By Charles Yu
(270, fiction, 2020)
This was the 2020 National Book Award winner for fiction, and with good reason. I’ll preface this review by saying that I think this book is brilliant –but that it’s also extremely stylized and may not be for everyone. Interior Chinatown is a work of metafiction, meaning that it is structured self-consciously, in a way that calls attention to its constructed-ness. In other words, the format of the book itself acknowledges that it is a work of fiction –much like a character on stage breaking the “fourth wall” and addressing the audience directly, with a wink and a nudge.
Interior Chinatown is written as a screenplay – complete with stage directions and character notes. The format is particularly appropriate, considering this is a story – at least on its surface – about show business. The structure means that narrator Willis Wu, a second-generation Taiwanese-American actor who’s sick and tired of being typecast as Background Oriental Male and Generic Asian Man, is literally never able to stop playing a role, even as he steps off of the set and into his own life. Or … is he EVER off-set? Boundaries are fluid; fantasy and reality are blurred. From scene to scene, can be difficult to decipher–both for readers and for Willis Wu – what is a scripted performance and what is real life. Chinatown, the backdrop of the action, is both Wu’s home and an actual movie set. Life itself is a kind of performance.
This story tackles some really thematically heavy stuff – systemic racism, stereotypes, identity, typecasting, American immigration policy – but it’s not bleak. The narrative is infused with a biting sense of humor. It can also be surprisingly tender, as evidenced, for example, by the character of Willis Wu’s father. Interior Chinatown is available at Concord Public Library as both an e-book and an audiobook – but I really enjoyed the physical sensation of the print version. From the Courier font (an “industry standard for screenplays”) to the richly textured paper book jacket and deckle edges (which give the paper an irregular, handmade feel), the physical book is, itself, a work of art. This story requires a lot of concentration from its readers, but it delivers a huge payoff for the effort. I’d love to hear what other readers think of it!
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Faithe Miller Lakowicz