Friday 30 April 2021


>> Read all Stella's reviews.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu  {Reviewed by STELLA}
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.” —William Shakespeare (As You Like It)
While Shakespeare went on to describe the seven stages of man, Charles Yu takes a slightly different trajectory. The stage is America, more specifically Chinatown. The players are the actors in a typical cop show (ironically titled Black and White) and the residents of the SRO (Single Room Occupancy) housing apartment. And our main man is Willis Wu, son of Taiwanese immigrants, working his way up the ladder. Seven stages — a countdown from five to one (Background Oriental Male, Dead Asian Man, Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy, Generic Asian Man Number Two/Waiter, Generic Asian Man Number One), and then, if you are lucky, very lucky — Very Special Guest Star, and for the few, the ultimate role — Kung Fu Guy. Interior Chinatown, Yu’s fourth book, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2020, uses a television series script as the structural device to look into the real lives of Asian Americans and the stereotypes that ring-fence them as ‘other’. As in Yu’s early books (his short story collection from 2006, Third Class Superhero, is endlessly memorable), he uses clever set-ups and sardonic wit to take you on an entertaining journey that is actually filled with frustration, sadness and, in the case of Interior Chinatown, a searing elucidation of racism. Willis Wu is an actor, hoping for the big time — a chance to become Kung Fu Guy. He’s the ‘Asian’ in the GTV series Black and White (featuring Turner — the tough smart Black cop, and Green — the sassy sharpshooting (from the lip as much as the hip) White female cop) — starting as Background Guy but also next up a corpse. After being a corpse, he has to take a "rest time". No-one will notice when he comes back as a new guy — after all, he is Generic Asian Man. He gets his real breakthrough when his character becomes integral to solving a crime in Chinatown. “It’s a cultural thing,” Green lets Black know. Yet as Willis moves up the ranks he finds himself disenchanted by his (and everyone else who lives in the SRO) obsession, from childhood (all that practice!), with becoming Kung Fu Guy. This could have been just a silly and entertaining story about a TV script, but this is where Yu does something very clever — he moves us between reality and fiction, mingling Willis’s life on the screen with his life (and those of his family and community) as an Asian man in America. The backstories of his parents and their arrival in America alongside the acting careers (are they workers in the Chinese restaurant downstairs or actors in the TV series working in the Golden Palace — or a bit of both?), the lives of the residents of the SRO, sometimes they are suffering the heat, the bad piping and cramped quarters while at other times they a bit part actors on the screen, the story of Willis meeting his wife-to-be through their acting roles, art imitating life and vice versa. Plenty of meta-narrative playfully executed and effectively used to grapple with the issues Charles Yu is exploring, along with his own personal histories. What does it take to be seen as American? Why are the stereotypes so entrenched? And how can Willis Wu find out who he really is in a society with rigid expectations of “Generic Asian Man”? Immensely enjoyable, unflinching in its assessment of racism and endlessly memorable. 

No comments:

Post a Comment