"By turns hilarious and flat-out heartbreaking, Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown is a bright, bold, gut punch of a novel. Written in the form of a screenplay with porous boundaries, Yu’s wonderfully inventive work spotlights the welter of obstacles its everyman protagonist must confront in a profoundly racist, rigidly hierarchical world as he does his best—in the story of his own life—to land a decent role."
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.
Printed in the form of a script, with a typeface that looks as though it’s come straight off a manual typewriter, Interior Chinatown comically charts Willis’s progress through the ranks of extras. Despite rising to the level of Special Guest Star, Willis is still cast as a stereotype with a fake Chinese accent, denied the depth of the show’s lead characters. The detectives are Green (pretty, female, white) and Turner (buff, tough and black). Freewheeling satire is grounded by insider details: Yu was a scriptwriter on the elaborate fantasy series Westworld.
Interior Chinatown is not a subtle novel, particularly in its final sections. Here, another change in form gives explicit voice to its themes and messages, Yu directly addressing potential objections and counterarguments. Though the novel’s absurdist humour persists through these more pointed passages, they can feel heavy-handed and anxiously of-the-moment – a pre-emptive response to readers hungry for socially responsible art and quick to misinterpret satire in an era frequently too ludicrous to satirize. At the same time, there is something bracing about this moral clarity, in saying plainly what needs to be said. Charles Yu remains an inventive, confident voice for our unsubtle times.
There’s also a perhaps belated acknowledgment that it’s by no means only Asian-Americans whose lives largely consist of performing various simplified versions of themselves. Not until late on, when he’s married with a daughter, does Wu recognise that transitioning from “Generic Asian Man to . . . plain Generic Man” may mean “just another role”. Even so, it’s one he challenges himself to embrace in the tentatively happy ending to what the National Book Award judges accurately described as “a bright, bold gut punch of a novel”: a work of fiction that manages the rare feat of being both extravagantly experimental and a lot of fun to read.
The jumps between the show and Willis’s offstage life can be confusing. Both are rendered as screenplay, culminating in a courtroom drama starring the show’s characters and real people from Chinatown. But why should the distinction between performance and reality matter, when “being Chinese is and always has been [...] a construction, a performance of features, gestures, culture, and exoticism”? Scenes like these veer towards didacticism, but the novel is grounded by its arch comedy.
From Paul Beatty’s The Sellout to Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, some of the most talked-about novels from the U.S. in recent years have been male coming-of-age narratives shaped by experiences of racism. Styled as a typewritten television script, this zany spin on the genre.
Yu’s depiction of the day-to-day misery of living in crowded run-down Chinatown apartments is both humorous and heartrending: it’s hard to read the account of Old Fong and the cracked shower basin without laughing and weeping. Within a comedy about the dislocation felt by many Asian Americans, there is also a nuanced portrait of family love and respect for the elderly. Interior Chinatown certainly helps you appreciate why old dudes from rural Taiwan can perfectly nail a John Denver song about wanting to go home as they sing karaoke late at night.
Through his protagonist, Willis Wu — who has a small part on the show — Yu explores in devastating (and darkly hilarious) fashion Hollywood’s penchant for promoting clichés about Asians and Asian-Americans. Wu has worked his way from “Background Oriental Male” to “Dead Asian Man” to “Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy” — a long way from “Kung Fu Guy,” which is where he wants to be.