A Novel That Captures the Allure of the Scam

Author Chang-rae Lee, whose newest novel, "My Year Abroad," is about letting yourself plunge into the world, even when it hurts, in Honolulu, Jan. 22, 2021.
MICHELLE MISHINA KUNZ / New York Times / Redux

If you’ve ever been lured into a mediocre dining establishment by the promise of unlimited food, you’re not alone. In 2017, TGI Fridays made endless appetizers a permanent part of its menu because they had, in the words of the chain’s CEO, become such a “pop-culture phenomenon, as evidenced by the outcry we heard every time the limited-time offer expired.” Customers needed their steady, salty flow of mozzarella sticks, and they needed it forever—no matter the gastrointestinal consequences.

I thought about the perilous allure of Endless Apps as I read Chang-rae Lee’s new novel, My Year Abroad. The book’s characters don’t sign themselves up for unending reserves of breaded cheese, but they do fall victim to products designed to keep them coming back for more. In Lee’s densely plotted, nearly 500-page novel, the 20-year-old American protagonist, Tiller, recounts being swept into a scam devised by a Chinese American businessman named Pong Lou. The latter travels to China to sell the gospel of jamu, an Indonesian drink with alleged healing qualities, to yoga studios and their privileged clientele; he enlists Tiller because of the young man’s curious ability to identify flavors that can make the product more addicting. The scheme relies on a truth that Pong, as a con artist, knows intuitively: People are willing to pay exorbitant prices to satisfy their appetites, whether literal or spiritual.

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These same impulses drive consumers to the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, which is the kind of “company you get when people believe that having nice things and being a good person are achieved through the same means,” as my colleague Amanda Mull observed. An exuberant picaresque in style, My Year Abroad is thematically a study of human consumption, and the kinds of people who benefit from it. The narrator, Tiller, isn’t himself a nefarious figure; he just ambles through life. The people around him, those who quicken the pace of his existence or send it into unexpected directions, are the real forces propelling the book forward. Pong, in particular, is the key to the novel. In tracking how the businessman earns Tiller’s trust and makes money off gullible marks, Lee reveals the spell that scammers cast on people looking for meaning and absolution.

Smaller crises also crop up throughout My Year Abroad, an ambitious work that sows an exhilarating sense that something could go wrong at any turn. More than malice, the characters’ ennui is what threatens their well-being. That relatable boredom makes My Year Abroad a curious quarantine read. Following along with Tiller’s international—if sometimes unsavory—adventures, I found myself wishing I could fly off … nearly anywhere.

The trick—and delight—of Lee’s novel is that it forces readers to sit with their confusing desires, to question the appeal of the things we don’t or can’t or shouldn’t have. For Tiller and other characters, striving for such self-knowledge would be more valuable than attaining the things or experiences they romanticize. Human insatiability is, in some ways, a familiar source of narrative tension; many novels, films, and TV shows could be cut in half if their protagonists weren’t so insistent on getting or doing or being more somehow. To Lee’s credit, he explores this human impulse not through self-conscious inquiry, but through wildly creative, adventurous storylines.

Lee is especially attuned to the ways that purveyors of so-called wellness products manipulate the language of health. Pong’s lies about his “miracle” drink aren’t all that different from the shiny myths peddled by many American lifestyle conglomerates. “Jamu, like other herbal remedies, aims to restore the balance in body or mind that has gone chronically out of balance instead of treating only the symptoms,” Pong declares vaguely in one scene before dismissing the lack of scientific evidence supporting his claims. Fitness chains, athleisure brands, skin-care companies, and healthy-tea-shilling influencers all insist that the secret to healing one’s body or mind is just a purchase or two away. “My idea about wellness has always been that there’s nothing wrong with you,” Lee said in a recent interview about his novel. “You feel wrong because there’s something wrong with the world ... the world makes us unwell, and so we try to block it out.”

The people turning to jamu aren’t wrong for wanting an escape from their malaise, but Lee shows how their desire for connection makes them especially vulnerable to duplicitous advertising. His customers’ existing devotion to yoga—a practice often marketed as an Eastern cure-all for spiritual ailments—makes Pong’s Indonesian product seem all the more attractive. And some of My Year Abroad’s most prominent lessons are driven by its characters’ desire for a sense of community, which others use to manipulate them.

Tiller, for example, is easily controlled by Pong in part because the businessman becomes a father figure to him. That Tiller is one-eighth Korean but often passes for white, especially in the United States, plays a role in the men’s immediate bond, which Lee also uses to challenge stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans. Tiller’s life isn’t fragmented by war, and his fate doesn’t mirror those of the characters in The Surrendered, the novel for which Lee was a Pulitzer finalist in 2011. Nor does he have the same assimilationist anxieties as Henry Park, the protagonist of Lee’s 1995 debut, Native Speaker. The affirmation Tiller wants is described in more subtle language. Reflecting on the night when Pong introduced him to jamu, Tiller acknowledges that he was willing to be deceived because Pong had identified what Tiller most needed:

I was tucked in a new groove, this easy-time mixtape of apprenticeship and comradeship and partnership, of being happily equal and unequal at once, which I guess is as good as any definition of being comfortable with someone, which in turn makes you feel like you belong in the world and kindles the idea that the a little part of the world might someday belong to you.

Hunger—to belong, and for belongings—drives the primary conflicts in My Year Abroad. Whatever they’re looking for, the characters find trouble when they let the intensity of their desires cloud their judgment. Tiller’s saga with Pong is only one thread of a sprawling tale, one that pulls in engrossing sensory details from everywhere its protagonist travels. In that sense, My Year Abroad prompts the same hunger its story implicitly criticizes: Even at the end of a jam-packed tale, it’s hard not to want more.