Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu [Review]

Interior Chinatown: A Novel

    My book club chose this book and I read it with no expectations. I was blown away by the unique presentation and writing style. Mr. Yu breaks down the wall between character and author, and between actor and person. It takes a little while to fully immerse in the newly-created genre, but once inside the author’s head, it’s a brilliant journey through the angst, fear, heartache, elation, disappointment, and self-examination that comes with being a struggling actor trying to overcome the stereotype of being, as he calls himself, Generic Asian Man. The writing style is what makes the book unique. But, the content of the unusually-told story that makes it wonderful.

                The character/actor, Willis Wu, takes us through his climb up the movie-making ladder from generic background extra to guest start, to . . . where can Generic Asian Man go? Does he really want to be Kung Fu Guy? What he really wants is to be something other than a stereotype. Along the way, we meet his mother, brother, teacher/mentor, friends, fellow extras, love interest, and others who are spinning on the hamster wheel of being an actor in a world where parts are few and far between. Mr. Yu sets up his whole world inside the allegorical Chinatown and his perpetual movie set, the Golden Dragon restaurant. The line between movie script, fictional world, real-time movie set, and memoir merge together into what is both an entertaining stream-of-consciousness and a poignant autobiography.

                The informal language and real-time narrative style makes it interesting to just flow along with, but it’s also a puzzle – challenging the reader to sort through the vignettes and monologues and piece together the underlying story. I suspect that some readers will find the puzzle too complex and the writing style too unusual. Those readers will be missing out.

                In the later stages, the narrative pace changes. While the author unpeels the onion of the story very slowly in the first half, in the second half the events unfold much more quickly. His marriage, the birth of a child, and the pressures and emotional issues generated by that segment of his life fly by with much less detail. I wish Mr. Yu had devoted more time to those segments. The book is a very quick read, with plenty of white space on the pages during screenplay dialogue sections. There was time to devote to those segments, but it seems that the author got impatient about reaching the end.

                The final stage of the story is a courtroom scene in which Willis Wu attempts to explain the feelings of being Asian in America. It is an immigrant/foreigner experience dissimilar from being Black in America (tainted always by the history of slavery), but still one of being an outcast – being so physically different that total assimilation is impossible. It’s a well-crafted look into the psyche of an Asian-American who was born here, but still made to feel like an outsider. This is the part of the narrative that is for every Asian American (actor or not), and it is touching and thought-provoking.

                If you’re looking for something truly unique, and particularly if you’re intrigued by the mental gymnastics of an ethnic actor trying to climb the ladder against all the odds, throw away all preconceptions about what a novel is supposed to look like and dive into this book. You’ll be glad you did. Very highly recommended.

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