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Book Review: ‘My Year Abroad,’ by Chang-rae Lee

Tiller and Val eat Victor’s Peking duck risotto and explode into carnal space, with Val “afterward torching me in our Thunderdome bed like I was one of Victor Jr.’s cardamom crème brûlées before cracking through the candied shell to my whipped-custard core.” (Waiter, can I have an order of that risotto to go?)

It’s overkill. Reading “My Year Abroad,” one starts to feel, as Pete Townshend wrote in a recent Who song, “over-full, always sated, puffed up, elated.” The too-muchness of food in recent fiction reminds me of a letter Lionel Trilling wrote to Norman Mailer in 1959, deploring the “new tendency to explicitness about sex” in novels.

Trilling acknowledged Mailer’s point, that sex is surely necessary in fiction, but wrote: “Put it that I am in favor of a lot of explicitness for 10, maybe 12 years; then everybody shut up.” That’s more or less how I feel about the landslide of food in novels circa 2021. I would have vastly more authority on this topic if my own writing weren’t full of metaphors drawn from the dinner table.

In his past novels, Lee’s narrators have frequently been aged. This suits him; in print, at least, he’s an old soul. It’s among the drawbacks of “My Year Abroad” that Tiller rarely sounds like a believable 20-year-old. Granted, he’s been through a lot. But Lee gives him so many groaning observations (“We’re beasts of our own burdens, which never lighten”) that he’s hard to take seriously. There’s no lightness in him. He’s all brakes and no gas.

Even harder to take seriously is this novel’s big reveal, the moment when we discover what happened to Tiller on the junket abroad, the “harrowing journey” he refers to in the first chapter. I can’t give the crucial scene away, but it’s nuts.

Lee presents a tableau that might have been concocted by Peter Greenaway for his Grand Guignol movie “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” or by Ian Fleming in an abandoned novel titled “The Spy Who Spatchcocked Me.” Suffice it to say that you will never look at dungeons, mortars and pestles, thongs, hairnets, curry, tennis umpires’ chairs and Jacques Lacan’s writing in the same way.

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