book review

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Photo: Penguin Random House

For generations, a combination of compulsive romanticizing, wanton escapism, and an unshakable need for self-mythology has driven Americans to travel overseas, swan about in the name of cultural enrichment or divine revelation, and write hyper-self-conscious coming-of-age capers about their Big Experiences Abroad. From Hemingway to Baldwin, Salter to Dundy, the 20th-century version of these misadventures tends to take place in Europe and involve some amount of drinking and screwing and fighting and misanthropy, with the occasional unwanted pregnancy or half-wanted war. Stories center almost invariably on the narrator’s youthful naïveté, which we’re made to believe the sophisticates of the Old World read as charm. This, in turn, leads to a series of exploits set against musty yet picturesque backdrops before the narrator, lightly wizened, sails back west. It goes unquestioned whether she might have learned the ways of the world closer to home — “abroad” is where real living can be found. (And where, she hopes, any consequences of her caper will conveniently remain.)

The lost, horny soul of the American abroad has been captured in more recent bildungsromans too, from Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You (eroticism in Sofia) and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (neuroticism in Madrid) to Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (sexually bored nihilism in Berlin). These novels’ protagonists are self-conscious about being self-conscious, self-aware of their own self-awareness, and — in the case of Lerner and Oyler — both humiliated by and vindictive about the implications of their quest for authentic experience. The books read, for the most part, as jaded reenactments of a ritual that once promised self-actualization at best, debauched parties at minimum. Gone are the hopes of discovery or romance. The 21st-century American-abroad novel mostly adds ennui and resignation to a coming of age that never comes: a really, truly dud avocado.

And then there’s Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad, which came out in February of this yearLee’s latest warps and explodes the associations of its bland title, its premise hitting even harder after a disorienting pandemic summer marked by lifting travel bans, an increase in overdocumented trips to Mykonos and Hawaii (by those who could afford them), and the collapse of the idea that there’s anywhere to escape to — on this planet, anyway. Lee intertwines visions of a globalized, hypercapitalist China with those of a deflated, stagnating America, framing them not as opposites but as different stops on the same cycle of growth and rot, excess and exhaustion. The protagonist, Tiller, speaks from a nation whose myths have all run out, whose warped self-image can no longer conceal its desperate state of disrepair. What does it mean to be the youthful, charming envoy of a place like that?

My Year Abroad is narrated by 20-year-old Tiller, who, like most narrators of American Abroad novels, is a well-educated, slightly aimless young man who presents as white. Tiller informs us early on that he’s really one-eighth Korean, through his absent mother, and he holds tight to that fact — both as a link to her and proof of heritage beyond that of his well-to-do fictional town in New Jersey, “where Labradoodles outnumber the ethnics and mayonnaise is still the number-one sauce.” A student at a mediocre, overpriced liberal arts college, he’s set to study abroad in Europe after a summer of washing dishes at a local restaurant. Then, on a day when he’s working as a substitute caddy, he meets a generous and enigmatic Chinese businessman named Pong who whisks him off his feet, bringing him along on a business trip to Shenzhen and setting Tiller’s life in motion.

The story is narrated in retrospect: Tiller reflects on his experiences with Pong from the vantage point of his current life, where he lives with his 30-something girlfriend Val and her 8-year-old son Victor Jr. in a town Tiller calls Stagno. Val and Victor Jr. are in the witness-protection program for reasons never made fully clear, and the trio lives a reclusive suburban life funded by the government and supplemented by a never-expiring bank card that Tiller mysteriously acquired during his time overseas. Tiller’s contentedness with his stay-at-home stepdad lifestyle is the mystery around which the novel is framed; we wonder what could have happened during his year abroad that would make this arrangement feel good by comparison.

It takes nearly 200 pages before Tiller starts to tell us. When he does, he’s full of apologies and caveats: “I apologize if this seems like one of those sojourning gweilo stories, in which some wilful Western dude ventures abroad and learns the local ways and uses them to gain the trust of the natives and in turn shows them how it’s really done, say, dispatching a malign princeling while saving a beautiful serf girl in the process … I’m here to say that’s not how it will go down,” he says. “My presence did not fundamentally change anything, anywhere, for better or worse.”

There has always been a touch of the rogue about Lee. While his novels are always ambitious, laden with heavy and historic themes — such as in The Surrendered, his 2010 exploration of the Korean War, and his 2014 dystopian novel, On Such a Full Sea — they have also been marked by an experimental, playful spirit. Lee winks at the reader even when he’s writing about suffering and distance. My Year Abroad is his funniest, rowdiest novel by a long shot. Tiller’s voice is casual, raconteurish, racing. It’s as though the writer, having already explored the question of what makes an American from so many other angles, decided to give total abandon a try. It’s a quality missing from other works in the American Abroad genre; sometimes self-awareness is just another word for control.

