Book Overview: ‘My Yr Overseas,’ by Chang-rae Lee
Tiller and Val eat Victor’s Peking duck risotto and explode into the carnal space. Val “then lit me on fire in our Thunderdome bed like I was one of Victor Jr.’s cardamom crème brûlées, before whipping through the candied bowl to my whip core. ”(Waiter, can I have an order for this risotto?)
It is exaggerated. Reading “My Year Abroad” makes you feel, as Pete Townshend recently wrote in a Who song, “crowded, always satiated, puffed up, excited”. The excessive amount of food in recent fiction reminds me of a letter Lionel Trilling wrote to Norman Mailer in 1959, regretting the “new tendency towards explicit representation of sex” in novels.
Trilling acknowledged Mailer’s argument that sex is certainly necessary in fiction, but wrote, “Let’s say I’ve been around 10, maybe 12 years for a lot of explicit statements; then everyone shut up. “This is more or less how I feel about the landslide of food in novels around 2021. I would have far more authority on the subject if my own writing wasn’t full of metaphors taken from the dining room table.
In his past novels, Lee’s narrators had often aged. That suits him; At least in print he’s an old soul. One of the downsides of “My Year Abroad” is that Tiller rarely sounds like a credible 20 year old. Granted, he’s been through a lot. But Lee gives him so many groaning observations (“We are beasts of our own burdens that never get lighter”) that he is difficult to take seriously. There is no lightness in him. He’s all brakes and no gasoline.
Even more difficult to take seriously is the great revelation of this novel, the moment when we discover what happened to Tiller on the Junket abroad, the “harrowing journey” to which he refers in the first chapter. I can’t reveal the crucial scene, but it’s insane.
Lee presents a tableau that may have been compiled by Peter Greenaway for his Grand Guignol film “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” or by Ian Fleming in an abandoned novel called “The Spy Who Spatchcockcocked Me” . Suffice it to say that you will never look at dungeons, mortars and pestles, oars, hairnets, curry, tennis umpires chairs and Jacques Lacan’s writing in the same way.