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Overflowing 'Year Abroad' Is A Travelogue, A Coming-Of-Age Tale And A Mafia Thriller


For novelist Chang-rae Lee, a new book is often a response to the last one. His previous novel, On Such A Full Sea, was a dystopian parable. It was concise, controlled.

"One of the metaphors of that last book is an aquarium," he says. "That the world and our souls are aquariums. In this one I just wanted to break out of the glass, and just let everything flow and maybe spill."

This new novel, My Year Abroad, does overflow with characters and scenes. It's a travelogue and a coming-of-age tale — and a mafia thriller that also skewers global capitalism.

The protagonist of this sprawling story is a middle class college student from the New Jersey suburbs. He's unremarkable in every way — until he follows a Chinese immigrant entrepreneur on a business trip through East Asia. The only thing slightly odd about him is his name: Tiller.

"I thought that it would ironically capture his directionlessness," Lee says. "Someone at the tiller is someone who's, you know, guiding a steering and generally knows where to go. But Tiller really doesn't have any GPS, right. He's just a dot on the landscape."

Interview Highlights

On subverting typical stories "in which some willful Western dude ventures abroad and learns the local ways"

Well, you know, we all know that story, of course. And it's essentially a colonial story. And I think we're all done with that story. And what we want is to find out a little bit more about ourselves, as we always do, as peoples everywhere do. But the ways in which we get that story isn't as easy and simple as it's been told to us before.

On how China's history fits into his current-day narrative

That's the story of the background of the hero of the novel, or at least Tiller's hero, Pong. And I wanted to give some material to his life to show how far he'd come and his family had come, from those beginnings in Mao's China, from being, as he says, dirt on the heel of a shoe, to being not an oligarch, but a plucky, irrepressible, really charismatic sort of guy who still has great ambition in life and who still has great energy. I was drawn to that kind of person. You know, as an immigrant myself, being established now for many years, I guess I don't have that same kind of verve anymore that, say, my parents' generation did.

On juxtaposing two very different immigrant narratives

The classic narrative of the striver is still there. That's what's really motoring this rampant capitalism that we're all subject to. And that Tiller, on the other end, is the child of all that. Of course, that's why he has the ability to do the things that he does. That's why he has so much comfort and security. But I wanted to point out, of course, that at that other end, there are costs, that there's a price to all our consumption and the globalization that's been happening generally.

This story was edited for radio by Jolie Myers and Connor Donevan, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.