There Can Only Be One Kung Fu Guy

Interior Chinatown: A Novel | Charles Yu | Pantheon

In 1879 the state of California altered its constitution to limit land ownership to members of “the white race or of African descent,” and in 1890 the city of San Francisco went so far as prohibiting Chinese people from living or working anywhere outside of a small, specially designated district—the first Chinatown.

Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown hangs on the unshrill suggestion that the prejudice that built that first brick-and-mortar Chinatown has been at work throwing up psychological ones ever since. His first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, carefully and lovingly fingers the tangled threads of burdensome family tradition and the real-world disappointments which that tradition often produces. In this second offering, Yu adds the thread of uncaring societal expectations and gets about the work of disentangling the whole mess. Himself a screenwriter and producer on series like Westworld and Legion, Yu adopts the screenplay writing format to his novel with remarkable effect. Combined with a second-person narrative voice, the format conveys the sense of constantly being told what to do, think, and say as the narrative probes the interiors of manipulation, pop culture, and chasing an American dream not your own.

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Our protagonist, Willis Wu, has forgotten all about the origins of Chinatown—if he ever knew—as he sweats and ekes his way up the ladder of the acting world. Willis lives in a cramped, run-down apartment building overflowing with first- and second-generation Americans from half a dozen Asian countries—the first Chinatown interior we encounter in the novel. He has been training since childhood for the revered and sought-after role of Kung Fu Guy. This is the role that ruined his father, the role his mother warns him against, but Willis is certain he will manage success differently if he can just get his hands on it. It’s the role all of his friends want just as badly.  But there aren’t a lot of parts to go around—rarely is there more than one Kung Fu Guy working in the industry at a time—and you have to pay your dues first.

You start as Background Oriental Male, then work your way up (if that is the right preposition) to Dead Asian Man. From there, it’s a slow climb from Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy to Generic Asian Man Number Two/Waiter and, finally, Generic Asian Man Number One. When we meet Willis he is stuck at Number One in Black and White, a Law and Order-style police drama filmed on location in his neighborhood. The show’s leads—a white actress and a black actor—are well-paid, attractive, and they have names and backstories. Meanwhile, Willis loiters in the background of their scenes, praying the spotlight will fall on him someday and he’ll have the right words ready when it does. When he isn’t practicing his Kung Fu, he is practicing his Chinese accent—the producers find it unnerving when you sound too “American.” He dies every couple of months, but that’s only a minor setback at this point. Oh, and all of this may or may not be literal.

Surreal may be a lazy critic’s word—a stock word used to smooth over some unique complexity without having to hunt for more precise language—but in this case it’s practically a technical term. Yu stretches the veil between reality and metaphor so thin that events and characters shift imperceptibly between the two. He accomplishes this, in part, by formatting his prose like a television screenplay, so that it becomes difficult to tell when Wu and his family are playing parts written by others and when they are being themselves. It is a risky approach that pays big when it works and looks pretty bad when it falters. You don’t mind when phrases like “in the world of Black and White” take on their obvious (political and racial) double meanings or when Willis’ resume includes the role of Disgraced Son and his father’s Old Asian Man. Yu has some facility for jerking the concrete personal narrative back on track when it has veered too far into the lane of oncoming allegorical traffic. Still, moments like the courtroom monologue on racism and self-discovery in the novel’s penultimate scene, while admirably sincere, are too on the nose to let the book end gracefully.

Willis Wu’s ultimate realization is a timely one. His deepest aspirations, even his sense of self, are an interior Chinatown created for him by others who think him to be less than American and often less than human. The emphasis Yu places on the hardships of Asian Americans “in the world of Black and White” is arresting, considering the number of prominent minority Americans who have recently made public apologies for enjoying more success than their Black compatriots. Yu puts forth this aspect of Interior Chinatown with a soft hand—a fictional impression rather than a journalistic assertion—reading the room as diplomatically as he can.

Public opinion and the television medium are not of primary interest to characters in the novel, but they loom behind it. Yu’s easy adoption of a television vernacular as his storytelling medium points to a televisionated psyche that reaches across lines of neighborhood and race. It invites the question of an even larger interior Chinatown and the extent to which we all live, dream, and die in it.

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Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the FORMA Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.