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Interior Chinatown: Clever, inventive dissection of traps faced by Asian Americans

Book review: Charles Yu’s novel looks at how the US’s story excludes large swathes of people

Interior Chinatown
Author: Charles Yu
ISBN-13: 9781787702578
Publisher: Europa Editions
Guideline Price: £12.99

Who knew that Donald Trump would have such an impact on American literature? Both of the last two winners of the US National Book Award for Fiction have quoted the president as the influence behind their books. Not in a good way, of course. They wrote out of a sense of urgency fuelled by the state of the nation.

The 2020 winner, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, looks at the way in which large swathes of people, in this case Asian Americans, have been excluded from the story of America for decades. It is set in a fictional Chinatown, and a Taiwanese American man named Willis Wu is our protagonist. His life is a performance: he and all his neighbours are extras in a procedural cop show, called Black and White, which is filmed in the restaurant where Willis works. Mostly Willis plays Generic Asian Man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face. His dream is to be Kung Fu Guy – the pinnacle role, but also, as we soon learn, a glass ceiling: a symbol both of what is possible and all that is not.

Yu, who is also a screenwriter, has said the inspiration for Willis came from the image of an Asian guy who’s unloading a van in the background of a Law and Order Chinatown special. The book takes that guy, gives him a name and makes him the star of his own show. Or so goes the elevator pitch. But the book is a satire of TV tropes, and everything is laced with irony, even the elevator pitch.

Winter Nights

Untethered

In truth, Willis is not a star, nor does his story arc follow that of the typical protagonist. He is at sea – untethered from his cultural heritage (he finds it hard to speak Taiwanese, for example) and unrooted in his current home, which is not a real place but somewhere that “could be made to represent itself or any other Chinatown in the world”.

The form of the book serves its theme. It resembles a screenplay, using Courier font and the imperative voice of action direction. This is carried throughout: the walls never tear a la The Truman Show, Willis never wakes from a dream a la The Wizard of Oz. He is trapped in the false TV world. He has no agency. He never breaks role or rank.

Indeed, even though the book is funny, clever, fast-paced, and sharp, what makes it work is this bleak truth: our hero is not a hero. He has no story of his own, and the book will not bend to the usual cheesy tricks of redemption.

What options are there for Willis? Get the girl? Get the job? Steal a car and drive off into the sunset? He manages all three. But it never feels right. How about his mother’s advice: “Don’t grow up to be Kung Fu Guy [. . .] Be more.” Ah, the American dream. The immigrant success story. It seems at first as though Willis may follow this path. But what becomes clear is that success, and the pressure to succeed, is as much a mode of oppression as any other – a way of keeping people in their preordained roles. So, Willis does not become “more”.

True personhood

What looks like redemption arrives when he finds love and eventually has a daughter. He begins to build true personhood, outside his TV-set persona. Eventually, he leaves Chinatown to build a new life. But this new life is rigged with many of the same booby traps as the old one. Once again, he is on a TV set. His daughter gets to be the lead, but her role is a strange one. She is followed around by a chorus of children spouting platitudes: “Sometimes grown-ups need to make hard choices!”, “There are no dumb questions!” and so on.

What are we to make of this new, woke world? It seems to me that if the book is parodying a ’90s, Law and Order, “man with the van” form of representation, it is also despairing at what has replaced it. Willis is someone whose narrative fails him, no matter what he does. There is no way for him to assimilate, as long as he’s in the skin that he’s in.

Towards the end of the book Yu presents a curious metaphor. Willis’s daughter tries to teach him to build a castle in the air. “[I]t’s easy. You build up. It’s like a little ladder, then you start building a castle in the air. Then, you destroy the ladder. And your castle is floating.”

There are many ways you could read this, but to me it feels like a gesture towards something new. A symbol of art going beyond the readymade parameters, beyond templates and roles. A way towards making literature great again.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic