Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou: A case of mistaken identity

Cover image for Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh-ChouIt was that cover that caught my eye on Twitter. Something about the title’s sharp angles. Then I saw it was billed as a campus satire so put up my hand. I’m the partner of an academic so find this niche genre very enjoyable. So often they’re written by authors getting something off their chest. Elaine Hsieh Chou’s Disorientation takes some satisfying swipes at academia but her main theme is racism and identity explored through Ingrid Yang, in the final year of her PhD, who stumbles across a note in the archives that might offer liberation from the cage of her dissertation.

The university will take and take from you. You have to take from it. That’s the only way to survive

Ingrid is working on an examination of poetic technique in the work of the late Xiao-Wen Chou, a much-acclaimed Chinese American poet, one of the rare persons of colour employed by Barnes University. At the end of her tether, Ingrid is brought up short by a note which might offer a new direction in which to take her tired thesis. After a great deal of sleuthing, helped by her best friend Eunice, Ingrid manages to narrow down the identity of the note’s signatory. For some reason, she’s not shared her breakthrough with her Japanese-obsessed fiancé who is engaged in translating a slice of salacious autofiction written by a twenty-two-year-old woman. When Ingrid and Eunice track down the address of the note’s author, they decide to inveigle themselves onto the premises where Ingrid sees something which seems so implausible, she’s convinced it’s a hangover from the hallucinatory over-the-counter drugs she favours. Determined to make public her sensational discovery before her arch-rival beats her to it, Ingrid sets up a webite, trashing a multitude of academic reputations and inadvertently sparking a new movement for free speech spearheaded by her PhD advisor.

No other explanation existed: Ingrid was hostage in a surreal, collective nightmare that would not end no matter how many times she pinched herself

Written from Ingrid’s perspective, Chou’s inventive novel explores racism in a sharp, funny satire which reminded me at one point of Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown. From identity politics to fierce self-aggrandisement, Chou takes swipes at academia and isn’t afraid of a touch of farce while doing so. More seriously, Ingrid’s attitude to her own identity comes under scrutiny, not to mention the sickeningly solicitous Stephen’s fetishization of Asian women. Chou frequently pulls the carpet from underneath Ingrid’s assumptions leaving her often confused and with much to think about. An acerbic commentary on race and academia all wrapped up in an enjoyable piece of storytelling.

Picador Books: London 9781529079685 416 pages Hardback

17 thoughts on “Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou: A case of mistaken identity”

  1. The premise this starts with, a student finding a mysterious note rather reminded of this book on Coleridge I read with a student finding an inscription in a book of STC’s poems leading him on a quest to look for Coleridge.
    This one of course develops into a very different story but sounds equally interesting and also rather relevant as one doesn’t as much talk of discrimination within the academia as one should perhaps.

    1. I can see why that came to mind. In this case the note leads to a jaw-dropping, very funny conclusion. I think you’re right about discrimination – lots of hand wringing not always followed by action.

  2. jenniferbeworr

    What a good choice of title for the work, given how you’ve described it. Sounds fascinating.

  3. This sounds as if it would make a really good film or mini-series for TV. Have you seen The Chair on Netflix? While not quite in the same space as this novel, it also touches on race (and gender) in a campus setting. Well worth considering if you haven’t come across it…

    1. I was a little disappointed in The Chair which seemed to fizzle out to me although having a real live academic sitting next to me on the sofa probably didn’t help!

      1. Ha, I agree, the ending didn’t quite live up to the initial promise, but still enjoyable nonetheless. There’s also a fairly recent film called Master (female director whose name escapes me, Mariam Diallo?), which looks at racism in an American campus setting. It’s much more of a horror film, though. On Amazon Prime, I think.

    1. The covers great, isn’t it. Cleverly points up the wordplay of the title, too. Absolutely agree about satire. So hard to get right but so effective when it works.

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