A novel in screenplay format, Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown focuses on aspiring actor Willis Wu. Most of the action takes place in the ‘interior chinatown’ set/apartment building in San Francisco. Wu has a small part in a police procedural, Black and White, that films in the restaurant on the ground floor. When filming is over, Wu, along with his parents and other cast members, lives in the small apartments above the restaurant. The plot follows Wu as he tries to climb the acting ladder from ‘Generic Asian Man’ to ‘Kung Fu Guy’, where he would have the starring role. Along the way we meet his parents, the community boy made good role model (‘Older Brother’), and an Asian actress that he eventually starts a family with.
The reviews for this novel were glowing- ‘brilliant’, ‘darkly hilarious’, ‘elegant’, ‘inspired’- so I had high hopes that it didn’t quite live up to. I understand what Yu was trying to do- merge the Hollywood screenplay with a satire about Hollywood’s stereotyping of Asian Americans- but it didn’t work for me as a recreational read. I was constantly trying to figure out if any particular scene was the procedural or Wu’s outside the show life, or both at the same time. It ended up feeling like a master’s thesis, or true to Yu’s format, like a screenplay that would be better as a movie. Although I’m sure this was largely Wu’s point, the stereotypes were blunt and heavy- very much a tell vs a show kind of book.
On the plus side, this was a quick read, the writing was good and I appreciate that the platform was given to an Asian American author to tell this story. Additionally, there were a number of touching scenes and character studies/backgrounds- the parts with Wu’s parents were especially poignant.
I think this is a great book to write a college or even grad school paper on, but as a recreational read it left me a little underwhelmed. Hopefully live theatre opens up soon and I can go watch a live production of it instead.