- - Tuesday, January 28, 2020

“Interior Chinatown” is well worth reading for its sardonic humor, its varied modes, its inventive structure and, most of all, Charles Yu’s sharp prose and deft handling of his material. 

But be warned. It’s printed in the Courier font, which was devised for electric typewriters. This font is the standard for screenplays. The idea of using it here seems to be that since the central character is a bit-part actor slotted into limited roles on screen and in real life, then making the novel look a screenplay will aid readers’ suspension of disbelief. 

This choice does Charles Yu and his novel no favors. His work is too smart, too well-written, to need such artifice. Plus, more than a few readers will find this typeface disconcerting.

If you are one such reader, do try to set your reservations aside. “Interior Chinatown” is no run-of-the mill novel. Its hero Willis Wu plays small roles mostly defined as Generic Asian Guy in “Black and White,” a cop show that features two police officers of those ethnicities. Willis’ ambition is not to get a part as an officer — he can’t because he’s not black, not white. He wants instead to climb the ladder of possibilities for Asians until he gets his dream role: Kung Fu Guy. One thing that slows his progress is that every time Generic Asian Guy is killed on screen, he has to take 45 days off before he can appear again so viewers won’t be unsettled by seeing someone who just acted dead back on his feet in another part.

When Willis is not being Asian Guy, he lives in an SRO — single room only — apartment above the Golden Palace Chinese Restaurant. In contrast to the name of the restaurant, the SROs cover eight floors, each with 15 apartments sharing one bathroom and kitchen. Many residents work in the restaurant. His mother had once been tasked as Pretty Asian Hostess. Other SRO residents similarly fill generic Asian categories: Asian Man/Waiter, for example, and Gambling Den Boss. 

Willis tells several of their stories, and almost always they are histories of boundless hope followed by disappointment then by making do with the limited possibilities actually on offer. That’s risky. “The widest gulf in the world is the distance between getting by and not quite getting by. Crossing that gap can happen in a hundred ways almost all by accident. Bad day at work/or a kid has a fever and/or miss the bus and consequently ten minutes late to the audition which equals you don’t get to play the part of Background Oriental with Downtrodden Face. Which equals stretch the dollar that week, boil chicken bones for watery soup, make the bottom of the bag of rice last.”

But Willis has walked this walk for so long that he doesn’t know how to step off the treadmill. As Turner, the black cop on the show, points out he is going along with the situation. 

“Look where we are. Look what you made yourself into. Working your way up the system doesn’t mean you beat the system. It strengthens it. It’s what the system depends on.”

But life gives Willis a break. He meets Karen; they fall in love, marry, and have a baby, and Willis begins better and better parts.

Problem solved it seems.

But love does not conquer all. Nor does economic improvement. Turner is right that Willis is trapped because the scariest power of stereotypes is that people internalize them, especially those who most suffer from them. Willis has a shaky sense of the difference between his roles on screen and in life. Like a figure inside a glass globe, he can see out but not get out.

The early chapters of “Interior Chinatown” satirize the characters of “Black and White” and by extension so much of what fills America’s screens with a simplified vision of the world that has no place for Asians. The action is fast. At this point, Willis is an example rather than a fully imagined person. But as the novel moves forward, the author expands Willis’ emotional range, partly by exploring his relationships with his mother and other characters, including eventually Karen and their daughter. The author traces these developments adroitly and sympathetically. Only the hardest-hearted will be unmoved by Willis’ plight.

Less skillfully handled are the transliterations and descriptions of the 19th- and 20th-century legislation that forbade Chinese immigrants or accepted them only in limited roles. (That word again!) Until repealed by Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, laws even prevented them from owning property. Highlighting this neglected history casts useful light on the experience of the Chinese in America, though it fits a little awkwardly in this otherwise artful novel.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

• • •


By Charles Yu

Knopf, $25.95, 288 pages

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