The new year opened to live footage of cops opening the gates to the United States Capitol, enabling rioters to storm the building. The racial privilege that laid ground for the insurrection was, if not unsurprising, deeply unsettling. Ivanka Trump called the rioters “patriots” in a now-deleted tweet, and the US president himself told the rioters, “We love you. You’re very special.” The beloved, special “You” that Donald Trump addressed were people who carry a status many Americans will never have. Who holds the privilege to be addressed in this manner, to be called a “patriot”? Or, to put it another way – who gets to be called American?
In his latest novel, Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu considers what it means to be American, offering searing cultural critique in a playful metafictive mode. In a fine balance, Yu sidesteps a well-trodden immigrant narrative while also refusing to slip into postmodern navel-gazing, as he offers a vision of and for America. Written in the second person, Interior Chinatown addresses a very distinct “You”, both a directive and the interior monologue of Willis Wu, a “Generic Asian Man” who acts as a background character in the television series Black and White. Such a narrative mode allows Yu to layer satire with earnestness; he beckons his reader to slip into the role of “You” as he literalises ingrained stereotypes and predetermined roles, peeling apart the complexities of racism, both structural and internalised.
Interior Chinatown is Yu’s fourth book in an oeuvre buoyed by his wry, self-conscious prose, a consciousness that never quite recedes. In his first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), the character Charles Yu kills himself on the first page; halfway through, the novel begins to write itself. Science Fictional Universe sees Yu sliding between linguistic and temporal paradoxes, shifting gears in a flimsy time machine to flit between tenses: past, present and imperfect. In Interior Chinatown, Yu brings the same style of narration, the texture of his writing unmistakable and unrelenting. In less talented hands, Yu’s overt presence would be irritating, but his sharp wit makes this work a deeply satisfying journey, with Yu often at your elbow, guiding your way.
The novel is formatted like a teleplay: typeset in Courier, centre aligned and framed in a script’s usual accoutrements – outlines of characters, montages, settings. Yet Yu stretches a script’s sparse description, slipping stories and dialogue into unexpected places. A description of Willis’s father in Black and White extends for pages, amounting to a tender depiction of a shifting relationship between father and son; a montage sequence becomes a vehicle to muse on Asian masculinities, the impossibility of Bruce Lee, and the “model minority” trope; a simple portrayal of a setting shifts into a short story about the accidental and devastating death of Willis’s upstairs neighbour. Nuanced stories of the perpetual immigrants of Chinese America, so frequently elided or flattened, are brought to the fore. Yu performs this trick so often it becomes less a trick and more a central concern: if you are forever relegated to the margins, then where else can you tell your story?
The script’s layered scenes ensure that Willis’s reality bleeds into the orientalised, diminutive roles he is employed to play; Yu takes the expected mise en abyme and instead deftly intertwines it with Willis’s daily life until the two become indistinguishable. Interior Chinatown is set at Golden Palace, which is simultaneously a Chinese restaurant, the set for Black and White and a cramped tenement building for the characters of Chinatown, who each play their background roles in the television series. As Willis remarks at one point, “You never really leave Golden Palace, even in your dreams.” The question of one’s role, and the multilayered setting, evokes Charlie Kaufman’s Caden Cotard and his sprawling warehouse in the film Synecdoche, New York (2008). Yet unlike Kaufman’s white male protagonist, who chooses to build his own, infinitely refracting warehouse with seemingly infinite capital, Willis Wu was born into the claustrophobic, crumbling Golden Palace, with its structure and struggle and stereotypes already firmly in place, inescapable. Deviating from the work of his postmodernist predecessors, Yu makes use of the metafictive mode not merely to comment on our relationship to language, but to think through the insidious forms racism takes – from structural violence in public institutions and private corporations, to casual appearances in daily interactions, to an almost imperceptible presence in our most intimate thoughts.
Amid this conceit, Willis gradually works his way up the ranks to become “Kung Fu Guy” – a recurring role in Black and White, the pinnacle of success for a Generic Asian Man. Yet he struggles with the inevitable hollowness that comes with inhabiting the stereotypes dictated by white supremacy: he realises that when your aspirations are forged for you, “doing well is the trap”. Unlike Kaufman’s Cotard, who eventually succumbs to his creation, Willis finds himself looking for a place where he is not an eternal guest star. The book takes a surreal turn as Willis winds up in a courtroom, where his own lawyer claims he is guilty: “Guilty of wanting to be part of something that never wanted him.” Though set in a satirical and fantastic world adjacent to our own, the book is firmly grounded in the racist reality of America.
In November last year, Interior Chinatown won the National Book Award for Fiction. Yu was endearingly unprepared for a win; his sheer surprise, words failing as he tried to piece together a speech on the live stream, evoked Willis Wu’s moments of startled hesitation towards the end of Interior Chinatown, when, moving from the margins, he finally embarks upon a lengthy monologue. A background character writing himself into the foreground, Charles Yu brings Asian–American stories into the light.
Leah Jing McIntosh
Europa, 288pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial