First Impression Friday will be a meme where you talk about a book that you JUST STARTED! Maybe you’re only a chapter or two in, maybe a little farther. Based on this sampling of your current read, give a few impressions and predict what you’ll think by the end.
Widely considered a “master craftsman” (The Washington Post), Chang-rae Lee returns with My Year Abroad, the exuberant story of a young American life transformed by an unusual Asian adventure: a provocative novel about the human capacities for pleasure, pain, and connection
The story follows Tiller, a very average, fairly unmotivated college student from New Jersey, and Pong Lou, a wildly creative, larger-than-life Chinese American entrepreneur who sees something intriguing in Tiller beyond his bored exterior and takes him under his wing. When Pong brings him along on a boisterous business trip across Asia, Tiller is catapulted from ordinary young man to talented, protégé and pulled into a series of ever more extreme and eye-opening experiences that transform his view of the world, of Pong, and of himself.
In the breathtaking, “precise, elliptical prose” that Lee is known for (The New York Times), the narrative alternates between Tiller’s outlandish, mind-boggling year with Pong and the strange, riveting, emotionally complex domestic life that follows it. Rich with commentary on Western attitudes, Eastern stereotypes, capitalism, mental health, parenthood, and more, My Year Abroad is also an exploration of the surprising effects of cultural immersion – on a young American in Asia, on a Chinese man in America, and on an unlikely couple hiding out in the suburbs. Tinged at once with humor and darkness, electric with its accumulating surprises and suspense, this is a novel that only Chang-rae Lee could have written, and one that will be read and discussed for years to come.
Before starting off with this weekly post, I want to greet everyone a happy Friday! The Christian world is observing Good Friday today as well, which happens to be the first Friday of April. Wow, time really is in a hurry since the pandemic basically put everything to a halt, or at least slowed down our fast-paced lives. I am caught up with the audit of the three entities and with the month-end closing looming over the horizon, it is bound to get even more tedious this coming week. It is my fervent wish that this busy season and this pandemic will end soon. Anyway, I am hoping all of you are safe and are having a great time.
The thing I can do for now is look at it all with optimism. Things will surely start looking somewhere down the road. To escape from these bleak days, I have been immersing in books, which kept me company. For this First Impression Friday update, I am featuring Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad. It has been nearly five years since I read any of his works so when I learned that he was releasing a new work this year, I kind of got excited, waiting eagerly for the book’s release. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long to purchase my copy of the book. The book also marks my pivot towards Asian literature (Lee is Korean American) after delving for a month in African literature.
At the heart of My Year Abroad is Tiller, a 20-year old college dropout. He was also the story’s primary narrator. The first hundred pages of the story painted a picture of Tiller’s life and how he first encountered Pong Lou, a Chinese American immigrant and budding entrepreneur who saw something special in the demotivated young man. After letting him taste a couple of yoghurt, with Tiller managing to distinguish the tastes, Pong casually took Tiller, a recent college dropout, to be his protégé. He even let Tiller met his family.
The novel alternated between the contemporary and Tiller’s “year abroad”. It did take some time before he finally started narrating about his year abroad. Pong invited his young protégé to accompany him in his business trip to Asia. For an Asian American who was born and raised in suburban America, it was an opportunity that Tiller wouldn’t miss for the rest of his life. During their trip, Tiller met a motley crew of individuals who helped him shape his understanding a part of his heritage; he was one-eighth Asian. Accentuating the narrative are subtle commentaries on race, identity, and the familiar East vs West tropes.
As a character, I am finding Tiller a little bland. I find him lacking in dynamics. Perhaps this is because I am not yet done with the book and he has yet to come full circle post his year abroad. I find it interesting that he has some mother complex. He easily he warms up to women who takes care of him because, at a young age, his mother left him, leading him to unconsciously search for various forms of matriarchal love in the company of other, some even matronly women. Which brings me to another point. I find that women are a little underrepresented in the story and were either subservient (like Drum’s daughter Constance or Pong’s mother), or were physically or mentally absent (like Tiller’s own mother or Tiller’s partner, Val).
Compared to A Gestured Life or Native Speaker, My Year Abroad is more compliant to contemporary American literature. It lacked the nuance that the two other novels I have read. Its social commentaries are also more subtle. The writing somehow strangely remined me of Jeffrey Eugenides’ storytelling in The Marriage Plot. Both are fine and easy to read but both are stationary, just middling, and lacking the dynamic prose of their previous works. Despite these observations, I am hoping that the novel will start looking up and redeem itself in the last two hundred pages. I am hoping to achieve a clarity as it nears its conclusion. I just might finish the novel over the weekend, earlier than expected.
How about you fellow reader, what book are you going to read this weekend? I hope it is a book that you’ve been looking forward to and I hope you enjoy it. Keep safe, and happy weekend!