Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu: Forever the guest

Cover for Interior Chinatown by Charles YuI’ve had Charles Yu’s How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe on my TBR list for quite some time but, as with so many books, never got around to buying it let alone reading it. His new novel sounded intriguing with its premise of a bit-part actor in a perpetual TV series, eyes set on a bigger role which seems forever to slip from his grasp. Interior Chinatown follows Willis Wu who finally realises he’s been chasing the wrong prize all along.

Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being King Fu Guy. You’re not Kung Fu Guy. But maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be the day  

Willis lives in a single room occupancy building in Interior Chinatown above the Golden Palace Restaurant, the set of Black and White, the procedural cop show featuring Miles Turner, handsome, buff and black, and Sarah Green, pretty, sexy and smart, whose smouldering relationship never seems to be consummated. Willis plays a Generic Asian Man of one sort or another, as do all his friends, sentenced to forty-five days with no work after every screen death. He’s the son of Sifu, the legendary Kung Fu Guy, now in decline. Willis wants nothing more than to emulate his father’s success. It was a role once in the sights of Older Brother who disappeared from Interior Chinatown some time ago, no one seems to know quite where. When Willis meets Karen on set, they fall in love, marry and have a daughter but Willis refuses to let go of his dream, even when Karen leaves him, until one day he breaks out, stealing the series’ police car and landing himself in court where, much to his amazement, he finds himself defended by Older Brother. By the end of his trial, it seems Willis has found a way out of Interior Chinatown after all.

Two hundred years of being perpetual foreigners

Yu’s novel is a very funny satire which addresses racism against Chinese Americans through an inventive, original premise, taking the form of a TV script. Willis is an engaging narrator led to his eventual understanding that his poverty of ambition is the result of internalising the feeling of forever being a guest in his own country by Older Brother who’s resisted playing the roles assigned to him by a racist society. Yu’s list of screen stereotypes is wincingly familiar along with his description of the Golden Palace and Willis delivers some smartly funny lines. C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold explored the history of American racism and oppression of Chinese Americans vividly through a reimagining of the Western but Yu takes a very different tack, addressing it just as effectively in an clever, entertaining way. Like all good satirists, he knows how to make his readers laugh while making a deadly serious point. Interior Chinatown won America’s National Book Award in 2020. I wonder how it went down with Chinese Americans.

Europa Editions: London 9781787703445 288 pages Paperback

21 thoughts on “Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu: Forever the guest”

    1. I can see this would suit you, Anne. I found your comment in my spam folder. No idea why as I’m more than happy to hear from you but as I’ve approved it with luck that will stop should you want to comment again.

  1. It sounds like successful plotting to have Older Brother end up defending him in court. If it is combating the racism experienced by Asians with a deceptively light touch?, making the message accessible, it’s bound to be a good thing.

    1. It seems to be an issue not much explored in fiction and, yes, it is handled with a light touch but the point is well made. I’d prefer to keep this spoiler-free so I won’t say any more about the plot.

  2. I read this recently and really enjoyed it too! It was so unique and such a fun but thoughtful way to explore what it means to be Asian in America today.

  3. Pingback: Book 100 of the Year: Charles Yu’s strange science fictional universe – Annabookbel

  4. I just loved this one. So entertaining AND so insightful. And I bet you got as much amusement as I did over the scripts, given your love of watching crime serials too.

    1. So clever, isn’t it? Such a sharp way off getting the point across. There were some brilliant, very funny moments in which crime serial clichés featured. Glad you enjoyed it, too

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