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

Feb 3, 2021

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, HOST:

For the 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.

CHANG-RAE LEE: One of the metaphors of that last book is an aquarium - that the world and our souls are aquariums. In this one, I wanted to break out of the glass and just let everything flow and maybe spill.

SHAPIRO: And his new novel "My Year Abroad" does overflow with characters and scenes. The book is 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. I began by asking Chang-rae Lee about the main character's unusual name.

LEE: I thought that it would ironically capture his directionless-ness (laughter), right? Someone at the tiller is someone who's, you know, guiding us, steering, and generally knows, you know, where to go. But Tiller really doesn't have any GPS, right? He's just a dot on the landscape.

SHAPIRO: You know, the title of this book, "My Year Abroad," feels like it could be the title of a college application essay that we've all read. And this is definitely a very different kind of story from what you would expect in that college essay. What were you trying to play on with those expectations?

LEE: Well, that college essay that we would expect is what, I think, Tiller would expect, too, in any travels that he was going to have with this fellow named Pong. Of course, I wanted to upturn that and make it, in fact, the exact opposite of what could happen on that trip and invite all sorts of mayhem and disaster for him.

SHAPIRO: I'd love for you to read a portion of the book. Do you have a copy there with you?

LEE: Yes, I do.

SHAPIRO: Page 204.

LEE: Sure. I'm going to mention a term that's gweilo, which is basically a foreigner. And this is in the context of what happens when people from the West go elsewhere, particularly the East.

(Reading) Regardless, I apologize if this seems like one of those sojourning gweilo stories, in which some willful Western dude ventures abroad and learns the local ways and uses them to gain the trust of the natives and, in turn, show them how it's really done; say, dispatching a malign princeling while saving a beautiful serf girl in the process. You know, fish in strange water ultimately enhances the water sort of too. Well, I'm here to say that's not how it will go down. My presence did not fundamentally change anything anywhere, for better or worse.

SHAPIRO: Was there a reason that you wanted to turn that typical story on its head, something about the familiarity of that story that you thought it was time to interrogate or trash?

LEE: (Laughter) Well, you know, we all know that story, of course. And it's essentially a colonial story, right? And I think we're all done with that story.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LEE: And what we want is, of course, 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 as simple as it's been told to us before.

SHAPIRO: There's one section of this book that is drawn from history, which is the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s. And we see this period in time through the experience of a husband and wife, both painters whose lives are crushed by the rise of communism. How do you see that episode fitting into the contemporary globetrotting story of crime and capitalism that makes up the rest of this book?

LEE: Well, 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 where - 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.

SHAPIRO: I'd love to hear more about what interested you about the immigrant bootstrap success story in American capitalism here because the book juxtaposes an immigrant to the U.S. who has worked his way up the ladder against the story of an American in another country who winds up in this situation of betrayal and terror. I mean, what were you hoping to illuminate through those two narratives?

LEE: Well, the classic narrative of the striver is still there. That's what's really motoring this, you know, rampant capitalism that (laughter) we're all subject to - and that Tiller on the other end is the child of all that, of course. That's why he's - 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 to that. There's a price to all our consumption and the globalization that's been happening.

SHAPIRO: Chang-rae Lee - his newest novel is called "My Year Abroad."

Thank you for talking with us about it.

LEE: Thanks so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "BUS RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.