There’s something gleefully indulgent about Min Jin Lee’s debut novel Free Food for Millionaires, a bildungsroman of sorts focusing on a young Korean-American woman named Casey as she attempts to navigate landscapes of ambition, greed and cultural alienation in 1990s New York. The book’s Goodreads reviewers describe it as, variously, a “reverse-engineered telenovela”; “lit fic with a soapy edge”; a “soap opera of a novel”: like the 19th-century social novels it’s seeking to emulate, it sprawls across plotlines, interrogating American consumerism, institutional misogyny and the pressure exerted by both Korean and American cultures to succeed financially and, more importantly, to be seen to exceed financially.
Wealth and luxury – the outrageousness of the millionaire’s lifestyle – are of course perenially fascinating topics, and Lee handles them with insight and pathos: Casey’s ever-mounting credit card debt as she tries to keep up with the impossible standards set by her well-to-do peers at business school, and later at the prestigious professional firm where she manages to land a job, is a tangible source of tension within the narrative, illustrating the dangers of Casey’s desire for luxury goods and thus counterpointing the aspirational consumerist desire that portrayals of wealth can evoke in their audiences.
It’s true that nothing the novel does is particularly revolutionary: that’s part, I think, of what folks are getting at when they liken it to a soap opera, and familiarity is an effect that the book itself generates in its references to 19th-century literature. It’s also a reflection of its subject matter: despite the fact that it does create some tension around Casey’s unsustainable spending habits, it’s also a story set in a world in which wealth works to sustain itself; it makes sense that a narrative about capital, which seeks always to maintain the neoliberal status quo, would possess a conservative, consolatory form. That, perhaps, is part of Lee’s point: that wealth exists as a structuring force in our society regardless of how we each individually relate to it (by, for example, aspiring to it or eschewing it). But its familiarity is also a limiting factor: it never goes beyond the strictures of 19th-century realism to imagine how we as a society might change our relationship to material wealth, restricting its discussion to how Casey as an individual navigates the various pressures that capital imposes upon her. Within the constraints it’s imposed upon itself, it is, nevertheless, an engaging and well-crafted read; having read Lee’s wonderful second novel, Pachinko, back in 2018, I’ll be interested to see what she does next.