Photo Credit - UTA
"Interior Chinatown" is an excellent example of satire. In fact, it is one of the best recent examples of the genre. It is both fun, yet poignant, deftly weaving in issues of race, identity and racism, while often eliciting a laugh from the reader. The book’s author, Charles Yu, comes from a screenwriter background, including projects for high profile cable channels such as HBO, FX and AMC. That screenwriting background comes through with this novel because it is written in a screenplay format, with characters that blur the line between real life (in the novel) and movie actors.
The novel’s young protagonist, Willis Wu, sees himself like the world, and certainly Hollywood, sees him- as “Generic Asian Man.” Most of his adult life is spent leaving the SRO housing complex/Chinese restaurant (Interior Chinatown) brimming with other aspiring Asian actors and restaurant workers, then going to the set of the “Black and White” procedural cop show. For it, he is just an extra “Generic Asian Man,” but he longs to be “Kung Fu Guy,” which is supposedly many steps up. Throughout Wu’s days on the set and career, such as it is, he longs for more personally and professionally but feels held back by ever persistent low self-esteem and societal stereotypes. Although these issues of identity, race and racism are center stage, Yu delivers it with an undeniable delightful sense of humor. But don’t let the entertainment aspect fool you. Yu successfully delivers biting commentary on Hollywood typecasting and societal stereotypes. Below is an example of the more biting, poignant type of dialogue found towards the novel’s end after Yu has climbed the “Asian Man” in Hollywood ladder and found success, but at a cost.
I spent most of my life trapped. Interior Chinatown. I made it out, to become Kung Fu Dad. But that was just another role. A better role than I’ve ever had, but still a role. I can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again. My dad did that. And where did it get him? He was a true master, someone who had mastered his craft. And what did his life add up to? You never recognized him for what he could do. Who he was. You never allowed him a name. So what do we do?
Skewering Hollywood typecasts has never been so much fun since Robert Townsends’ “Hollywood Shuffle,” a 1987 American satirical comedy film about the racial stereotypes of African Americans in film and television. It is easy to understand why “Interior Chinatown” won the 2020 National Book Award. It is brilliant in its messaging, format and delivery, and destined to a screen adaptation in the near future.