Of the handful of things we can establish about Willis Wu, the protagonist of Charles Yu’s second novel, the most crucial is that he has occasional small roles in an American TV detective series, Black and White, set in Chinatown. In a group of similarly complexioned jobbing actors, his scope is limited to Background Oriental Male, Striving Immigrant or Generic Asian Man. His dream, like everyone else’s, is to rise to the athletic heights of Kung Fu Guy.
Printed in the form of a script, with a typeface that looks as though it’s come straight off a manual typewriter, Interior Chinatown comically charts Willis’s progress through the ranks of extras. Despite rising to the level of Special Guest Star, Willis is still cast as a stereotype with a fake Chinese accent, denied the depth of the show’s lead characters. The detectives are Green (pretty, female, white) and Turner (buff, tough and black). Freewheeling satire is grounded by insider details: Yu was a scriptwriter on the elaborate fantasy series Westworld.
It’s a hall of mirrors, as off- and on-set activities jostle together in the make-believe script. Willis’s parents are treated as though they too are merely characters in the show: Old Asian Man and Old Asian Woman, formerly Inscrutable Grocery Owner and Pretty Oriental Flower. You might be tempted to ask why Willis doesn’t leave a no-hope job that reinforces racial stereotypes and set up his own radical theatre company, but that would be pointless, as he is merelya cipher anyway.
Willis can’t believe his luck when a mid-range female star expresses interest in him (‘BEGIN ROMANTIC MONTAGE’). Karen Lee is lucky enough in career terms to look ‘white-ish’: ‘That’s why I play Ethnically Ambiguous Woman Number One.’ ‘Why are we talking like this?’ she demands on their first date, still in script form. Willis envies the ‘top minority’ status of black Americans. Breaking the fourth wall, Turner rounds on Willis mid-scene: ‘I’m not a person, I’m a category. Giving me the lead doesn’t make me any more of a person. If anything, less.’
A zany trial scene puts Willis in the dock for a conceptual crime, with Older Brother (‘Not your actual older brother’) defending him as ‘someone who can’t be viewed through either lens… Someone whose story will never fit into Black and White.’ By this exhaustingly clever conceit, Wu exposes the tropes and assumptions projected onto the Chinese-American experience.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10