As a rule, American Abroad novels have centered on Old Wealth as the locus of wisdom, propriety, and glamour. Skeptical though the American narrator may be, Old Wealth is the world she longs to enter. In My Year Abroad, Old Wealth is shown as crusty, weak, and failing, while New Wealth — Asian wealth — sheds (most of) its tackiness and takes on the glow of enlightenment, or at least the glow of “wellness.” Tiller understands Pong to be a self-made man, and this immigrant narrative excites him more than the bland inherited-wealth stupor of his upper-middle-class peers. Pong tells Tiller that his own artist-professor parents were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution in China. It was only through bending a series of immigration laws that Pong was able to become a citizen in the U.S., where he built up an empire of Froyo shops, hot-dog bars, and energy drinks alongside his day job as a pharmacist.

Once Pong takes him under his wing, Tiller eagerly ditches his plan to study abroad. Lee skewers those college programs in a few lines: “Everybody knew the drill. You were a privileged kid going to a privileged place to engage in privileged activities like brushing dirt from pottery shards at a faux archaeological dig and touring the private art collection of a filthy rich alum and taking a sustainable food shopping class with a local chef with a bunch of walking, talking privileges like yourself.” Instead of all that, Pong tasks Tiller with representing to mostly Asian investors the target Western demographic of a health juice that Pong is trying to develop and import to the health-conscious masses. Bright-eyed American youth that he is, Tiller is eager to believe that Pong has picked him for these tasks because there is something special about him.

Lee gamely pulls on some of the traditional tropes of the American Abroad novel to great comedic effect, including the discovery of a hidden talent (Tiller’s are, pitifully, drawing animals and singing karaoke); an encounter with a beautiful, underappreciated woman (at a brothel in Macau); and a deviant sexual awakening (at the hands of an investor’s sociopathic daughter). But where traditional American Abroad novels center on a young person shedding their innocence with panache, Tiller brings neither zest for life nor charming naïveté to the table. If we ask what’s so very American about Tiller, the answer is duller, sadder: Tiller is not so much jaded as resigned. Lee’s descriptions of the town Tiller calls Stagno are also a description of his protagonist’s inner landscape and a masterful portrait of suburban America:

There’s the nearby air force base and the community college that’s blessed/cursed by overenrollment and then the corporate park where a couple national payroll-service companies have set up back offices that require not only employees but also cafeteria workers, office-furniture dealers, building managers and cleaners, landscapers, et cetera. These companies were probably enticed to the area with unconscionably rich tax-abatement … but at least they are filling the void left from the manufacturing apocalypse of a few decades ago, or so the story goes. Whatever the truth is, Stagno isn’t (totally) overrun by meth heads or in the throes of an opioid crisis (yet), so something must be going at least half right.

In one of the book’s softer moments, Tiller takes Val and Victor Jr. to get their nails done together, and Victor Jr. picks out a punk-rock color for his toes, drawing a disdainful look from the Eastern European nail technician. Tiller shrugs this off: “I could practically hear her thoughts of how great but doomed America was. I couldn’t disagree … But I can’t worry about that. I have to worry about the few people still in my orbit, and whatever I can do to keep things spinning and tight, I will.” In other words: Tiller, like Stagno, is okay, and also really not okay, and in the grand scheme of things, not okay is all there is.

I was left at the end of My Year Abroad with the suspicion that a trick had been played on me. Which is, I think, how many of us are left as global power churns and shifts: with a feeling of déjà vu and disorientation, a persistent What did I miss? It’s a sensation that has only worsened as the pandemic “recovery” has gone on, with the fundamental power brokers entrenching themselves more deeply than ever — borderless, hierarchical, and cruel. The beauty of what Lee has achieved here is that the plot and premise of the novel are so off the walls that it’s impossible to draw easy conclusions about it. He’s created a simulacrum for the feeling dealt by global capitalism, a world in which momentary inner peace may come only from Tiller’s approach: disengagement from the world out there, and a vicelike clinging to more immediate comforts.

I recently returned to the U.S. after six years in England. I had moved there for all the ridiculous reasons English majors move to England: I wanted to immerse myself in a romantic landscape. I expected the British to be refined and literary and full of charm, their politics progressive, their tastes advanced. I suppose I hoped, in that context, to find a more sophisticated version of myself. (The one thing I did find was an English man.) I can see now in retrospect that every quality you might try to evade in yourself by moving abroad will only be amplified in translation: The results will be interesting, but not better. That applies at a grander scale too. For everything you know your society has got wrong, there are some things you didn’t realize were worth appreciating. For everything you think another country has got right, there are ten things you didn’t know to consider critically.

One of the more privileged American traits is the belief that some places are somehow realer than others — that there exists a destination where you could outrun the shame-filled parts of yourself and your society. But, as Tiller learned and I know now, there’s no outrunning any of it. So you might as well look around, right where you are: This is what we’re working with.

In My Year Abroad, There’s No Escaping the Self