JANUARY 28, 2020
CHARLES YU SPECIALIZES in ferreting out that peculiar angle, that spark of the unexpected, that re-illumination of an otherwise age-old narrative, and then taking that fantastical story element and spreading it horizontally until it coats the entirety of his writing’s universe. In other words, he writes in conceit. In his first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, the conceit is a world where literally everyone is a time traveler. A time machine repairman kills his future self; in an effort to undo this act, the repairman goes back in time, and in doing so, reflects on his relationship with his father. That novel is a father/son story couched in a sci-fi premise.
In Interior Chinatown, the conceit is a world where literally everyone is an actor and the world itself is an omnipresent television production studio (the entire novel is written in the form of a screenplay). Every job is a role. Every actor has only a few roles that are available to them based on the demographic limits of their race, gender, and age. Actors try to land increasingly better roles, bigger roles, within these limits. Roles that pay better. Roles that get more attention. Roles that will deliver them happiness, move them up the social ladder, and bring them to the doorstep of assimilation. Our protagonist, Willis Wu, strives to land the biggest starring role of an Asian-American man can land: Kung Fu Guy. In the process, he reflects on the nature of being Asian American in a black-and-white America.
It’s not easy to define what kind of novel Interior Chinatown is. It’s speculative in its surreal setting. It’s family drama in the centrality of family relationships. It’s satire in its political and social commentary. It’s comedic. It’s literary. It’s weird and experimental. It’s an identity story couched in a kind of a fantasy setting, a kind of a George Saundersesque alternate reality. It’s all of those things, but maybe mostly, it’s allegory. And Yu does allegory as well as anybody, taking an outrageous concept and using it to communicate the dire mundanity and the resonant emotional struggles of the human experience. In this case, the central allegory, the central symbol, is the archetypal and Platonic idea that all the world is a stage.
Interior Chinatown’s protagonist, Willis Wu, works on a television show aptly called Black and White. Black and White is a buddy cop show set in a Chinatown restaurant called the Golden Palace. Black and White stars a Black male cop named Miles Turner and a White female cop named Sarah Green. Turner and Green are the heroes. They’re smart, accomplished, and really good-looking. As our narrator laments: “Black and White always look good. A lot of it has to do with the lighting, designed to hit their faces just right. […] Someday you want the light to hit your face like that. To look like the hero. Or for a moment to actually be the hero.”
But up until this point, Willis is never the hero. He only gets bit parts, mostly non-speaking: Disgraced Son, Delivery Guy, Guy Who Runs in and Gets Kicked in the Face, Striving Immigrant, and, of course, Generic Asian Man. But Willis has dreams, in particular a big one: Kung Fu Guy.
Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against him. Willis has almost no chance of landing that role. He is too paralyzed by inferiority complexes and father issues to manifest the necessary gall to be noticed. That is until one day, while watching his father (in the role of Old Asian Man) suffer unintentional humiliation at the hands of Turner and Green, Willis breaks character, goes off script, and steps into the spotlight. From out of the shadows, with guns drawn against him, Willis bursts onto the scene with the bold (or at least emotionally honest) words: “I’m no one.”
This is where the adventure really begins. Willis goes on a roller-coaster ride, first in the recurring role of Special Guest Star, then through the ups and downs of romance and fatherhood, then onward and upward toward his ultimate goal of playing/being Kung Fu Guy.
The allegory behind Interior Chinatown is that life is a simulation, like a television show, or more accurately, a television studio. The novel’s story lines play out in multiple clichéd television genres: The Buddy Cop Show, The Ostensibly-Educational Children’s Program, The Suburban Family Sitcom, The Courtroom Drama. But, as comes with allegory, the persistent question is: What does it all mean? And in this case, Yu’s novel answers in a refreshingly accessible way. Despite the mind-bending premise, Yu takes special care to present his themes of Asian-American identity straightforwardly within the novel’s narrative. In doing so, Yu’s writing adeptly straddles the border between storytelling and Asian-American Studies seminar. US immigration policy is outlined. Sections are prefaced by quotes from journalist Bonnie Tsui, sociologist Erving Goffman, and historian Philip Choy. Within the story, characters often directly present sociological ideas either in dialogue or internal reflection.
Our narrator caveats that, despite the success of Chinatown’s beloved Older Brother, “unofficially, we understood. There was a ceiling. Always had been, always would be. Even for him. Even for our hero, there were limits to the dream of assimilation, to how far any of you could make your way into the world of Black and White.”
Then later, we’re presented the idea of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners with the complaint that “you came here, your parents and their parents and their parents, and you always seem to have just arrived and yet never seem to have actually arrived.”
And maybe most central to the novel’s thesis is when Willis is put on trial and Older Brother breaks down the specific conundrum of Asian America, arguing that “[Willis is] asking to be treated like an American. A real American. Because, honestly, when you think American, what color do you see? White? Black? We’ve been here two hundred years. […] Why doesn’t this face register as American?”
These arguments and asides permeate the narrative seamlessly. They’re cross-woven into the fabric of the prose. The plain vertical strips of the loom on which the colorful horizontal lines are drawn. The basics of the novel’s world-building, as much the setting as the Golden Palace Restaurant or the Chinatown SRO.
All told, Yu is most successful when both the artistic and political conceits act as an entryway to his presentation of the human condition. We are compelled by the socio-racial commentary, and we’re delighted and amused by the form and setting. The details meticulously crafted, render a universe that feels complete to the touch. It’s also full of Easter eggs for the Charles Yu fan: a father’s apology calls back to Yu’s collection Sorry Please Thank You; our narrator’s use of the second person “you” calls back to “(Charles) Yu” as the protagonist of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. All this wonderful engagement buys a lot of good faith. The book is weird, but not weird like Naked Lunch, or even weird like Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s weird like The Simpsons, an unexplained alternate reality that is somehow instantaneously relatable, nonetheless. Against the backdrop of this experiential normalcy, Yu tells us about ourselves with his haunting depictions of the immigrant experience, familial relationships, and the abiding desire to break from the pressures of conformity and live an authentic life.