Review – Yu, “Interior Chinatown”

Charles Yu, “Interior Chinatown” (2020) (read by Joel De La Fuente) – Another way in which white Americans have been absurdly lucky: many of the “white ethnic” groups came to social acceptance at a time when literature was taken halfway seriously. The most dramatic case in point is the rise of Jewish talent in American literature after World War II (by this time most white American Catholic ethnic communities, after flirting with social realism when that was cool in the thirties ala James Farrell, deracinated all their writers when they produced them at all). Guys like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow came to prominence in an era when you could become famous by writing serious, ambitious literature, and I say this as a guy who doesn’t like Bellow and runs hot and cold on Roth. They could say what they had to say about being an American Jew — it was a lot — and say a lot of other stuff in many different ways, to say nothing of saying it all in a context of broad-based economic prosperity.

None of that holds anymore, and it sucks pretty hard, I’d imagine, for people from ethnic communities that produce a lot of people in a class position to break into literary fame, and for readers more generally. There’s a Tantalus element to the situation. Everyone, notionally, who reads anything other than what Fox News shills at them to fill out cheap ad time, wants to hear about difference from diverse voices. Our universities duly stamp out many many ambitious young scribblers from more and more communities, mostly communities of color (you could argue recent immigrants from Eastern Europe count too, and there are weird quasi-ethnic elements of how literature receives poor whites from some parts of the country). Like Roth’s New York area Jews before them, these writers and their communities have had to make difficult adjustments to American life and constantly second-guess what their (valid, impressive) success means in the face of both racism and life’s general absurdity. All the tools are there in abundance like never before, from word processors and the Internet to every kind of inspiration, every source of color, available at the touch of a button.

All this has been a decent spur to the creation of books- but not, necessarily, to the creation of quality literature, of an exploration of contemporary life and its contexts or of artfulness or experiment in literature, and certainly not the two combined. Newly intellectually prominent ethnic communities are faced with a situation that does not reward literary quality or risk-taking. Publishers are cautious in a way they weren’t during an era of cheap paperbacks and a public that saw the consumption of difficult and/or daring artistic production as a marker of class status. Neither of those were necessarily noble (well, cheap paperbacks are, in my opinion), and the stuff that came out of it wasn’t always great. But it was different. It’s ironic that writers today can now be lumped into the category of “content providers” when, in fact, the actual content of their works is of decreasing relevance. What matters is what boxes they can tick off for the company producing them and the readers consuming them. This does not for quality literature make- you get a lot of secular sermons, a lot of try-hard bullshit, and a lot of not-try-hard-enough bullshit, too. A lot of the better fiction writing that pertains to ethnicity comes from writers immersed in genre, like Carmen Maria Machado and Stephen Graham Jones.

Maybe it’s the Marxist in me, but I have to think the class positions involved have something to do with it, too. Roth, Bellow, Vonnegut (not a Jew, but with German roots when that meant something), none of them were exactly poor or working class. But class divisions, especially within expanding postwar universities, were less salient (especially among white people- more of their/our infernal luck) than they are today. Look up the biographies of contemporary literary lions who write about their ethnic experiences and they’re pretty impressive- fancy schools, often fancy jobs they did before writing, prizes of all kinds. That these are in no way representative of their communities as a whole — couldn’t possibly be, Harvard doesn’t have enough dorm space for it — is part of the problem. That being a winner from a marginalized (but, key, internally stratified) group now means something different than it did in the mid-twentieth century seems to be part of the problem.

All of which is a very long way of getting to a profoundly mediocre — I’d go ahead and say bad — book that has gotten a lot of good press, Charles Yu’s “Interior Chinatown.” How much of this is marketing, how much any of it will last beyond a season, it’s hard to say, but this has been hailed as a definitive statement in the literature of one of the largest (and most diverse- more on that anon) groups I’m talking about, Asian-Americans. Yu is very much in the category of ultra-impressive resumes you get on writers these days, and worked in a white-shoe law firm before deciding to write full time (he’s not a bad looking guy, either, another recent development in authors- they tend to have it going on, physically, these days). Big, or anyway highly credentialed and talked up, talent, community that wants to be heard, surely he has something to say?

Well… yes and no. Let’s get a description out of the way first, which among other things gets into Yu’s forms, which to the extent there’s a selling point here beyond “big Asian-American literary statement,” is it. This is the story of a guy who goes through most of the book being called Generic Asian Man. He’s called this because the novel takes the form of a screenplay! All the world’s a stage, or anyway, a production set for a hacky police procedural. The main character is forced to play Generic Asian Man over and over again in role after role. Yu is not shy about making this the central problem of Asian-Americans, especially Asian-American men (women are “The Girl With the Almond Eyes” until they become “Old Asian Woman”). He does that thing you get in metafictions where the whole thing is an obvious metaphor, but the author escapes from the obloquy assigned to allegory (never got why allegory gets such a bad wrap, and from Tolkien too!) by keeping it vague as to whether the action in the novel is meant to be taken at all literally. But in any event, we see some of his life as he gets the chance to play an important side-character in a hacky cop show called “Black and White” (can you guess the races of the protagonists?), marries and screws up his marriage, but also has various surreal encounters culminating in being arrested for some sort of Generic crime and having to defend his Asian-Americanness in court, or something.

