When it comes to a book like Interior Chinatown where the author is creating something so unique and different, I’m able to forgive a lot even when there are other weaknesses in the work. Charles Yu uses film tropes and a screenplay style on the page to tell the story of Willis Wu. Willis has lived his whole life in Chinatown, dreaming of one day being Kung Fu Guy. In Chinatown, this is the ultimate dream for young men who will otherwise be relegated to background characters. If they’re lucky, they’ll be given some throwaway lines in the scenes starring Black & White.
We’re trapped as guest stars in a small ghetto on a very special episode. Minor characters locked into a story that doesn’t quite know what to do with us. After two centuries here, why are we still not Americans? Why do we keep falling out of the story?Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown
As Willis career seems to be heading in the right direction and things look better for him than ever before, he begins to question whether Kung Fu Guy really is everything he wants. What if there is more? Can Asian Guy ever truly broke the mold of Chinatown and simply be seen as a regular guy?
Yu explores racism and the place of Asian-Americans in the United States, using the cliches of cop thrillers and courtroom dramas. There is even a children’s sing-along show at one point.
As the story progresses and Willis begins to push against the boundaries that culture and entertainment and Chinatown itself have placed around him, he is challenged by other characters and the question of privilege is further explored.
What are you looking for? Do you think you’re the only group to be invisible?
Older people in general
People that are overweight
People that don’t conform to conventional Western beauty standards
Women in general in the workplaceCharles Yu, Interior Chinatown
This part of the novel was particularly interesting as Willis’ character is challenged and challenges in return. A character who has lived within certain narrow confines his whole life is suddenly realizing there is a world beyond the interior of Chinatown, beyond the destiny those around him have dictated for him.
As a plotted novel, Interior Chinatown does falter quite a bit. With the screenplay style, Yu moves through Willis’ life (as well as certain other characters) very quickly and because we’re primarily seeing Willis play different cliche roles, it felt hard to get a sense of who he really was as an individual. The timeline and his relationships with other characters moved too quickly for me to really grow to care for Willis. Perhaps this was the point but it didn’t quite work for me.
The way Yu plays with format was also something that was both fun to read but confusing at times. The story moves in and out of movie scenes, jumping from film to reality from one line to the next. There’s no delineation or separation from rule life and what’s happening on a film set. Which is, of course, the point of what Yu is doing here. It’s very creative but there were several points where I had to stop and look back to orient myself.
Overall, it’s always fun to come across a book that plays with form this much and uses it to explore an important topic and I think what Yu is doing here is truly valuable. I have no trouble recommending this book, especially to any film buffs.