Cover Image: Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown

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Member Reviews

Charles Yu’s debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, was an intricate, inventive deconstruction of science fiction’s most recognizable time travel tropes, equally clever and comic. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that his latest work, Interior Chinatown, occupies a similar intersection of intelligence and humor, but here his witty aim is set on the tragicomedy of Asian representation in American culture and consciousness.

The novel follows Willis Wu, a bit actor who aspires to achieve the iconic status of such kung fu luminaries as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Yu constructs his novel as a screenplay – included are location cues, stage directions, and scene headings – and in doing so, filters the details of Willis’s real life through the artifice of Hollywood, a structural conceit that both condemns the shallowness of minority representation in America (the creation of art works as illustrative microcosm) and highlights its ubiquity. At times, Willis and his on-screen persona blur and reality becomes muddled, a brilliant emphasis placed on the performance of living and the conflicting identities we feel compelled to don like so many coats.

The limiting factor of screenplays, which in television and film are enriched through performance and visual art, makes for a narrative that perhaps feels a bit slight, almost fast-forwarded through. But it also allows for a handful of affecting monologues, largely waxing wise on the nature of identity and prejudice, particularly that of Asian Americans always dually situated within two competing contexts: that of a minority alternately marginalized, romanticized, and exoticized in America; and that of a minority who never had to suffer American’s sin of slavery and how knowledge of that specific relativism is internalized.

Interior Chinatown is more clever than profound, but injects its gimmick with moments of palpable emotion and tragedy and proves genuinely unique among modern novels. It’s sketched out style allows for plenty of reflection and conversation for readers looking for a glimpse at underrepresented cultures or interested in atypical narratives.
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This novel honestly felt like it would have made a really good short story. I like Yu's work but this seemed way too drawn out. I look forward to more of his short stories in the future.
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This book just wasn't for me. I was too confused by the format, I think. The TV script mixed with the narrator's life, while keeping with the same narrative screenwriting style -- I couldn't really figure out what was supposed to be happening. It felt disjointed and too sparse.

Charles Yu makes great points about race and roles in America and stereotypes, but it was lost in the awkward format. Presented in another way, I would have really enjoyed this book. At only 288 pages, but feeling much longer, Interior Chinatown wasn't for me.
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I LOVED How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and Charles Yu did not disappoint with Interior Chinatown. This book is a master class on minimalist writing for maximum emotional effect. It's Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? if that book was half as good as the author thought it was. It's beautiful and thoughtful and offers valuable critique of representation in media and EVERYONE NEEDS TO READ IT.
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This book baffled me at points but I wanted to keep reading. It was eye-opening about representation. Complex and sad. I recommend reading Interior Chinatown.
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Without any prior knowledge about the author or the plot, I requested and received a netgalley, and from the beginning I was mesmerized by the transitioning from script to prose and back again in order to narrate the plot.
The lives and aspirations of the multigenerational Chinese Americans who live in the apartments above the Golden Palace, a Chinatown restaurant in LA, unfold against the backdrop of Black and White, a TV cop show. 

When not involved in an episode of Black and White, the actors support one another as they progress through the hierarchy of roles. For the men, it starts with Background or Dead Oriental Man and progresses to Generic Asian Man, which is probably a delivery guy or a waiter, and then Special Guest Star, and finally, but probably not possible, Kung Fu Guy. In keeping with stereotypes, the actors need to be ready to turn on a phony accent.

Sometimes funny, sometimes sarcastic, always authentic, I definitely recommend to anyone who seeks to understand the racism which confronts an Asian American as they break the stereotypes imposed by American culture.
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Through a parallel world filled with actors, Charles Yu deftly portrays the otherness felt by Asians in North America. Protagonist Willis Wu is caught between playing the model minority and speaking his truth, if he knew how to articulate it. Rather, he thinks he knows what he wants, but maybe it's just what society tells him he should be satisfied with. Written in screenplay format, Yu has created a richly nuanced yet succinct work that sheds light on the effects of the major transgressions as well as microaggressions continually faced by Asians.
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I think I’m probably the target audience that Yu was writing for.  He set his allegorical story in a generic Chinatown populated by generic Chinese people.  I pictured Grant Street in San Francisco because that’s what I know but given the broadcast element, it’s probably Los Angeles.  He is giving voice to frustration at being lost in the sea of “generic Asian men,” features blurred together in flat faces and slant eyes.  

And as the book progresses, he dishes out injustices Chinese have experienced in their 200 years in America, though I found his tie-in with Blacks not all that convincing, but you can’t ignore that they’re both been treated for how they look.  Willis Wu is eminently likable and I was sympathetic to his struggle to be successful in his broadcast field.  I realized pretty quickly that I was reading a fable/fantasy but wasn’t surprised when Yu braided in the more meaty issues.  

We have enjoyed Chinatown as a novelty and always stopped in to shop and eat when we were there.  He concludes his books with this quote: “Chinatown, like the phoenix, rose from the ashes with a new facade, dreamed up by an American-born Chinese man, built by white architects, looking like a stage-set China that does not exist.”  Ouch, and guilty.
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Reading this book felt like a refreshing and rare adventure. The author seamlessly takes the readers "off" and "on" screen. At some point, I can't tell whether I'm reading the "real" stories or the "TV/movie script", and I think that is the intended effect. Overall, I think the book does a great job highlighting the many issues that Asian Americans are facing, from the lack of representation in the media to the struggle to be accepted as "Americans".
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Although it took me a few chapters to understand the shift between second person narration and third person as well as understanding why most of the book was in the form of a movie script, once I understood, it was a very personal way to explore pop culture, racial stereotypes and trying to break free of the role each of us is supposed to play. In this story a young Chinese man strive to do more than work in a Chinese restaurant and play minor roles in TV shows and movies. This was a book that made me think. Its also a book worthy of a second reading to understand the multiple layers of the story being told.
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An important story with an unconventional narrative that kept me engaged throughout. Thanks to Pantheon Books and NetGalley for the eARC. All opinions are my own.
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Yu obviously has a lot of thoughts about racial relations in America and the way we think in binaries about something that's much more complicated. But the structure left me cold. I couldn't connect with the characters and the plot wasn't the kind of thing that sucks you in, demanding to know what happened, so I read the whole thing semidetached. This book is technically well done but as much as I remember loving "How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe", it wasn't for me.
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This was such a great read! A very unique approach to the topics of media representation, culture, and cultural stereotypes of Asian Americans both on screen and off. The thin line between reality and fiction was what kept me on my toes, constantly wondering what part of this was Willis' real life and what parts were fictional and scripted. A very well-written and engaging book that I think will be great for any reader.
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