If there is a central problem in contemporary anglophone literature (and peeking over the Anglo fence to figures like Michel Houellebecq and Karl Ove Knausgaard, I’m not sure it’s much better in other languages), it’s an utter inability to commit to anything worth committing to- and this includes committing to the bit. It’s funny- comedians can do it, in some cases to the point of monstrosity. But with all the political and social change we’ve seen since the return of history circa 2001-2008, and with seemingly good intentions on the part of so many expensively educated people, literature can’t seem to nail commitment.

So, “Interior Chinatown” does not commit to the “all the world’s a stage” bit. It is, in fact, highly self-serious (for all of its jokes, few of which land) and ends in a long long sermon (there’s a kung fu fight after the sermon, which is both Yu’s best joke and a transparent toss to whoever has to make a movie out of this lame book). Some of the better sections of the book, in fact, describe Generic Asian Man’s parents’ lives, back in that generally-more-literary midcentury period. Yu unrepentantly milks the experience of midcentury Asians for pathos in what is, let’s recall, the story of a contemporary Generic man (who… may or may not work fairly successfully in show business? I guess Yu was trying to say he does, this might not have been the best choice for audiobook), despite the profound differences in situation between him and them.

What would a story of Generic Asian Man trying to become his beau ideal — Kung Fu Guy! the best Hollywood offers Asians! — look like if it committed to the bit? What would it be without the descent into family story, the stuff about divorce, and the speechifying about why Asians aren’t considered real Americans in the end? Well, it would be… a light novel! Perhaps not unlike that other Asian publishing phenomenon, “Crazy Rich Asians,” in that regard- self-aware, more formally experimental (though not in a way a sitcom couldn’t reproduce, and has), but mostly farcical. Yu isn’t quite funny enough to pull that sort of thing off, but light novels are quite honorable- arguably, that’s what P.G. Wodehouse, one of the all time greats of English language literature, produced.

The problem here isn’t Yu’s descents into pathos on their own, or even the ineptitude with which he shifts into these descents (though the latter is a problem). There’s some serious, serious lumping involved, on axes of class — Yu the white shoe lawyer/bestselling author speaking for a community whose working class majority faces much bigger problems than getting cast in cool roles — and origin — something tells me him claiming to speak for literally every American with roots in Asia, including casually throwing in South Asians and Middle Easterners into the malaise he fights, flies more with white readers than anyone else — but you could still make a decent novel with ideological holes. Hell, a lot of great novels are, like, eighty percent ideological holes!

I guess what makes this novel lousy is a gestalt of all of these problems and a general lack of funniness in the supposedly funny bits or interest in the bits that aren’t supposed to be funny. Maybe it’s also disappointment. There was a point, a sort of first draft of multiculturalism, where it seemed like diversity might actually improve American literature on some axis other than bare representation (which is an improvement! If dull writing is going to be a thing, people of color deserve the same chance to be rewarded for being dull as us whites!). Ishmael Reed, for instance, went out of his way to promote writing from outside establishment circles on every ethnic and class basis he could. He did this because he thought it would transform American literature in terms of form and content beyond the representational benefits- he could be cruelly cutting towards writers of color who he thought carried establishment writers, and he made a lot of enemies that way. Enemies or no, he was pretty successful, helping launch the careers of writers who did pretty well… for a while. But you can’t waltz into Harvard Books and grab a copy of a Shawn Wong novel (I’m sure the employees would order you one that’d be there in a week or two, but you know what I mean). Reed won in that he survives at all- he lost, in that the culture went in an altogether different direction. “The armies of this age are weak,” to quote another guy who literature also didn’t follow, but could have, to our benefit.

We’ve lost so much in the last few decades that we’ve lost the dream that we can get something other than sitcom material or rich kid masturbation in serious literature. That one of the central dreams we lost is also the name of a godawful sitcom that people pat on the head for formal experimentation that would have seemed crusty in Reed’s heyday — “Community” — is just an ironic insult to add to our injury. It’s pointless to pick on Yu in particular for these problems. “Chinatown Interior” is a symptom, not the disease itself, and there’s way worse out there. But I read it and it sucked and here I am. I’m not in charge of what any community, certainly not the Asian-American community, should like or want, but, from the cheap seats, it deserves better than this. **

Review – Yu, “Interior Chinatown”

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