Review: Interior Chinatown

SPL Book Bingo 2022, Book 8

Note: This is the eighth in a series of posts about books I read for Seattle Public Library’s 2022 Book Bingo. It fills the A SAL speaker (past or upcoming) square on the bingo card, according to a display case at my local library. SAL stands for Seattle Arts and Lectures and I unfortunately don’t pay too much attention to it. I’m posting this one before the seventh book I read because I own that one, but Interior Chinatown has to go back to the library.

I’m having a hard time figuring out how I feel about Interior Chinatown. It’s a screenplay, but also a novel. It’s a moving, contemplative story about the experience of Asian immigrants in America, but also a cartoonishly broad parody of a cop show. I don’t know how well it worked because I don’t totally know what it was supposed to be.

Of course, its main character Willis Wu doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be either. For much of the book, his dream is to be “Kung Fu Guy,” the highest position available under the sort of glass ceiling that caps the aspirations of Interior Chinatown’s Chinese men. But the book blurs the boundaries so much between Willis’s real life, his role in the unsubtly-named cop show “Black and White” (featuring, natch, a black man and a white woman as partners investigating a murder in Chinatown), and his position as an actor forever trying to inch his way into bigger parts, that they diffuse into a kind of haze that just obscured things for me. The constant shifts in framing left me feeling destabilized and uncertain what, if anything, I was meant to regard as “real” or even to take seriously, and the archness of the satire didn’t help matters. There was, I think, an actual plot, as well, but it often felt beside the point: much of it happens inside the cop show whose relationship to reality is either suspect or just clouded by a layer of metaphor too thick for me to see through.

Still, I think there’s a case to be made that all this was intentional. The kernels of solid themes that I was able to see through the smoke and mirrors support this: Willis has absorbed enough of America’s copious stereotypes of Asians, and in particular Chinese men, that his vision of himself is constrained by those stereotypes. He’s barely able to see himself as other than a supporting character in his own life, and so the fuzziness between role and reality is a reflection of the inside of Willis’s head. It’s a disorienting and, wry sixth-wall-breakingI use this to mean the actual author Charles Yu’s metacommentary on the events of the novel through poking fun at racist tropes in his absurd cop show. The novel seems to do so much fourth-wall breaking of its own, in its weirdly overlapping narratives, that I’m adding a couple walls when describing the effect of Yu’s authorial voice just to be safe.

jokes about racism aside, unpleasant place to be. So while I don’t think it worked super well for me personally, I don’t think I can say the novel was ineffective at what it seems to be doing. Its title, of course, is another clue: Interior Chinatown as in Int. Chinatown, sure, a stage direction in a screenplay, but also Willis’s personal Chinatown that he holds in his head and that contains and limits him in turn. Paradoxical, sure. Par for the course.

I’m focusing a lot on the artifice of this book when it actually has a fair amount of fairly normal narrative as well, mostly in telling the stories of some of its central characters’ family histories immigrating to (and struggling in) America. But these sections work in a more straightforwardly moving way. So, too, does the last third or so of the book, which pushes Willis toward seeing himself as a man with ambitions not dictated by the roles that racist America wants to cast him in. So I think this book will sink or swim depending how comfortable the reader is with the ambiguity of its central, distinguishing conceit. As I’ve said, it didn’t totally work for me. But I felt like I got where it was coming from.