad, politics stops at the individual. The presumption of politics, especially the politics of race and racism, isn’t there for Tiller. It’s not that Korean American identity and culture never become objects of attention and confusion for him, but they aren’t tied to broader politics for Tiller like they are for Henry. They remain ingredients of personal meaning, tools Tiller can use to approach existential and vocational questions—in an exhausted phrase, who he “really is.” In Tiller’s words, “being twelve and one-half percent Asian is no big deal except when somebody wants it to be,” and he wants it to be when it’s useful, not when it connects him to wider political projects. Tiller calls himself and Pong “diasporic,” but the term doesn’t denote a political and historical concept. Instead it works as a marker of personal identity and economic class. For Pong to be diasporic means that he has global business interests to check in on. The novel’s strongest political opinions are held by its leftists, none of whom are especially sympathetic, like the art students who turned on Pong’s art-professor parents during the Cultural Revolution (we’re told it’s the “less talented” students who took most readily to Red Guard purges), or the raving chef Chilies who holds Tiller in brutal curry-making serfdom while quoting from Marx and planning his curry-paste empire.
Simply put, the novel’s heart is not political but sensual. It’s interested in hunger and consumption, specifically Tiller’s, at the expense of all else. The political slides away, and we move so quickly from moment to moment and taste to taste we’re not always given time to savor or ruminate on things as they pile up—especially the instances of trauma, which tend to slip away unprocessed. The novel has no time to linger: we’re off to the next description of Tiller’s body awakening to a new sensation. My Year Abroad’s appeal is this lavish attention to sensory experience, as well as the sincere intensity of the friendship between Tiller and Pong, whose bodies and tastes and emotional depths are treated with serious care. There are never enough men, especially Asian men, sharing intimate relationships in fiction.
But the disavowal of politics also marks the novel’s limits: in the end, My Year Abroad feels contemporary but not cutting-edge, a well-prepared version of an older recipe. While Native Speaker is hardly a leftist novel—its characters prefer participating in American institutions to critiquing them—it acknowledges that any search for identity will always be political. But for Tiller, puzzling together who he is means eating and experiencing, not activism. And, in a way, this seems timely. How often are we encouraged to find and express ourselves, to cobble together an identity, by way of what we buy and consume? It’s a contemporary dream: a hearty life and rich sense of self available without the mess of politics. The novel illustrates this dream, often vividly, but it doesn’t point beyond it. The unacknowledged part of Tiller’s hunger is politics, and its absence from the novel leaves me just a little hungry for something more.