I’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