Korean American author Chang-rae Lee has played with a rich gamut of forms and characters to probe themes of East vs. West and consumerism run amok, most recently in his dystopian "On Such a Full Sea" (2014). His rangy, propulsive new novel, "My Year Abroad," expands on these preoccupations by embracing dark comedy in the manner of Gary Shteyngart and George Saunders.
Even if Lee doesn't quite match the success of Shteyngart's "Lake Success," he spins an engaging, layered tale that ferries the reader from the bucolic comforts of a New Jersey university town to an Asia in the throes of economic and cultural change.
We first meet Lee's protagonist, Tiller Bardmon (read: Bard-man), as a 20-year-old everydude hunkered down with his older girlfriend, Val, and her young son, Victor Jr., in a witness protection program. (Victor Sr. has been disappeared by European gangsters.) Both Tiller and Val are one-eighth Asian. Tiller is prone to hyperbole and adverbs, a living, breathing rebuke to an MFA workshop (and Lee's sly nod to his audience).
"I liked to lay one on her each day, winkingly of course … I'm no longer shy about openly cherishing what I cherish. I'm a comet of devotion hurtling straight into the loam of her goodness, I'm her ever unemerging seed, and what I know is of the darkest primeval satisfactions."
Lee toggles back and forth between Tiller's fraught romance with Val and his recently concluded year abroad, when he'd gone off with a 50-something Chinese American entrepreneur, Pong, whom he'd met while caddying at a golf club. Pong is pursuing a health elixir and needs a Boy Friday to tag along across Asia. "My Year Abroad" unfolds as a kind of Dantean journey, then, as Pong and Tiller wend deeper into a hellscape of criminality, gluttony and deception. (So many circles, so many vices.)
Pong is the novel's most captivating character, a refugee from the Communist purges of the 1960s and '70s. In a beautiful set piece he recounts his parents' dread as the Maoist Red Guard censored their paintings, and then snuffed out their lives. Of artists and intellectuals, Pong says to Tiller, "They were no sturdier than anyone else, mere saplings in the path of an avalanche."
At its best, "My Year Abroad" is a pulse-raising page-turner, with dazzling moments and a Saunders-esque riot of marketing gimmicks and junk food. Unfortunately, though, Lee never quite nails Tiller's voice, which comes across as overly fussy and long-winded. Less would have been more.
The Val story line, too, fails to deliver the emotional charge we feel as Pong tracks his white whale across the largest continent.
And yet Lee still shines as one of our most inventive writers and moralists, a guide we can trust on any odyssey. As Tiller sums up his misadventures: "Wickedness, I learned, doesn't come only from idle hands. Sometimes it's the very opposite: compulsion, obsession, all the worse when you're the flesh algorithm in someone else's undying pet idea."
Hamilton Cain is the author of "This Boy's Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing" and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
My Year Abroad
By: Chang-rae Lee.
Publisher: Riverhead, 496 pages, $28.