Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu [in Booklist]
Although the cover claims Yu’s (Sorry Please Thank You, 2012) latest is “A Novel” – the description insistently written out in both Chinese and English lettering – his fiction, as always, defies easy labels. This hybrid conflates history, sociology, and ethnography with the timeless evils of racism, sexism, and elitism in a multi-generational epic that’s both rollicking entertainment and scathing commentary.
Willis Wu is an (Asian) actor, which means he’s easily disposable, utterly indistinguishable. Never mind that he’s American-by-birth, he’s still expected to be fluent in accented English and “do the face of Great Shame on command.” He’s currently on set at Black and White (which stars a “black dude cop” and “white lady cop”), relegated to playing variations of the Generic Asian Man. Meanwhile, his parents’ careers as mostly Old Asian Woman and Old Asian Man remain stuck in a loop of stifling casting. The struggles continue as Willis falls in love, marries, and becomes a father, all the while holding on to that someday dream of finally becoming the Kung Fu Guy.
Resembling a script, complete with a classic typewriter font, Yu’s tale ingeniously draws on real-life Hollywood dead ends for Asian American actors, including, quite possibly, Kelvin Yu, the author’s younger brother; here, Yu’s Older Brother character gets to be the hero. As preposterous as many scenes may seem, their sobering reality will resonate with savvy readers.
Review: modified from “Fiction,” Booklist, November 1, 2019