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.”